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Creative writing first person narrative

Creative writing first person narrative

This page explains narrative point of view and how to write short stories from the best “camera angle.” This is just one of many pages on this website about different elements of a story. For a complete list and the chance to take free creative writing courses, see the links at the bottom.

How to write short stories from different points of view

Your story’s narrator is the voice that is telling the story.

  • I pulled out the gun and showed it to the cute blond bank teller, who gave a little yelp of surprise.
  • This bald guy came up to my counter and reached into his jacket. Suddenly, I realized he was holding a gun.
  • A bald jerk cut in front of me in line. I hate cutters, so I was about to go say something, when he pulled a gun on the blond lady behind the counter.
How to write short stories in the first person

There are certain things a first person narrator normally shouldn’t say. For example: “My bald spot looked particularly shiny that day.” Why? Because you can’t see your own bald spot unless you’re looking at yourself in a photograph or a mirror at just the right angle.

Another thing that sounds strange in the first person voice: “I have no idea that. ” Your first person narrator can’t give information he doesn’t know. If your narrator has been locked in the trunk of a car, it will be hard for him to describe what the police are doing just then to solve his kidnapping.

Also always an awkward statement: “Then, I died.”

  • Directness – You can give the reader a first-hand perspective on the story.
  • Voice – If your narrator has a colorful or appealing way of talking, this can add flavor to the story-telling.
  • Intimacy – Your reader has the chance to get to know the narrator by listening to him.
How to write short stories in the third person

A third-person narrator might be completely outside the action. A third-person narrator tells the story using the words, “He,” “she,” “it,” they,” etc. For example: “A bald man suddenly cut in front of the teenager boy, who looked like he was about to protest until the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at the blond teller.”

A third person narrator might even have a supernatural ability to be in more than one place at once, seeing everything that’s going on. Example: “Customers screamed and ducked to the floor, unaware that police cars were already surrounding the building. Across the city, Miriam paced back and forth across their small living room, wondering if Jack would possibly manage to pull off the robbery.” This kind of narrator with unlimited vision and knowledge is called an omniscient narrator.

Third-person narrators may also have limited or complete access to one or more character’s thoughts. It’s common to locate the narrator partially inside a particular character’s head. Example: Jack felt faint as he hurried out of the bank, wondering if the police were already outside. What would happen to Miriam if he were arrested? The thought was unbearable; he tried to push it out of his mind.”

The effect here is almost as if this had been written in the first person, with Jack telling the story. But with a third-person narrator, I’m not limited by Jack’s voice. I might choose to limit my third-person narrator to Jack’s perspective. This would give readers a sense of connection to Jack, as if they are living his particular experience. Or I could move from one character’s mind to another. If you switch points of view in the same story, you have to be careful not to confuse or disorient your reader. You might decide to limit yourself to one viewpoint for each section of the story and use line breaks or another visual cue to let your reader know when you’re switching.

Tip: readers will often feel more intensely involved with a particular character if you limit the story to that person’s point of view.

How to write short stories in the second person

A story written in the second person treats the reader as the story’s character. The narrator talks all the time about “you.” “Nervously, you walked up to the bank counter, then reached for your gun.” Second-person narration is more unusual than the first or third person, and it’s harder to use without seeming contrived or defying the reader’s common sense (I know that I didn’t rob a bank!) Similarly unusual in fiction is first-person plural narration, where the narrator uses the word “We” to tell the story. Two wonderful novels written in the first-person plural are Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But, again, what these authors have accomplished is very difficult to pull off successfully.

How to Write Short Stories – Next Steps

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First Person Point of View: Me, Myself, and I

First person point of view is where the writer (or fictional narrator) relates information from their own perspective. Whether they’re telling a story from their past or giving you their opinion of the present, if the main pronoun in a piece of writing is ‘I,’ you’re probably dealing with something written in the first person.

A passage written in the first person point of view might look something like this:

I feared what might greet me as I entered the kitchen. Something was about to happen. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made me so sure, but it was a certainty unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

As a way of writing that seemingly never goes out of fashion, first-person POV is something that all authors should strive to master. That’s why we’ve enlisted the help of our Reedsy editors to put together this guide to the first person point of view.

Why first person is such a powerful POV

First person narration brings readers directly into the story, experiencing its events as the POV character. It can lend authority and credibility to a tale, and has plenty of other useful storytelling functions. While it may not perfectly suit every story — hence why we also have second person and third person alternative — it’s definitely a popular POV, and one that’s important for authors to master. Here’s a little more on why first person is worth learning to write well.

It creates an immersive experience

One of the main benefits of first person POV is what is sometimes referred to as the ‘close psychic distance’ between the reader and the character. That is, many authors and readers prefer first-person-POV writing because it creates intimacy. Tracy Gold, Reedsy editor and Adjunct Professor of Composition at the University of Baltimore, corroborates this:

Writing first person makes it easier to get deep inside a character’s thoughts and feelings. With first person, the writer or reader becomes the character as they get deeper into the story, and that’s the kind of immersive experience that makes me love a book.

That’s not to say that second person POV or third person POV can’t create intimacy, but first person tends to be the most intimate, as you’re getting direct access to the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. There’s often a sense of honesty and trust that first person narration can communicate, pulling the reader into the story by evoking empathy.

In nonfiction, a first-person voice can also lend credibility to the writing: “I know this to be true, because I actually saw or did these things.” Readers get to relive the experience through a primary source, safe in the knowledge that this person knows what they’re talking about.

Of course, neither fiction nor nonfiction is immune to the phenomenon of unreliable narrators (more on this below), as real people are just as likely to suffer from biases as fictional ones.

Example: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Dickens’ classic, about a young boy born into poverty hoping to improve his station in life in order, showcases the immersive effect and intimacy that a first person POV can offer Told in Pip’s voice, this early passage deftly captures his internal conflict over his identity, which drives much of the novel’s plot. Because we can follow his thought process from start to finish, we understand why he makes the decisions he does, however imperfect they may be.

First person can foster an intriguing unreliable narrator

First person narratives also excel in establishing intrigue and questions about the true nature of the narrator — are they representing an objective truth or are they pulling the wool over our overly trusting eyes?

As most first person POVs are inherently limited by the biases and personal motivations of the narrator, authors can easily create intrigue through unreliable narrators who turn the concept of honesty and trust on its head. An unreliable narrator makes the reader second-guess whether the narrator is telling the entire story — which is extra-exciting if you only find out they’re unreliable partway through the tale.

While this lack of credibility can be fatal in non-fiction, it can be a real delight in fiction. Aja Pollock — an editor who has worked on books by writers like Neil Gaiman, George W. Bush, and more — summarizes it well:

When the narrator has questionable credibility, it keeps the reader guessing about the gap between reality and the observations of the POV character. Unreliable narrators can be tricky to pull off for inexperienced writers (or even experienced ones) — but they add an extra layer of mystery and tension that keeps those pages turning.

Example: Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

In this subtly dystopian novel about a group of students at Hailsham, a fictional English boarding school, Ishiguro uses the first person point of view to play with the concept of reliable and unreliable narration through an exploration of memory. In this passage, Kathy reveals that she’s become privy to new knowledge that has changed her perception of the past. But she’s not telling us what that knowledge entails. By slowly letting more doubt creep into the story, Ishiguro explores the fickle nature of memory, creating a creeping sense that there’s more to Hailsham than meets the eye. Readers will start to question not only the picture that Kathy paints, but their own ability to separate truth from reality, making for an exceptionally intriguing reading experience.

Its perceived limitations can inspire creativity

What may seem like a limitation of first person POV — that you only get one person’s perspective on a story at a time — can actually be an opportunity to get creative. Maybe you decide to tell the story from the POV of a bystander (which would address the issue of neutrality), a pet, multiple characters with conflicting memories, or even an all-knowing god-like figure.

First person omniscient

First person omniscient is when a first-person narrator is privy to the thoughts, actions, and motivations of other characters. It’s what one might describe as an exception to the rule of first person narration — and it’s a rare one at that, in part because it’s tricky to pull off and in part because it doesn’t feel very realistic.

However, there are certain cases where first person omniscient narration is relevant and interesting. One such example is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, in which the first person omniscient narrator is (spoiler alert) Death itself. Another well-known example is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events — the narration is first-person and has a very distinctive voice, yet the narrator always seems to know what’s going on with all the characters.

The prose style is character-driven

Another characteristic of successful first person narratives is that the entire tone and style is dictated by who the narrator is: their worldviews, motivations, and vices. Not only does every plot point reveal something new about them, but the prose itself is deeply informed by their unique character.

Example: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A particularly illuminating example of how the first person POV can help establish tone and style is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — a novel in which a young boy recounts his adventures on the Mississippi River, together with a runaway slave. Told from Huck’s POV and in his own language, this passage manages to capture not only the narrator’s childlike spirit, but a sense of time and place which sets the account apart from others. These evocations remain strong throughout the novel, and indeed have become a hallmark of Huckleberry Finn in the many years since it’s been published.

An outsider narrator can offer an illuminating view

Though many first person POV stories are focused on the inner lives of their narrators, sometimes the first person narrator isn’t actually the key character that the story revolves around. Instead, they’re simply the lens through which we view everything.

In a story told in third person, they might have been a side character, but here they get to tell us their version of events. And if they’re not personally involved in the conflict, they may actually be free of some of the biases that first person narrators usually get saddled with. So while the reader gets an inside perspective of the narrator’s mind, they also get an outside view of key events and characters. Some would call that the best of both worlds.

Example: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird — an account of the trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s American South — is narrated by a woman called Scout, looking back on the experiences of her 6-year-old self. While young Scout is certainly central to the novel in many ways and filters the impressions the readers receive, the real drama unfolds in the courtroom and the world of the adults — a world she will only understand when she herself is grown up. Here we see how much Scout respects and values the opinion of her father Atticus — a hint at how he will serve as the story’s strong moral compass, even when others in the town turn against him.

Which POV is right for your book?

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Common mistakes when writing first person

Writing in first person may be one of the first things we learn as children, but like any narrative technique, it comes with its own set of challenges. And though challenges can often provide opportunities for creativity, it’s still crucial to know how to handle the pitfalls and clichés outlined below.

1. Lazily all-knowing narrators

One of the first problems that authors will encounter when they decide to write in first person is the issue of scope — how much can the narrator actually know about what is going on? Aja Pollock explains:

If first-person narration discusses the interior life of another character, it has to be couched as the POV character’s speculation or perception — not as absolute knowledge of what the other character is thinking or feeling.

You might see this as a roadblock if, in a particular scene, you want to show what a secondary character is thinking. However, as Pollock notes, your narrator can always indicate what other characters are feeling with a small observation. You might want to write:

I told Karen what I’d heard. She was nervous at the news.

Of course, your first-person narrator can’t know what Karen is feeling (unless they are literally a psychic), but to convey the same idea, you might write:

As I told her the news, Karen looked away nervously.

Example: Room by Emma Donoghue

Narrated from a child’s POV, Room uses the first person to create a sense of mystery and intrigue for the reader. The incredibly limited scope and understanding that Jack, the 5-year-old narrator, exhibits forces the reader to search for clues to piece the puzzle together themselves. It also adds a mitigating layer of innocence to an otherwise bleak narrative, and serves as a strong contrast to the depiction of evil.

2. Alternating narrators who sound the same

First person point of view doesn’t mean that you have to stick to the same person’s first-hand account throughout your novel. Many popular novels, particularly young adult novels, actually employ multiple first-person narrators to broaden their scope a little bit. When done right, this adds variety and layers of complexity to your storytelling which readers will greatly enjoy. But it can also be tricky to pull off, as readers may get characters confused.

First person appeals to many first-time authors as it allows them to use their personal, real-world voice. But if all the narrators in a writer’s story share the same quirky turns of phrase, then you might run into trouble. So make sure that you give each character a distinct voice and style that allows them to feel like real, individual people.

Example: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon

In this novel about the fraught relationship between 18-year-old twins Adina and Tovah, Solomon skillfully manages to create two distinct voices. One narrator is a musician and her language is peppered with musical metaphors, while the other narrator is more academically inclined, which also comes out in her narration. As Adina and Tovah struggle with an illness in the family, they are also young women learning about love and relationships — which they approach and try to make sense of in their own distinctive ways.

3. Awkward self-descriptions

On the other hand, if you only have one first person narrator, you may run into the problem of trying to describe them. Through the narrator’s eyes, authors can easily describe every other character, the setting, and the intricate details of relationship dynamics — but they don’t have a set of eyes that can turn back on the narrator. This can make them elusive to the point of becoming anonymous and utterly forgettable.

To counter this, some authors may be tempted to let the narrator describe themselves by, for instance, looking in the mirror and internally listing what they see:

As I looked in the mirror, I inspected my outfit. I was wearing a cute top and checkered skirt à la Cher from Clueless, but that’s where the similarities ended. Unlike Cher, my hair was an unruly auburn mess and my features were plain. At least my combat boots and book-bag gave me a not-like-other-girls vibe, I thought.

In situations like these, it may be worth asking whether the outfit and outer appearance of the narrator significantly add to the story. Even notes on internal qualities like intelligence and personality can come off as awkward when it’s the narrator describing themselves. A much better way of incorporating these elements is to employ some trusty show-don’t-tell: let the plot, dialogue, and character interactions inform the reader about who the narrator is.

4. “Filtering” too much

Lastly, some authors struggle with what editor Rebecca Heyman describes as “filtering language”. According to her, adding too many phrases like “I saw” and “I heard” is one of the biggest recurring mistakes in first-person prose:

If your narrator is articulating her own experience, you don’t need to use structures like ‘I saw’ or ‘I heard’ — language that puts unnecessary distance between the narrator’s experience and its articulation.

To avoid this, Tracy Gold suggests that you omit most thought tags and first-person dialogue tags. Your writing should already have made it clear whose point of view you’re writing from, making such qualifiers unnecessary and cumbersome:

For example: ‘An owl hooted softly’ vs ‘I heard an owl hoot softly’. One puts us inside the experience of listening; the other one just tells us about it. We know already that everything we’re being told comes through the first person narration, so the character’s use of empirical sense is implied.

There you have it — the ins and outs of first person point of view. If you’re hungry for more, check out our next post that’s all about the second person viewpoint!

One Quick Tip for Effective First Person Writing

First-person perspective is kind of like cheese: some people love it, some people hate it, and when it’s poorly done, it grates.

Sorry for the pun.

I personally love first-person, and it is my joy to share one simple, quick writing tip that can help your first-person perspective writing shine: cut the filter words.

First of All, What Is Point of View?

What the heck is a filter word, you ask? Before I answer that, let’s tackle some definitions.

“Point of View” (POV) is the writer-ly term for the perspective through which you tell your story. It usually breaks down like this:

Third-Person POV

This means telling your story as “She did” and “He said,” never “I.” There are three kinds:

  • Third-Person Narrator POV. In this perspective, you—the storyteller—are everywhere and know everything. You can be in anyone’s life, around any corner. A leaf fell in the park, and none of your characters saw it? You did, and you can write it down. There are no limitations to this viewpoint, though it can be difficult to make it feel personal.
  • Third-Person Multiple POV. In this perspective, the author uses the viewpoints of a particular set of individuals. This one’s a lot easier to work with for one major reason: your reader only knows what these characters know, allowing your plot to unfold naturally. There’s no outside knowledge, no Unbeknownst to everyone, the water main broke beneath the garage and began to flood the driveway. If your characters didn’t see it, then the reader won’t know about it until somebody steps in mud. This perspective is told through the eyes of that pre-set group of people in “He/She did it” fashion.
  • Third-Person Limited POV. This is where you follow one person, but this still one step removed from the personal nature of First-person. This is still told as “She,” not “I,” and it’s challenging. The temptation is to slip into narrator mode and describe something happening outside your character, but to do this right, you have to limit the story to what that character knows, sees, hears, and thinks.

Second-Person POV

Almost nobody uses this (though now that I’ve said it, I’ll bet several of you will jump to the challenge). Essentially, it’s telling the story like talking to yourself. “You went to the fridge and slid the frosted drawer free, but to your amazement, it was full of beans. You had no idea what to do next. You expected avocados.”

You. You do this and that; not he, not I. You.

This is usually reserved for instruction manuals and other non-fiction essays (like this one).

Some fiction writers can really pull this off (I’m looking at you, Choose Your Own Adventure series). I am not one of them. On we go.

First Person POV

First-person perspective is essentially told like a journal entry, a personal story, or a running commentary of thoughts. The reader is not watching this character from the outside, but through this character’s eyes. We see what she sees and hear what she hears. If the character is wrong, we won’t necessarily know, because her perspective is all we have to go on. There is no distance between the reader and the character’s thoughts.

First-person perspective generally gets split up into two types:

  • Present tense. This is where you write, I go to the door and scream at him to go away, all in present tense, putting you in the action at the exact time the character experiences it. It’s challenging; it’s also fun. Slipping into past tense, however, can make it pretty clunky.
  • Past tense. This is more popular (and a lot simpler to write): I went to the door and screamed at him to go away. This one always feels more like a story being told, and is a good place to start for first-time first-person writers.

So what makes first person perspective so wonderful in some cases and so terrible in others?

There are plenty of factors such as:

  • Pacing (the timing of incidents in the story, including what’s kept in and what’s left out);
  • Voice (everyone’s thought patterns won’t sound the same; I adore Joss Whedon, but everybody can’t be that witty all the time);
  • Reliability (how truthful/accurate your narrator is); etc.

Here’s the big chalupa for today: filter words.

What Are Filter Words?

A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience. Let’s look at an example to get a better sense:

This was magic school? I stood and stared at it; I thought it seemed to be set up to depress us. I saw the green hill rising from the earth like some kind of cancer, and I could hear the voices of students on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.

Not sure what to look for? Here it is with the filter words removed.

This was magic school? It seemed to be set up to depress us. The green hill rose from the earth like some kind of cancer, and the voices of students carried on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.

What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.

This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.

How to Spot Your Filter Words, with Examples

Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.

I’m going to give you one more example from my own work. Here it is with filter words added:

I watched the box blow apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside, I saw a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.

A dragon. On my kitchen counter. I heard it squeak at me, which I thought could mean absolutely anything, and I watched as it began to preen itself like a cat.

I saw mother-of-pearl scales gleaming all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. I stared at the wee round-bellied body, resting on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. I noticed its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.

I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.

And with filter words removed:

The box blew apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside sat a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.

A dragon. On my kitchen counter. It squeaked at me, which could mean absolutely anything, and began to preen itself like a cat.

Mother-of-pearl scales gleamed all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. The wee round-bellied body rested on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. Its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.

I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.

The second example gives you Kate’s point of view through her eyes and ears. The first one forces you to watch her seeing and hearing—and takes us away from her experience.

Are Filter Words Ever Okay?

Because I love ya, I will state that there are plenty of valid exceptions. There will be times that your first-person perspective uses those filter words to great effect.

For example, “I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors,” expresses your character’s frustration, which is more important than the counter and shelves he’s seeing. It’s a matter of emphasis and where you want the reader’s thoughts to go.

Filter words can be stylistic, largely tied to voice. I have one character from the deep south, for example, who tends to use them as part of his storytelling: “And then I look over there, and what do I see but that damn fool, makin’ off with my breakfast.”

There will always be times to use filter words, but it’s crucial that you only use them when you’re aware of it, not by accident. If you’re ever in doubt, just ask yourself this question: where do you want your reader’s eyes to be?

How about you? Which point of view do you write in most? Do you think YOU use filter words? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

It’s time to take what you’ve learned about filter words and first-person perspective and apply them to your writing. Spend fifteen minutes or more writing in first person, and do your best to avoid using filter words. Then, share your results in the comments. Don’t forget to reply to someone else’s post, as well!