First Person Narrative Techniques

From "Call me Ishmael," to "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,'" first person narration has launched readers into worlds made real by the voice of the person telling the tale. It may seem natural to spin a story from inside a character's or an author's head, but it's trickier and tougher to pull off than Melville and Twain make it appear.

Point of View

All narrative writing, fiction or non-fiction, tells a story and relates what happens from a point of view. First person viewpoint, or the "I" voice, offers a vivid, personal, immediate connection between reader and narrator. Writing from the first person viewpoint reveals the twists and turns of the storyteller's mind through her own thoughts. Creating a first person narrator lets the protagonist relate the events of the story, allows a peripheral character tell the tale, or brings a second- or third-hand account of an incident to the page.

Tricks of the Trade

A first person narrator may speak directly to the reader or just talk to someone who isn't there, a kind of musing or impersonal relating of events that never addresses the reader directly. A secondary character may frame -- opening and closing -- the first person recollections of a protagonist or some other character. In a novel, the writer may shift the point of view among different characters. Alternating chapters can deliver a variety of first person stories, keeping things lively and supplying much more information about what happened and why.

Truth, Deception and Confusion

A first person narrator may be an honest witness to events or not. The unreliable narrator is a literary convention used to spice up a first person story and send it off in unexpected directions or produce a surprise ending. Readers see the story through the narrator's eyes and emotional filter, so there is ample opportunity for deception. An unreliable narrator can be mistaken, led astray or prejudiced; ignorance might be the reason for delivering faulty information. The narrator may be a liar and manipulator, telling the story as a way to justify behavior, avoid consequences for some action or deliberately mislead the reader. On the other hand, the narrator may be deluded and incapable of knowing the truth. The unreliable narrator should be accompanied by careful clues about veracity.

The Invisible “I” and Other Pitfalls

The irritating drumbeat of the constant "I" is a danger in first person narrative. Self-description is another thorny challenge; the heroine musing aloud about her blonde hair and blue eyes while looking in a mirror is a tired cliche. A single viewpoint can bore readers if the narrator doesn’t have a vivid personality or idiosyncratic attitude. When the variety of many reactions and viewpoints isn’t available to keep things moving, an emphasis on action and dialog has to fill the gap. Concealing vital information becomes tricky when so many of the narrator’s thoughts are revealed. If that narrator is a serial killer, it will take some sleight-of-hand to keep the secret from readers until the shocking climax.