As writers, we must be aware of every element that goes into crafting a coherent piece for the reader. Few elements are as important as a point of view. Essentially, a point of view is the “eyes” through which a story is told. Intuitively, writers may know of the first person point of view, but it is always useful to familiarize oneself with the mechanics of what makes cohesive writing. In this article, we’ll break down the first person point of view and explore how to use it effectively.
Definition of First Person Point of View
The first person perspective is used when the narrator or main character is telling the story. Reading from the first person perspective, we are limited to only experiencing the story through a narrator’s descriptions.
Ex. “I walked down the street and saw all of the buildings were painted grey.”
To convey a first-person point of view, authors use first-person singular pronoun of “I”, as well as the first-person plural pronoun of “we”. Both pronouns are part of the subjective case because they both can be used as a subject of a sentence.
Ex. “I ran up to my teammates to tell them the good news. We were heading for the national championships after all.”
Here is the list of all of the pronouns used for the first person point of view:
(singular) “I” Ex. “I am an architect”
(plural) “we” Ex. “We are looking for her car right now.”
(singular) “me” Ex. “People like me are fun to be around!”
(plural) “us” Ex. “Peter said he was looking for us all day.”
(singular) “my/mine” Ex. “That is my dresser.” “She has what’s mine.”
(plural) “our/ours” Ex. “Our flight was delayed.” “The corn is ours.”
The first-person writing perspective is typically used for autobiographical writing, such as memoirs, personal essays, and journaling. It makes the writing seem more personal, where inner thoughts are expressed in the same way as the setting and actions of the story.
Because of the reader-to-narrator connection, feelings of trust and authority are established when using first-person. The reader trusts that the narrator will make the story entertaining and/or informative, as the reader has no other direct sources of information.
Some authors have understood this and used it to their advantage, using the first person point of view creatively. For instance, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a classic example of an “untrustworthy narrator”, where the narrator may be omitting the truth, exaggerating, or lying. Readers are unsure of what is actually happening, which creates an air of suspicion that the author uses to enhance or detract from the story-telling. In the example of Huckleberry Finn, we come to distrust the protagonist, wondering what the true motivations of the character actually are.
Similarly, the first person point of view can effectively express an altered state of mind (i.e. hallucinations) or elements of fantasy that seem “real” to the narrator:
Ex. “As I lay there sweating, I could feel a presence enter the room. The sensation of yellow passed over my tongue, which tasted the same way the blaring classical music felt. If this was what they called synesthesia, I finally starting to feel a strange sympathy with my schizophrenic patients.”
The narrator of a work in the first-person doesn’t necessarily have to be the main character. Supporting characters, still using “I” and “we”, can tell a story about the protagonist. This is called the “First Person Peripheral”. It bears noting that there are scenes and events that will occur to the protagonist, but that the narrator will not experience directly, so this first-person point of view blends elements with the third-person point of view. A good example of the first person peripheral is in F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the ancillary character of Nick Carroway tells the story of his wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby.
Finally, a rare usage of the first-person POV is the “First Person Omniscient”, where a character in the story is aware of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the other characters. This point of view typically requires an omniscient being (i.e. a god, a disembodied spirit) that guides the reader through the events of the story. Having access to other character’s thoughts is a hallmark of this usage, which differs from “First Person Limited”, the standard form:
(First Person Limited)
“I knew I had been caught red-handed. She looked disappointed.”
(First Person Omniscient)
“I knew I had been caught red-handed. She was disappointed in my actions.”
Drawbacks to First Person POV
Consequently, the first-person POV has a few drawbacks in some types of usage. While it is a direct style of narration, it is also susceptible to a lack of objectivity regarding a subject. It leads many critics of formal works to detect a bias that may or may not be present. Academic and non-fiction writing usually avoids using first-person point of view except for interviews and quotations. However, it can be used on occasion to highlight a relevant relationship between the written work and the writer:
Ex. “The data suggests that plant growth in the northern part of the state indicates a recovering agricultural-based industry. As an economist, I have noticed a similar upward trend in my independent research.”
Writers should also be careful using a first person point of view that switches between first person omniscient and first-person limited. This can create confusion in readers, as they feel that they are not fully aware of what the narrator is capable of. Is the narrator filling in the gaps that they could have discovered after the fact, or does the narrator possess a power beyond normal human capabilities?
Examples of First Person Perspective
The list of books written in the first person point of view is innumerable. Here are a few famous examples:
“American Psycho” – Bret Easton Ellis
Told from the perspective of a wealthy “yuppie” named Patrick Bateman, we are introduced into a dark, gruesome, and violent world from his point of view. Because of the immediacy of the first person point of view, readers have commonly cited feeling nauseous and disgusted at the descriptions of graphic murders. For comic effect, the narrator even gives his personal opinions on pop music. Ultimately, the book ends with a twist: Was this all real, or was it a figment of the Patrick’s dark inner life?
“Anthem” – Ayn Rand
In “Anthem” a major plot point revolves around how the narrator addresses themselves in the singular as “we”, which—spoiler alert—later changes to “I” as the narrator is cast out from a collective population after discovering their newfound individuality.
“Notes from the Underground” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
In this book, Dostoevsky uses the first person point of view to show the contradictory nature of the cynical narrator. The reader is left to assume whether the narrator is telling the truth or skewing the events to make himself look more noble in the face of a harsh world.
“The Book Thief” – Markuz Zusak
As an example of the first person omniscient, the story is told from the character Death, who sees all of the events that occur in the story. Death itself is a character that reflects on the human condition and his work, declaring that he needs a vacation from knowing everything about humanity but he cannot find an adequate replacement.