Point of view fully invests any writing project, particularly in fiction. Whichever choice you make, your story and your reader’s experience, will be different. They will see different things, make different assumptions, and feel different emotions as the story moves on.
For example, if you’re describing a painful breakup, the dumpee and the dumper have vastly different experiences in that moment. Which head and heart you’re in fundamentally changes what happens on the page, and in the mind of the reader.
Earlier, we provided a detailed article on third person point of view. It’s the most common point of view in fiction. Today we’ll look at the second most common (which is the most common in certain genres, especially mystery). We’ll define it, examine how it’s used, and identify the most common mistakes people make while writing it.
What is First Person Point of View?
In first person point of view, narration happens inside the head of one character. That character uses words like “I” and “me” when referring to themselves, and everybody else is referred to by their names, nicknames, or a description from the point of view of the narrator.
Most often, the narrator whose head the reader spends the book in is also the protagonist of the story. Sometimes, for example the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the narrator is a sidekick or observer of the main protagonist. The star of those stories is the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, but the first-person narrator is his loyal assistant, Doctor John H. Watson.
There are three species of first person point of view:
- Reliable Narrator, in which the narrator can be trusted to tell the truth. They might add personal commentary, but will not outright lie to the reader about the story’s elements.
- Unreliable Narrator, in which the narrator will occasionally lie about what happened, adding uncertainty and tension to the story. In most cases, the narrator reveals the truth at a late point in the narrative, introducing a twist.
- Compromised Narrator, in which the narrator thinks they are telling the truth, but aren’t. This might be because the narrator has been deceived, or because they are so overwhelmed with emotion that their perspective is seriously skewed. As with an unreliable narrator, they often gain clarity at a later point.
Why Do People Use First Person Point of View?
First person perspective gives the writer options that don’t exist in other options, which is why it’s the second most popular point of view in fiction:
- Puts the reader immediately into the narrator’s head, creating a level of connection and investment sooner and more deeply than in other perspectives.
- You can impart the narrator’s motivations, fears, hopes, feelings, and other aspects more deeply.
- By telling the entire story from a single person’s voice, your text can have a clearer and more consistent manuscript.
- Many readers consider first person more accessible.
The Ten Biggest First Person Point of View Errors
1. Beginning Every Sentence with “I”
In other points of view, different point of view characters can offer different ways to start sentences. With first person, there’s just one character who stars in much of the action. You end up with paragraphs that look like this:
I looked at the frog. I decided it would be delicious. I caught it and cooked it with some garlic. I ate it. I was wrong. I spent three hours throwing up. I regretted my decision.
Don’t worry about this too much in your first draft. Write things as they come. In revision, look for patches of too many “I”s, and clean it up. Switch things around (“I decided it would be delicious” becomes “It would be delicious, I thought”). Combine some sentences (“I was wrong. I spent three hours throwing up. I regretted my decision.” becomes “I was wrong, and spent three hours throwing up while regretting my decision with each new heave.”)
2. Telling Thoughts Instead of Showing
In third person, the narrator is often observing the action rather than a direct part of it. That makes it easier to show action directly, rather than telling about the action from a remove. First person makes this harder, since the narrator is removed from everything they’re not actively doing.
You can beat this by leaning into action and dialogue. These are classic ways to show instead of tell in all points of view, but become more important due to this challenge of first person POV.
3. Leaning on Narrative Over Action
An advantage of first person is that both you and your reader get to know the narrator pretty well. You have front-row seats to their thoughts, feelings, and memories. This leads to the temptation to share every thought and mental rabbit-hole with the reader. Watch for this, as it’s very easy to overdo.
Better yet, try the following method. In your first draft, chase all the rabbit holes that come to your mind. They will give you a better sense of the character overall. On your first edit, keep only the most essential. For the rest, either eliminate them entirely or find ways to imply their core importance without spelling them out directly.
4. Voice Inconsistency
With first-person perspective, the reader gets the story in the voice of just one person…so you need to make certain that voice is consistent from the first word to the last.
Unless the narrator goes through fundamental changes that would make their narration change in one way or another. In that case, their voice should change along with the changes to their nature, thinking, and perspective.
5. It (Don’t) Gotta Be You
There is a massive temptation in first person to make your narrator basically you, with your perspectives, thoughts, voice, and feelings. Although every character in every book you write will have elements of you, the character should be different in some important ways…and the voice of your first person narration should reflect those differences.
6. Thick Filter
First person narration comes with the impulse to include phrases like “I looked”, “I saw”, “I imagined”, putting a filter between your reader and the action on the page. This feels natural as we’re writing, but also defeats one of the main benefits of writing in first person.
Most of the time you can just remove the phrase. “I looked at the advancing crowd” becomes “The crowd advanced.” “I saw the puppy across the street” becomes “The puppy was across the street.” It will make the prose more direct.
7. Mind Reading
If your narrator is stuck in their own head, they can’t know the thoughts, feelings, intentions, and other internal processes. They can’t know the villainous plans of the antagonist, or what their henchmen are thinking.
Accidentally inserting knowledge of those things is an easy mistake to make, and one which instantly pulls the reader out of the first-person perspective. Even professionals do this with surprising frequency, so it’s good to have a beta reader keep an eye out for this.
8. Too Much Introspection
Remember why Hamlet was so frustrating (or for a more modern example, Jessica Jones)? The Prince of Denmark just rolled around doing not very much while whining and debating with himself, deep-diving into all of his feelings. And because of his hesitation and introspection, everybody died.
This is a serious risk in first-person perspective writing, because you’re in the narrator’s head already. It’s best to include only the most essential internal thoughts of your narrator, and show everything else directly via action.
9. Flashback Fever
Another temptation of first-person perspective is to flash back to why the narrator is doing, thinking, or feeling something at any given time. While the information is true, it’s usually unnecessary and slows the progress of your story.
Think about this the way you’d view a friend telling you a story over some beers. If your friend flashing back would lead you to stare over their shoulder and let your mind wander, the same sort of thing shouldn’t make it into your final draft.
10. Writing Yourself Into a Corner
This mistake isn’t one that turns off the readers, but rather one that happens during your first draft which can make writing more difficult. You create a situation where the plot can only move forward if the narrator knows something they have no way to know…and now you’re stuck. Either you have to break point of view with some mind reading, or you have to rewrite a lot of your manuscript. Beat this with some intentional planning ahead of time.
If you’re sold on first person, great! It’s time to write your story, enjoying the benefits and avoiding the mistakes we just talked about.
If you’re not, stay tuned for next month. We'll be wrapping up this series and you'll be able to choose what works best for your story.