5 Tips to Mastering First-Person Point of View

10 Jun 2024 The Writing Craft, Uncategorized

From childhood you’ve been telling stories in the first-person, using I, me, and my. It’s the simplest way to relay an experience.

It can also be the best point of view for you as a beginning writer.

Read on for first-person point of view tips, tricks, and pitfalls.

Why Use the First-Person Point of View?

I recommend this approach because it forces you to limit yourself to the mind, the emotions, and the senses of a single character.

Limiting yourself to a single point of view character is a cardinal rule of writing.

The most common form of first-person storytelling is casting the narrator as the protagonist—the main character.

They’re telling their own story.

An option is a first-person telling of the story from the perspective of someone other than the main character. I did this with my very first novel (which became a 13-title series). It was titled Margo, and thus, she was the main character. But the first-person narrator was her love interest and eventual husband.

One advantage of an orbital character narrating in the first person is that it can highlight characteristics of the protagonist that he or she might not even be aware of, or might tend to hide if they were telling the story.

Writing in first person can contribute to strong character development.

Some famous novels rotate first-person narrators (such as with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying). This requires careful planning and practice.

You’ll want to master the fundamentals of writing from the first-person point of view before trying something that complex.

5 Tips for Writing in First Person

1. Avoid head-hopping

This is one of the most common mistakes I see with new authors—switching perspective characters, sometimes within the same scene.

Writing in the first person should remind you that you’re limited to your narrator’s perspective. While you can have that character speculate on what someone else is thinking, you can’t unequivocally say what’s in the other other character’s mind.

Head-hopping requires an omniscient point of view, a style currently largely out of favor.

2. Craft a strong voice

Limiting yourself to one perspective character allows you to effect a unique voice.

Resist the urge to allow your narrator to simply tell the story rather than to show it. My bed was cold is telling. I huddled under the covers, trying to hide from the draft is showing. My coffee was warm is telling. The coffee burned my tongue is showing.

3. Don’t switch tenses

Naturally this tip applies to any writing point of view, but violating it can be especially jarring in first person.

Example: I ran to my car and find I forgot my keys.

Past tense is most common, but regardless, pick a tense and stick with it.

4. Show, don’t tell

Showing, as explained in point 2, triggers the theater of your reader’s mind, while telling merely spoon feeds them information.

Your first-person narrator should suggest just enough to give readers a role in the story experience. They want to be able to deduce what’s going on without simply being told everything.

Note how Suzanne Collins accomplishes this in The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of reaping.

An amateur might have written, “My sister Prim was scared because the day of reaping meant she could die.”

But Collins gives us enough to deduce this for ourselves.

5. Allow other characters to shine

Crafting a single believable, fleshed-out character doesn’t mean the supporting cast should be ignored. Others, especially important orbital characters, will be seen through the perspective of your first-person POV narrator, of course, but they should be no less compelling.

That might mean exposing them as liars or genuine, credible or otherwise. If you’re an Outliner, you may want to take the time to map out their motives and attributes, as this will give your protagonist more interesting people with whom to interact.

Try Using First-Person Point of View

If you need help mapping out your characters, try my character arc worksheet.