"The Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby" and "A Clockwork Orange" represent some well-known books famous for having distinctive first-person narrators. Whether an angst ridden teenager, a jaded war veteran or a rebellious youth obsessed with violence, all of the narrators speak from within the stories to relate their versions of the plots. First-person point of view is used for numerous reasons, including creating a sense of emotional directness and drawing readers into the specific voice and world of the story.
Building Specific Characters
First person works best when character development is immediate and central to the story. Sometimes, a story demands that the protagonist tell his own story; in Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," Humbert attempts to persuade readers to understand what drove him to pedophilia and murder. However, a character is sometimes best revealed through a minor player, such as Stingo in William Styron's "Sophie's Choice." Being an observer of Sophie and Nathan's doomed romance qualifies him to objectively tell the complete story. Authors select first-person narrators to give a reliable or unreliable picture of another character, or the situation as a whole.
The first-person style also produces more immediate emotional appeal for readers. In third-person narration, with the use of pronouns such as he and she, the distance doesn't give readers access to a character's full response to events. Some stories require direct access to the narrator's thoughts and feelings to be effective. Emma Donoghue's novel "Room" is narrated by 5-year-old Jack, who has been imprisoned in a backyard shed with his mother since birth. The first-person narration gives a constant, present tense stream of his thoughts and feelings as he gradually learns of the world outside.
Creating a Specific World
If a story takes place in a foreign location, a science fiction universe or a futuristic society, having a narrator in the middle of the setting can introduce and acclimate readers to the story's world. The narrator is able to contextualize key terms and explain through her actions and feelings what the rules of this new setting are. In Kazuo Ishiguro's dystopian novel "Never Let Me Go," new medical technology has allowed children to be cloned, then used for organ harvesting. The narrator, Cathy, gives readers her unique perspective of what it has been like to grow up as a donor.
Character Journeys and Growth
Often, the protagonist of a story is the character who changes the most from beginning to end. Choosing this person as narrator can allow authors to more closely show how the story's events altered the protagonist's life or helped him overcome a significant internal conflict. These narrations are usually told by an older version of the character looking back on who he was at the time the events took place. In Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Scout relates as an adult the valuable life lessons she learned as a child through Tom Robinson's trial and the wisdom of her father Atticus.
One common mistake readers make is assuming that the author and first-person narrator share the same experiences and values. Unless the text is a collection of essays or an autobiography, the narrator should be considered a fictional character separate from the author, even if it is based on personal experience. Fiction is meant to create "legitimate untruths" by establishing a specific setting, narrative voice and plot that reveals something about human nature. Authors use first-person narration to create realistic storytellers for their fictional worlds, not to deliberately bring their lives into their stories.