5 Tips for Writing First-Person POV
Maybe you’re writing a first-person narrator for the first time. Or maybe you’ve written a first-person narrative, but the voice isn’t as strong as you’d like. Whichever stage you’re at, knowing how to use first-person effectively will make the difference between a bland voice and a stellar one.
First-person point-of-view (or POV) is a story told by a protagonist using the pronouns “I” and “me” rather than third-person pronouns like “he” or “she.” First-person is one of the most intimate POVs because the reader experiences the story firsthand from inside the narrator’s head.
In this post, we’ll give you five tips to get the most out of first-person POV and share some of the pitfalls to avoid.
Reveal new information to the reader and POV character at the same time
One of the most common challenges of first-person POV is that you have a limited scope of information—you’re bound to only the things your point-of-view character knows. Furthermore, since this POV is the only lens through which your reader sees the world, you should include only what the character would actually think about.
Take this passage from page 178 of Premeditated Myrtle by Elizabeth C. Bunce:
“I’ve been thinking about what we discussed last night, Myrtle. And I believe you’re right. To that end, I’ve invited Miss Wodehouse to dinner tomorrow night.”
I was baffled. “How will that help Mr. Hamm?”
“What? No, I meant the other matter we discussed.”
Horrified, I stared at him. The “other matter”, of course, was the notion of Father marrying again. But marrying Priscilla? Where on earth had that idea come from?
The first-person narrator is so focused on Mr. Hamm that she fails to consider other things going on around her. This allows the author to make both the character and the reader feel blindsided by this new piece of information, adding tension to the scene and pulling the reader along with the narrator.
Layer the character’s voice into every line
In third-person narration, there’s more distance between the reader and narrator, which means your protagonist’s voice comes through stronger in dialogue than in description or prose. But in first-person narration, that distance doesn’t exist. Because the protagonist is speaking directly from their own thoughts, their internal voice should be just as strong as their spoken words when they describe the world around them.
Consider this example from page 7 of Dan Stout’s Titanshade:
It was the back side of Friday and I sat at the bar of Mickey the Finn’s. My hands laced around a cup of warm joe as I kept silent time to the jukebox, eyes fixed on the clock where it hung by a crooked nail above a row of liquor bottles. Its minute hand crept ever closer to that magic hour: the moment my shift would end, and I’d be free to order something stiffer.
Only three sentences into the book, we already have a strong sense of this character based on just his internal voice. Turns of phrase like “back side of Friday” and “warm joe” are more unique than “late on Friday” or “fresh coffee.” And the places his attention lands—the jukebox, the liquor, and the clock—keep us deep inside his head, instead of describing the room by naming things he wouldn’t care about.
Vary your sentence structure
A common trap to fall into in first-person is starting every sentence with “I”. It can be especially challenging when you’re describing what your character is doing. Look for ways to start sentences with references to the place or time, or ways you can show what the character is noticing without prefacing it with “I saw” or “I heard”.
Look at this passage from page 15 of Winter Loon by Susan Bernhard:
At the hospital, doctors pumped me full of warm liquid, checked my toes and fingers for frostbite. Nurses wrapped me in blankets and gave me hot drinks. They told me how lucky I was I didn’t freeze to death. But my mother’s face, chicory blue, was all I could see. I didn’t feel lucky. When they asked me questions, I turned away. What words I had I’d used up.
A blander version might have read: “I ended up at the hospital, where I drank hot fluids and was wrapped in blankets. I was told I was lucky I didn’t freeze to death. I could only see my mother’s chicory blue face. I didn’t feel lucky. I turned away from their questions.” But in the above example, the author varies the sentence structure and only starts one sentence with “I.” The result is stronger without the feeling of repetition.
Don’t spend too long in your character’s head
Because first-person speaks directly from a character’s mind, it can be easy to get caught in their thoughts. Make sure your protagonist’s reflections are relevant and concise, so your reader doesn’t get impatient with the pause in the story’s momentum.
Here’s an example from page 4 of Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes:
“Forget that. Where were you? Pop had a dozen patients this morning.”
And I filled in for you because he can’t do so much alone. Which left Nan to bottle the trader’s jams by herself. Except she didn’t finish. Now the trader won’t pay us, and we’ll starve this winter, and why in the skies don’t you care?
I say these things in my head. The smile’s already dropped off Darin’s face.
“I’m not cut out for healing,” he says. “Pop knows that.”
In first-person POV, the author could have shared this backstory with three paragraphs explaining the protagonist’s worries. But instead, with a few italicized thoughts, we’ve got the information we need, and we’re back into the scene. Furthermore, as active thoughts, they become action rather than prose, which keeps the story moving.
Try opening with a belief or opinion from the protagonist
First-person POV can feel abrupt if you start a book with a line of action or dialogue. Beginning with a couple of lines to get into the character’s head and frame their way of thinking is one way of introducing your protagonist’s voice and making a more seamless transition into your opening scene.
The first chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby begins with these lines:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.
In addition to providing a sense of how the protagonist views the world and hinting at the story to come, these lines don’t limit the type of scene you’re stepping into, giving you the freedom to go in any direction. Having this introductory moment in the protagonist’s head lessens your reader’s chance of disorientation moving forward.
Writing from such an intimate POV has many challenges because there’s no distance at all between your narrator and their thoughts. But by using the tips in this post, your first-person voice will immerse your reader in this point of view, creating a stronger and more dynamic character and story.