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First things first

If you want a particular closeness to a character and their experiences, first-person viewpoint can help.

And the first thing to do in this post is to be clear about what we're talking about: a first-person viewpoint is a story in which 'I' am the narrator – that is, the viewpoint character and the narrator are the same, they are your protagonist for the scene, and often for a major part of a book. That's compared to a third-person limited viewpoint, where the narrator is outside the viewpoint character but can be very ‘close’ to them, limiting the story to what they experience. For third person, the story is told using 'she', 'he' or 'they' pronouns. You could also use also omniscient narrator, who’s a narrator outside of the story and can have their own commentary on it, and can move between the heads of the characters in the scene. This last type of narrator is trickier to write well and is less popular nowadays, but we won't go into that here.

When does first person work well?

A few types of stories lend themselves well to a first-person viewpoint:

  • Stories in the form of a journal.

  • Stories with unreliable narrators – where a character lies to themselves or presents an inaccurate spin on events – the reader is left with an interesting puzzle about what's truly happening.

  • Stories that use foreshadowing and other later reflections on the story – this can happen where the narrator is telling the story from a future point in time. How long the gap is between the time of events and time of storytelling will affect the tone.

  • Stories that use the present tense – the time gap mentioned above doesn't exist if present tense is used, and the narrator is telling the story as it happens. This can give the story a sense of immediacy.

  • Stories where the narrator's voice is one and the same as the character's voice. The character isn't having a story told about them, they're telling the story in their own way.

How does your character speak?

So, you really need to think about how your first-person character speaks, so that you can give their voice plenty of personality and make it consistent.

  • What vocabulary would they use?

  • What sort of accent or dialect words would they use?

  • What markers of class are in their speech?

  • What slang do they use?

  • Are they terse or verbose?

  • Are they eloquent or crude?

  • How confident are they?

  • How grouchy or pleasant are they?

  • What happens when they’re stressed?

A pitfall

One thing to be wary of is the temptation to use filters, such as 'I saw' or 'I noticed', to precede everything that happens or is sensed. In most cases we can just state what it is that's seen, for example. We do need to keep coming back to the viewpoint character and use the word 'I' occasionally, to stay close to them, but be aware that you can slow your scene down by using 'I' too often, and you risk sounding repetitive in your sentence structures.

  • 'I felt the grass brush against my legs' could become 'the grass brushed against my legs'.

  • 'I noticed that my hands were rough and cracked' could become 'my hands were rough, like sandpaper'.

  • 'I saw Gerry get up and move away' could become 'Gerry got up and sidled towards the door'.

When I was writing those examples, I felt much more focused on the subject of the sentence once I'd taken away the 'I' at the beginning, and was able to express something a little more interesting about it.

An exercise

If you try this exercise, let me know how it turns out. Have a go at this:

  • Describe a key location from a story you're writing (or have written in the past), in first-person viewpoint, present tense. Imagine your viewpoint character has never been there before, and has never seen anything similar – they might be from a different time or place. What would they notice first? Would anything seem odd? What would they like or dislike? Make sure you have some action, even if it's only to have the character explore, as well as description.

Happy writing!

Further reading:

If you'd like to know more about how to keep the reader close to your viewpoint character, try this post about narrative distance here.

For more information about viewpoint, try my post here.

For some advice about how to make your descriptions dazzle, have a read here.

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