Anyone who has read and enjoyed any amount of fanfiction can tell you that perspective changes everything.
The way an audience sees what’s happening hugely informs the way they experience the story. Imagine each character in your story has a GoPro attached to their head and a little device recording their thoughts and reactions as they navigate the plot. The feed would change hugely based on who you were watching, wouldn’t it?
Choosing the point of view character (or characters) for your story is crucial, so it’s also important to know what your options look like.
In this article, we’re going to talk about the first person. We’ll talk about what it is, give you some tips for writing in first person, and show you some examples of first person writing done well.
This guide on how to write in first person covers:
- What is first person point of view?
- How to write in first person point of view
- How to write a story in first person
- How to write dialogue in first person
- How to write thoughts in first person
- How to not write in first person
- Examples of first person writing
What is first person point of view?
In first person, you’re in the head of the point of view character, and you’re using the pronoun “I.”
Say we’re writing a book about a woman named Sally, for example. If this story is in first person, you would be writing the book from Sally’s perspective as if from inside Sally’s head. Instead of saying “Sally walked to the store,” you would say “I walked to the store.” The “I” is Sally.
This means that in first person, the reader is locked inside the POV (point of view) character’s mind. They see what the main character sees, and they don’t see what the main character misses. The POV character is narrating the story to us as they experience it, basically, which can create a very personal and relatable experience.
How to write in first person point of view
Writing in first person might seem like an obvious and even easy choice, but it can get gnarly pretty quick. When done well, it’s an intimate experience that brings the reader close to the POV character. When done badly, it can get clunky and detached.
Here are a few tips for writing in first person!
How to write a story in first person
Consider your POV character’s perspective
When you’re writing first-person, you should always be thinking about things from the perspective of your POV character.
Think of point of view like a lens. The story is happening, but we need a lens to see it. Our POV character might have a blue lens—this will tinge everything blue. There will be nothing that isn’t somehow affected by the blue lens, and there will be no way to see something without that lens or through a different one.
While you’re writing, consider what your POV character thinks of the setting. Prioritize their reactions and the way they would describe things. Maybe you think parties are loud and claustrophobic, but you’re writing the first-person account of someone who loves parties. This means that instead of describing a party as noisy or dirty, the party should be exciting and fun.
Stay inside your POV character’s head
Writers new to first person will often veer outside the first-person perspective when they feel they need to, and this is a mistake.
Remember: we’re only seeing what the POV character sees. It might be important for the reader to know that our main character’s husband is discontent with their marriage, for example, but we can’t jump into the husband’s head or read his mind.
There’s a difference between your main character guessing what other people think and perspective-jumping, though. It’s fine if your main character projects and makes incorrect assumptions, but these projections and incorrect assumptions should be addressed, and it shouldn’t feel like we’ve left our main character’s point of view.
Give your POV character a clear voice
First person is the perfect place to explore voice. After all, we’re inside this person’s head navigating the story with them—their personality, manner of speech, and turns of phrase should come through in the prose.
This doesn’t mean that your story ought to read like a diary entry, necessarily. Having excessively casual and overly characterized prose can get cheesy pretty quick. But it does mean you should let your POV character flavor your story.
Make first person an important choice
Above all, make sure that first person is the right choice for your story.
What is the benefit to being in this person’s head? What does the story gain from this limited perspective? In The Secret History by Donna Tartt, our first-person main character isn’t present for some of the most dramatic parts of the story. This means that the reader, like the main character, is relying entirely on the accounts of his friends to explain what happened. Having this little information cranks the drama. We don’t know what happened, and we don’t know who to trust, and we’re eager to find out.
In a romance, first person might give us a more intimate look into a character’s feelings and motivations. It’s a quick way to make a story relatable and personable, so it’s a go-to if you’re writing a memoir or an intensely personal piece.
Consider your options, and pick first person on purpose.
How to write dialogue in first person
How does dialogue work in first person? It’s the same as if you were writing from any other perspective. Use the correct pronouns in your dialogue tags, and you’re good to go.
Here’s a quick example of first-person dialogue between a first-person narrator and someone else:
“Hey, Dee,” I said.
“Oh, hello!” said Dee.
If this were third person, and let’s say the narrator’s name is Sally, it would look like this:
“Hey, Dee,” Sally said.
“Oh, hello!” said Dee.
How to write thoughts in first person
Incorporate thoughts into the narration
You’ve probably read first-person prose where thoughts are written in italics to distinguish them from the narration.
“I couldn’t believe she was leaving. I’ll never see her again. I have to say something now. But before I could open my mouth, the door swung shut in my face.”
You don’t need to say “I thought,” since the italics already distinguish the thoughts as thoughts.
However, in first person, you also don’t need to use italics. We’re in the main character’s head, which means technically everything we’re reading is something the main character is thinking. This is especially easy to do if you’re writing in the present tense.
Let’s take the example above and rewrite it to incorporate thoughts into the narration.
“I couldn’t believe she was leaving. I’d never see her again. I needed to say something now. But before I could open my mouth, the door swung shut in my face.”
This reads more smoothly, and it allows the main character’s perspective to add some flavor to the prose.
How to not write in first person
What should you avoid when you’re writing in first person? I’ve made a short list of things to watch for:
Since first-person accounts put us right in the main character’s head, everything we see is everything they see. Descriptions of things are, therefore, things that the main character is observing. This means we don’t need filter words, or words that put distance between the character and the writing.
For example, instead of saying “I saw a bird fly into the window,” you would just write “the bird flew into the window.” “I heard the coach blow the whistle” becomes “The coach blew the whistle.”
You may use filter words or phrases to create that distance intentionally, but it should always be intentional and never the default way of describing things to your reader.
Like I said before, avoid POV hopping. We’re in the main character’s head, and we should stay there.
What might POV hopping look like in first person? Here’s a quick example:
“I did my homework while Mom worked on her painting. She wasn’t sure whether to use red or blue for the background, so she mixed them into a vibrant purple.”
Unless we already know that Mom is struggling with the background, this is perspective-hopping. We don’t know what Mom is thinking. Instead, we could perceive her indecision and let the reader infer that she’s not sure what to do with the background. That would look more like this:
“I did my homework while Mom worked on her painting. She touched her brush to the blank background, frowning. Her fingers drifted over her red and blue paints for the entirety of my math worksheet, and when I started on History, she’d mixed the red and blue into a vibrant purple.”
Overdoing a character voice
Earlier, I mentioned that overdoing a character’s voice can make the prose cheesy. This generally happens when the prose reads too casual, lacks interesting description, and includes too many exclamatory phrases. It can also happen when someone writes from the first-person perspective of someone from somewhere they don’t know and gives them a stereotypical voice.
For example, if you were writing from the first person perspective of a ranch hand, this might read a little ridiculous:
“Well, golly. The sun was shining in my eyes the whole diddly-darn time I was out attending the cattle. I sure was mighty glad to be back inside. I mosied on over to the water cooler and poured myself a big ol’ cup.”
This doesn’t read authentically—it’s kind of cartoonish, which disconnects the reader from the story. Imagine reading an entire book like this. You wouldn’t want to, right?
Getting too stuck in a character’s head
What do I mean by this? Really, I just mean that most of your sentences shouldn’t start with “I.” Even though we’re in the POV of your main character, every single sentence shouldn’t be strictly about them. Avoiding filter words will help you with this, as will varying your sentence structure.
Here’s an example of first-person prose that’s too stuck in a character’s head:
“I got my groceries. Then, I bought myself a new suit at the outlet mall. On the way home, I listened to the radio, which I hated to do, but the quiet felt stifling for some reason.”
See how we’re repeating “I” a bunch of times? Here’s another way we might word that same passage:
“I walked to the store, then bought myself a new suit at the outlet mall. On the way home, the silence filled the car uncomfortably. The radio helped, even if it meant listening to the horrible clanging music on the local station.”
By taking out some of those filter phrases and removing some instances of “I,” we have more style in the prose, more connection to the scene, and more sentence variation to boot.
First person omniscient
A quick note on first-person omniscient!
First-person omniscient is when we have a first person narrator who also is privy to the thoughts of other characters. This is pretty rare, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is a great example. There’s generally a reason as to why the first-person narrator has this information, whether it’s hindsight or, in the case of Zusak, the nature of the narrator being something all-knowing like death.
Examples of first person pov writing
If you’re looking for some examples of first person done right, check these books out on your next trip to the library:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Maximum Ride by James Patterson