First Person Point of View: Benefits and Pitfalls
First person point of view is one of the most popular and useful. When a character uses “I,” “me,” “we,” “our,” and “us” to speak directly to the reader and tell their story or report on what is happening, the author is using first person. Kevin Hearne’s novel Hounded does this:
I thought Sundays were supposed to be relaxing. As a male citizen of America, I’m entitled on Sundays to watch athletic men in tight uniforms ritualistically invade one another’s territory, and while they’re resting I get to be bombarded with commercials about trucks, pizza, beer, and financial services. That’s how it’s supposed to be; that’s the American dream. I suppose I cannot complain, because I’m not really a citizen of America. Mr. Semerdijian called the INS on me once, in fact. . . . And after the INS agents went away, that’s when I sent Oberon over to poop on Mr. Semerjian’s lawn for the first time (163).
The narrator of Hounded, Atticus O’Sullivan, is telling the reader his personal story and using the pronoun “I,” so the novel is written in first person.
Pros with First Person
The Mind of the Narrator
The biggest advantage of first person point of view is how deeply it delves into the mind of the narrator. No other point of view is as close. In first person, the reader gets to see all of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and knowledge. The world, story, and events are seen through the eyes of the narrator and therefore colored by the way they perceive the world. For example, Death in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief sees colors when he collects a soul, such as:
She died in a suburb of Sydney. The house was number forty-five – the same as the Fiedler’s shelter -- the sky was the best blue of afternoon. Like her papa, her soul was sitting up (543).
Here, Death reveals how the passing of each soul paints the sky a unique color, what he notices about the souls and their environments, and what he does and does not understand about humans. Any other point of view would be unable to achieve the characterization of Death the intimate first person accomplishes.
The Eyes of an Outsider
When an author wants to show a world or town or story through the eyes of an outsider, first person is particularly useful. With this point of view, the author is able to release information slowly as the character learns. This is often vital in stories centered around mysteries, where the author wants to surprise or mislead the reader.
First person allows the author tighter control over the information and elements of the story, especially when the narrator is an outsider who doesn’t know everything about the story, history, or other characters. Both Death in The Book Thief and Atticus in Hounded are outsiders. Death is not human and does not fully understand humans nor pay much attention to their world, but one young girl catches his eye when he collects her brother’s soul. For the rest of the book, Death watches and recounts the girl’s story, so readers only know what he knows and what he learns/observes. The above excerpt from Hounded shows that Atticus is not originally from the United States nor is he an average human. Even though he has been in Arizona for years, he is often viewed as an outsider and is trying to solve a mystery of his own. In both books, first person point of view allows the author to release information slowly to build tension, suspense, and curiosity in the story and reader.
Always in Memoir
Because the author is telling their own story in a memoir, they should pretty much always use first person. The whole point of a memoir is to get inside the author’s head and see the story through their eyes. I’m sure there are rare exceptions to this, but for the most part, readers expect and demand first person when reading memoirs. Otherwise readers wonder why the author isn’t owning their thoughts and actions, making the story seem untrustworthy. This is why readers of books like Alchemy of the Afterlife by Linda Kinnamon often feel like they know the author personally by the time they finish the memoir.
Cons of First Person
Limited to Knowledge of Narrator
Some of the strengths of first person are also its greatest weaknesses. Because the story is told from the perspective of a single character, the reader can only know what that character knows. They can’t know what other characters are thinking or feeling except through body language or if the character says it out loud. This limitation makes developing the other characters more challenging because they are being seen through the lens of the narrator. Death is not going to discuss Liesel’s first period, so Markus Zusak has to find other ways to show how she is becoming a teenager. Readers also can’t know what is happening in this other part of town or in the next room because the narrator doesn’t know. In Hounded Kevin Hearne can’t show the reader what is happening in Atticus’s shop while he is flirting with the barmaid at the pub even if the store event is essential to the plot.
Bias of Narrator
Because first person is told through the perspective of a specific person, it is inherently biased and the most subjective of all the points of view. While the closeness first person offers for memoir writers is essential, the subjective nature is unacceptable in many academic contexts. Research-based papers in particular avoid using first person because the researcher needs to appear to be as objective as possible. Readers may question the narrator’s reliability in both fiction and non-fiction, but this is particularly problematic in non-fiction.
An Editor’s Thoughts on First Person
I find first person most exciting to read when the narrator has a distinct voice. The humor and wit of Atticus in Hounded and the odd way death views and categorizes the world in The Book Thief both add another layer to the stories and make them stand out. A good narrator is entertaining and distinct from all other first person narrators. Their voices help make them memorable for readers - a good goal for every piece of writing.
Recently, a trend has developed, where authors write in first person present tense. When not done well, the combination of the two stands out and becomes off-putting in a narcissistic way. It reminds me of self-centered people who can’t see anything beyond how an event, rule, policy, etc. affects them personally, and I know many other writers, editors, and readers who feel similarly. Also, most writers who primarily use first person present tense tend to be young and inexperienced; thus, nothing marks a writer as an amateur faster than using first person present tense. As with memoirs, there are exceptions, but more often than not, the stories I see using these two writing techniques together come from writers with less experience and fewer skills and are off-putting.
When done well, this point of view can be powerful and add voice, emotion, and perspective to a piece. If an author wants to tell a story through the eyes of a distinct character and control the release of information, first person point of view is an effective way to Ignite Their Ink.
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Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.