The Advantages and Disadvantages of First-Person Perspective
First-person perspective is writing from the point-of-view of your narrator, putting across the world as they see it. This allows the writer to portray scenes through that character’s eyes. The narrator not only tells the story but lives it, taking an integral role in the narrative and usually positing themselves as the protagonist.
Typically, first-person falls into two categories: first-person singular, where the story is told from one individual point of view; and first-person plural, where the narration comes from a group. First-person singular uses variations on ‘I’ and ‘me’ to include the narrator in the story, whereas first-person plural uses ‘us’ and ‘we’ to impart opinion and decisions.
First-person singular is the most often used form of first-person perspective. It is one individual sharing their story, either recounting it from memory, describing it as it happens, or predicting what will occur.
My head still ached and bled with the blow and fall I had received: no one had reproved John for wantonly striking me; and because I had turned against him to avert farther irrational violence, I was loaded with general opprobrium.Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
In this extract, Jane muses on both how she is feeling physically and mentally, combining her emotional state with her visceral injury. Brontë uses this blend of reactions to create a sense of confusion and anger in Jane’s thoughts, allowing the reader insight into how the character feels and the way she sees the world around her in that moment.
In contrast, first-person plural offers a window into groupthink, where some characters are going through a shared experience and therefore their thought processes align. This does not have to be exclusive to all characters, as only the characters the writer chooses are included within the narrative collective.
We didn’t know who was stealing things from other people’s workstations. Always small items—postcards, framed photographs. We had our suspicions but no proof. We believed it was probably not for the loot so much as the excitement—the shoplifter’s addictive kick, or maybe it was a pathological cry for help. Hank Neary, one of the agency’s only black writers, asked, “Come on, now—who would want my travel toothbrush?”Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
In this extract, the narration shows the discourse within a group of co-workers, in that they are all thinking about the thief, but disagreeing as to who that person is or even why they are doing that they are doing. This creates a sense of unreliability within the hive-mind, changing the dynamic of the narration.
On some occasions, writers choose to include multiple first-person points of view. This allows the story to ‘jump’ between different perspectives whilst maintaining the first-person style, although it must be clearly identified to avoid confusing the reader.
My gut twisted, and I moved quicker. I needed a drink.Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Here the narration is coming from Nick, who is recalling the events of the day of his wife’s disappearance. The next words in the book are from Amy, Nick’s wife, in an extract from her diary, and is the first moment in the novel that the narrative changes perspective. This is signalled by a heading of her name, the diary entry date, then an immediate shift in tone to a new narrator.
Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this.Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
This is a very distinctively different voice to Nick’s, and reinforces the change that has happened, allowing Flynn to successfully switch from one narrator to the other. This allows the story to be told from multiple perspectives and gives the reader the opportunity to work out who is telling the truth, what is true, and why each character is saying what they are saying.
The Advantages of First-Person Perspective
First-person immediately puts the reader inside the narrator’s head, which allows for an intimate portrayal of thoughts and emotions. You can effectively communicate how each moment feels—delivering sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—through the prism of your narrator. What they feel, your reader feels. Their fears, their hopes, their love, their despair, all can be delivered to the reader directly and with maximum emotional impact.
Your narrator’s reactions to situations and other characters can be imparted effectively, and all this creates a strong sense of empathy in the reader. You can also put across the motivations of your main character, which to an outsider may not seem relatable, yet as you are inside their brain the logic behind their actions makes more sense.
By writing in first-person you can deliver the entire story in your narrator’s voice, giving the text a clear identity and submerging the reader further into the world you are creating. Writers are also able to hide exposition within a first-person stream-of-consciousness by turning it into thoughts and musings.
The great advantage of the first-person narrator is their potential for unreliability. They can lie to the reader, misdirect, say whatever they want, in a way that is much harder for other perspectives, and be completely excused as it is part of their character.
Your narrator does not even have to be your protagonist, and although they are the protagonist in their story, that is only one facet of the overarching tale that is happening around them. Think of a first-person narrative from Judas Iscariot. Jesus Christ would be the protagonist, Satan the antagonist, yet Judas is the lead in his own character arc.
The Disadvantages of First-Person Perspective
As you are writing entirely from one person’s point-of-view, first-person can be very limiting. The reader can only experience the world through that character’s eyes, and so as a writer you cannot share the thoughts and feelings of others, only your narrator’s interpretation of them.
Describing your narrator is nigh-on impossible within a first-person story, unless you want to include a scene where they look at themselves in a mirror and describe, to themselves, how they look. My advice is to not do that; it is a terrible cliché and completely unnecessary.
First-person narrators tend to not understand the big picture of the story, and as a writer you need to be careful that you don’t give them too much knowledge or awareness, whilst hinting at enough that the reader can surmise the overall plot at that point in time. This is a difficult trick to pull off, and many writers struggle with it.
There is a danger of your narrative becoming self-indulgent in the narrator’s emotions. Constant self-referencing or over-the-top emotional responses can all drown out the story and become too much.
On the other hand, a passive narrator that simply observes is a trap that many writers fall into. The narrator is in the scene, but not doing much, and so they just watch the other characters with no reaction or feeling. If it becomes almost a third-person tale then perhaps that would be a better perspective for the story.
The Balance of First-Person Perspective
To tell a story well from a first-person point-of-view, you will need to understand both how the character talks and thinks, and the differences between those two. You can then impart each with a sense of consistency but also a disconnect between what is said and what is thought. There is also a great potential for experimentation with first-person perspective, as well as inference through suggestion.
I could have used the money real well. But it’s not like they cost me anything except the baking. I can tell him that anybody is likely to make a miscue, but it’s not all of them that can get out of it without loss, I can tell him. It’s not everybody can eat their mistakes, I can tell him.William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Faulkner uses first-person to tell the story of several characters, all the while including narrative thoughts and putting across dialect in the stream-of-consciousness that unfolds on the page between dialogue. This allows the reader to follow the story proper, both directly through what the narrator tells—or does not tell—and inferred in the reactions of the narrator to circumstances and other characters.
First-person perspective is a way of putting the reader inside a character’s mind, and in that sense it is an effective narrative tool for eliciting emotional connection from the reader to a key character or characters. It is a widely-used narrative style, and one which, if undertaken well, can bring great benefit to a story.