First Person Narrators: Definitions, Benefits, and Pitfalls
Two posts ago I discussed the pros and cons of first person point of view. If a writer chooses to use first person, their next most important decision is which character will be narrating the story. There are three common types of narrators: a reliable character telling their own story, a character telling another character’s story, and an unreliable character telling the story.
1. Reliable Protagonists
This is the kind of narrator most first person pieces use and most readers think of – a trustworthy character telling their own story. In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Jacob tells the reader:
I had just begun to accept the fact that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into two halves: Before and After (8).
From this passage, the reader knows Jacob will be telling them his story of change. In this type of first person point of view, the narrator is the protagonist.
When someone writes a memoir or autobiography, this is the narrative stance they are expected to take. If they don’t come across as reliable, then they will be seen as a liar in all aspects of their life and story. If they aren’t the main character, then they aren’t really writing a memoir; instead, they are writing someone else’s biography.
The biggest advantage to a reliable protagonist narrator is the instant trust granted by the reader. The reader believes everything the character says, something that should not be taken for granted. These characters also tend to be likeable, so readers root for them to succeed. Other novels with reliable protagonist narrators are Alchemy of the Afterlife: A Memoir by Linda Kinnamon, Hounded by Kevin Hearne, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
2. Another’s Story
Sometimes the character telling the story is not the protagonist. They might be a side character or even a main character, but they are not the main protagonist. This is the case in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, where the narrator is Death and the protagonist is a young girl, Liesel Meminger. Death reveals he is not the central character in the passage:
As for me, I had already made the most elementary of mistakes. I can’t explain to you the severity of my self-disappointment. Originally, I’d done everything right: I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still I wavered. I buckled – I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched (7).
There are moments where The Book Thief seems to be written in third person as Death reports Liesel’s life to the readers; then Death’s perspective on the events unfolding will seep into the narration, reminding readers who is speaking. While Death does change as much as a supreme being can, Liesel is the one with a full character arc and the focus of the tale. She is the book thief.
When a character other than the protagonist narrates a first person point of view story, the reader gets to see the character through the eyes of someone else. This can change the way a reader thinks of the main character because the reader is getting the information secondhand, through an innately biased source. The advantage to non-protagonist narrators is the control the author gains over the reader’s perception. If another character is more interesting or objective or has access to more knowledge, the writer might choose to tell the story through that character to show these aspects. By using Death to tell Liesel’s story, Zusak is able to show what happens to other characters and in other parts of the country because Death knows things a young girl cannot.
Sometimes the main protagonist isn’t the best storyteller, so another character must step forward to narrate. The classic example of this is Nick Carrwary in F. Scott Fitsgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Other stories using a side character as a narrator include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes where Doctor Watson tells Sherlock Holmes’ story and Lemony Snicket tells the Baudelaire children’s story in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
3. Unreliable Narrators
When the character telling the story is not trustworthy, they are called an unreliable narrator. While in theory every first person narrator is unreliable because everyone views the world differently, a true unreliable narrator in literature is a narrator who is clearly and intentionally biased, not credible, and/or misunderstands what is happening around them. In general, a novel must be written in first person in order to have an unreliable narrator; books written in second or third person don’t technically have narrators. Characters can be unreliable in any story, but only first person point of view has unreliable narrators .
When Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov claims his obsession and sexual relationship with a young girl is not wrong, the reader knows he is unreliable. In the third paragraph, Humbert states:
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style (9).
The creepiness of Humbert and the slow reveal of his crimes and psychosis would not be as clear or impactful if the story had been told from a member of the jury or Lolita or any other character’s point of view.
Unreliable narrators can intentionally or unintentionally lie to the reader. Characters like Humbert Humbert probably know, consciously or unconsciously, that they are wrong and trying to manipulate the reader and often other characters. Other narrators may be too naïve or not have all of the information or understanding necessary to tell the story accurately. This is often the case for child narrators. Because unreliable narrators can rub the reader the wrong way or make them feel deceived, they are difficult to pull off in longer works. However, they are very common in short stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. They are not impossible in longer stories, though. Paula Hawkins used an unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train, so did Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl.
An Editor on the Importance of Narrators
Choosing the point of view and narrator is one of the most important decisions an author makes when writing a book. If the wrong person is chosen, the story will fall flat, the plot might fail, or the characters won’t come to life. I recommend authors look at their story or idea and ask themselves “Whose story is this?” to identify the main character followed by “Which character is the most interesting?” to help determine the narrator. Notice, I didn’t say “Which character do I like the best?” or “Who will my readers like best?” A successful narrator isn’t identified by their likeability; instead, they must hold the reader’s interest, possess necessary information, and have a unique perspective. For me, the voice of the narrator can make or break a story. Which narrator will Ignite Your Ink – a reliable protagonist, someone other than the protagonist, or an unreliable character?
Do you have a favorite kind of first person narrator? Let me know why in the comments and subscribe to Ignite Your Ink for a free chart comparing the points of view and other advice from an editor.
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If you are interested in reading any of the books mentioned in this post, click on the cover below (or to the right).
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds an 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.