How To Write A First-Person Narrative

how to write a first person narrative

If you’re wondering how to write a first person narrative or even why, wonder no more.

There’s a certain magic when you hold up the book and look through someone else’s eyes at the world. But even more rewarding experience could be to empathize so much with the narrator that you are made to become him at one point. The power of the words you read is so strong that you have no choice but to witness an event from a perspective that doesn’t really fit your views.

Is this good? Is it bad? Neither or both?

Well, it can depend on many different factors but the author’s voice is of vital importance here. When writing in first person you, as the author, cannot write it as you would write your autobiography, it’s not a fiction then, but a blog post. We use this voice every day; we are this voice.

When writing in first person author must know:

  1. The mindset of the character
  2. How to detach from them

Their mindset

marks-of-time-1431882Knowing your character is always the most important thing – there is no story if your character isn’t defined. But when writing in first person, you must know the exact way your character forms thoughts, associates ideas with other ideas; you must know what kind of humor amuses them, what they see first in the morning and what they wish to see instead; you must know where your characters have itches, what their little daily sorrows are, what brings them joy instantly. These are the things you don’t get to expand on when writing in third person, but first person allows you.

They’re not you

You must know how to detach yourself from your character. It’s easy when you write about characters without using “I”, but when you write fifty or sixty thousand words and in most sentences you must exclaim some kind of an opinion that isn’t yours, it gets messy and confusing. What if you were to write about a sociopath’s inner thoughts? How would you describe the way they interpret the smell of spring or the raindrops on their face? What emotion would those little impulses provoke or what opinion of theirs would the impulses reveal?

They must be real

You must be consistent. If you’re not going for the unreliable narrator then every no-description-1439958-1280x1920sentence you write must be in a perfect harmony with the rest of your novel. It gets easier as you write but the first few chapters will almost certainly seem rough and unfinished when you start. The power of rewriting is the only thing that can help there, but only when you finish the whole thing.

You must create your character in such detail where you would know them better than your best friend. And it’s hard! You’ll have to put a person you made in the worst situation possible because that’s what storytelling is about. And you’ll have to follow their every impulse, knowing what they would want to be different.

That’s a challenge, it’s not easy to do it properly. Louis Ferdinand Celine wrote The Journey At The End Of The Night and the main character is an antihero, but Celine had the advantage to be an antihero as well, so his book was almost autobiographical. But we have to plan it in great detail and be ready to make tough decisions and live through the torments of our characters. The most important achievement and the greatest pleasure of yours will indeed be making your readers feel what you felt and what your character felt. You’ll force them to see the world through your characters eyes, to understand them perfectly even when they disagree. One can not put a price on that.

On that note, keep writing!

Author: Mladen Reljanović

Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.

15 thoughts on “How To Write A First-Person Narrative

  1. Hi,
    I am an English teacher. I teach my students how to write a narrative.
    Maybe you can check out my blog. I help new bloggers at my site. I also host 10 blogging events each month where you could meet new readers. I also have blog parties like Jason. I met you on his site.

  2. Writing in first person narrative is honestly what saved my book. My first draft was third person, didn’t really have any personality to speak of. My lead however was smarmy and self assured, and his voice was deliciously fun to write in in spite of the trappings.

    1. I can imagine. I’m writing now in first person and am enjoying it very much. To get into my character’s head and stay there while writing is an extraordinary experience.
      I’m glad to hear of your success story, it’s always inspiring 🙂

    2. Well I wouldn’t call it a success story until we sold it. In any case, writing from the perspective of a dragon was very interesting. Not only the language he uses but also the question of size. To him all the other characters are tiny so it creates a while different world. It would be like if you told the story from the perspective of a person and all the other characters are mice.

    3. Mate, that sounds quite original and frankly brilliant. Are you sending it to publishers or going for self-publishing?

    4. We’re looking for an agent at the moment, but we just started last week. We’re gonna grind that out for a while and if that doesn’t work out we’ll probably do an e-book. We have the first three chapters on the site for free, as well as the concept art and illustrations by my cohorts.

    5. I’ve read some stuff and it’s sounds great. By the way, if you do go for an e-book don’t miss out on paperback and audio to boost it even more. I’m all for self-publishing and don’t plan even to consider looking for agents – I just don’t think it’s worth the time and effort 🙂

  3. One of the things I think challenges writers when trying to write first person is that they want to share information, but their character wouldn’t know that information. Unless they introduce a way for the character to learn the info, they can’t reveal it, and that makes it hard for them. But I agree that you can’t write “you” as the character and I see that a lot. For me, I have to get in the character’s head and “be” them. What would they say, think, feel? How would they act? Nevermind that it isn’t the same as what I would do, it has to be what the character would do. You are absolutely right, and I’ve seen it trip up numerous writers. That may be part of why most people don’t like writing first person.

    1. Exactly, you understand me perfectly. But you raised an interesting point here which I’ve never really considered – the impossible knowledge. I’ve never really thought about it like that. I somehow set a story around and just write from my character’s perspective, as if I know what they would know and nothing more. It’s good you pointed that out 🙂

    1. Thanks. Even if you are not writing the first person narrative it could serve as a good exercise to detach characters from yourself and enter their mindsets. Not to mention the experience of reading it! 🙂

  4. Thank you for this post! I’m writing my first draft right now and I feel like the character I used for the POV isn’t very interesting. Her parents died and she has an older sister and I think she asks too many questions. Is that okay for a mystery? I makes her seem insecure and I don’t think readers will like that. She’s not exactly open but she doesn’t talk in her mind either. I feel like I should’ve made her more interesting or something.

    1. Well the lucky thing is that it’s still your first draft. You’ll virtually change 80% of the actual words in it, not to speak of scenes.
      I did publish a post on character creation and character development if you are looking for ways to give your character something more.
      But don’t worry – it’s very often that our protagonists seem much less interesting than they should be. You’ll improve it in rewrites once you discover her whole story 🙂

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