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What Is a First-Person Narrative?

By Caitlynn Lowe
Updated May 23, 2024
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A first-person narrative is a story told by one character about that character's own experiences. This literary point of view, found in both fiction and creative nonfiction, can use both singular and plural pronouns. The narrator might double as the story's protagonist, but some first-person narrators tell the story from the perspective of an observer. Most first-person narrators have limited information, since they can only know a portion of the full events taking place around them, and some are purposefully made to seem unreliable.

The narrator of a first-person narrative relies on the use of the "I" and "we" pronouns. These two pronouns are known as first-person pronouns. Third-person narratives include first-person pronouns, but only in the course of dialogue — the text contained within quotation marks. A narrator within a first-person narrative refers to himself or herself directly, outside of dialogue and within the descriptive portion of the text.

First-person point of view is used in both fiction and creative nonfiction. For some genres, first-person is even considered the preferred narrative perspective. Detective fiction, for example, is often told in the form of a first-person narrative in order to allow the reader to solve the mystery alongside the narrator. A well-known example of this would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, narrated from the first-person perspective of Dr. Watson. It is important to note, however, that the author and his or her first-person narrator are not the same persona, and the views of the narrator do not always reflect those of the writer.

Many types of creative nonfiction also work especially well as first-person narratives. Creative nonfiction essentially refers to stories that describe factually accurate events. Memoirs are a type of creative nonfiction that describe an incident or incidents within the life of the narrator. Since these stories revolve directly around the writer's life, many are told as first-person narratives. Unlike the narrator of a fictional first-person narrative, the narrator of a nonfictional first-person narrative is usually one and the same with the writer.

While some first-person narrators double as the protagonist of the story, others merely act as observers to the story's events. Within creative nonfiction, first-person narrators describing a biographical event in someone else's life tell that story from the perspective of an outsider. In fiction, observational first-person narrators may act to provide a more objective, reliable narration, since they are often less affected by the story's events than the protagonist. Nick Carraway, the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, is a minor character who is able to provide a relatively unbiased perspective since he has little to gain or lose from accurately telling the story's events.

When narrators tell a story and cast themselves as the main character, however, they sometimes come across as unreliable. "The Tell-Tale Heart," by Edgar Allan Poe, is a first-person narrative in which the narrator, doubling as the protagonist, committed murder. Since he would benefit from skewing the story, his perspective is largely considered unreliable. This is not the same as when a first-person narrator lacks the knowledge to tell an accurate story, though. No single first-person narrator can have omniscient knowledge of a story's events, but a reliable narrator provides a truthful account of the events as he or she knows them.

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Discussion Comments
By croydon — On Dec 07, 2014

@Fa5t3r - That kind of head hopping is particularly difficult to catch when you're using first person, because it's all too easy to forget that your narrator couldn't know exactly why the other character is sweating and that all they can do is speculate rather than say for sure.

I was never aware of first person or other points of view until I started to write myself, and now I always notice it and particularly notice when it isn't done well.

By Fa5t3r — On Dec 06, 2014

@KoiwiGal - That would be an interesting choice in a book like that, because you'd have to make sure that all the people included in the collective were almost always going in the same direction narrative speaking, or you wouldn't be able to say "we did this" or "we thought that". It's the kind of technique you see more often in poetry, because it's somewhat of an exaggeration.

Point of view is difficult enough without doing that. I've been writing for years and I still occasionally forget and break out of the point of view I've established without intending to, even when I'm doing something relatively simple like first person. Anything more complicated would take forever to edit.

By KoiwiGal — On Dec 05, 2014

One of the most rare kinds of narrative point of view is the first person plural. I've only seen it done a couple of times in published pieces and, honestly, it took me a few chapters to even recognize what the author was doing. I was reading one of these books for a book club and I think only a couple of us realized the trick, but it was done well.

The one I'm thinking of was a story about a group of men who had discovered a murdered friend when they were young and how they were dealing with it. The narrator always said "we", meaning the group, without ever identifying himself as an individual in the group. It wasn't done as a lead up to a reveal either, and you got into the heads of everyone in the group, but the narrator never said "I" for any of them, and always referred to them in a collective. It was interesting, but the thing I admired the most was how seamless it was as a narrative technique.

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