If you’re writing a novel and are learning about different points of view, you may want to take a look at our articles on how to write in second person and in third person omniscient. In this post, we’ve shared 7 tips on how to write a narrative in first person.
1. Understand the difference between past and present tense
When it comes to writing in first person point of view, past tense is more advisable than present tense, as a general rule. Of course, general rules are meant to be broken, and there are plenty of novels out there written in first person present tense where the present tense really works.
Past tense is when the narrator, who is undoubtedly the protagonist, reflects on what happened in the past. You can almost imagine sitting by the fire with them as they tell you their story. Many contemporary novels written in first person point of view use the past tense, in many different genres from Young Adult, to modern Fantasy, and so forth.
Present tense is when the narrator tells you what happens right now, at this moment. On one hand, it’s more immediate, but on the other hand, it can be a bit jarring to read, especially if the tense does not suit the story.
For example, first person narrative in present tense is done amazingly well in The Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins. Considering Katniss’ situation, how she is followed by cameras during the games themselves, it gives you a feeling that you’re Katniss and that your every move is being recorded by cameras. The use of the present tense in that novel is highly gripping.
2. Stick to the chosen tense
Choose carefully which tense fits your story better, but also, pay attention to which one comes more naturally to you as you write. Writing a novel is a difficult act, but writing in a tense that does not come naturally to you will make the act of writing an even more difficult struggle.
If present tense comes more naturally to you, it will enable you to write the whole novel without switching tense by accident. The same applies to writing in past tense – if that tense comes more naturally to you, stick with it, even if it seems like the present tense would be more gripping.
Whichever path you choose, try not to mix present and past tense unless it makes sense, as that can be very jarring. Many authors make that mistake when writing. For example:
“The asteroid was coming, and yet my boss, my manager, and my boyfriend too, were looking the other way. I don’t know what they are thinking.”
It would read better if the final sentence is: “I did not know what they were thinking.” Because what happened – even the opinion of the protagonist or lack of it, happened in the past.
This mistake happens more rarely in present tense first person point of view, but it’s worth noting that a flashback, in first person present tense, can and should be written in past tense because it happened in the past, from the perspective of the protagonist, even if the novel is being narrated in the present tense.
3. Balance the prose between conversational and lyrical
If there are two things that do not mix well when writing, they would be first person point of view combined with lyrical purple prose. Lyrical prose is written in an evocative, poetic, and rhythmical manner, with a lot of alliteration, similes, and metaphors used in the writing. When it becomes too flowery and ornate, it is considered purple prose.
Since it is the protagonist narrating the story, unless it makes sense for the protagonist to speak in a lyrical manner and it makes sense in terms of their characterization, you need to avoid using words that the protagonist simply would not say in dialogue.
On the other side of the spectrum is when the writing style is conversational – almost too conversational. In those cases, the prose becomes too dry, there’s nary a presence of a metaphor or a simile. It might make sense if the protagonist is a person who simply wouldn’t think at all in metaphors or similes, but that does limit you as a writer and prevents you from enhancing the reading experience in any way.
The ideal way to proceed is to find a balance between the lyrical and the conversational writing style. Do not get too eloquent in the writing, or use big words that your protagonist would never use in dialogue. But also, do not stray too far into the solely conversational tone.
It’s worth mentioning here that if you really wish to write in a certain lyrical, elevated, or even purple writing style, consider switching the narration to third person point of view to avoid these limitations. Because in first person, at the end of the day, the writing style needs to be tightly controlled and balanced between literary (or lyrical) prose and a conversational tone.
4. Remember the limited knowledge of the protagonist
When you are writing in first person point of view, it is advisable to have your protagonist observe the other characters and the world – that is how the protagonist would describe them. However, when you are writing in those observations, remember that the protagonist should have limited knowledge about the world and the people in it (the other characters).
For example, let’s say the protagonist meets someone new, and they seem to know their age, name, and even personality for no reason, just after hearing them say a few words. If the protagonist is a psychologist, or a detective, trained in observation of the people around them, then it would make sense for them to make accurate conclusions about a person they just meet.
Otherwise, it’s a bit grating and it shows that it’s the writer who already knows these things and magically (or simply subconsciously during the writing process) allows the protagonist to know these things too.
The same applies to the world at hand no matter whether you’re writing contemporary fiction set in our modern world, historical fiction set in the past, or a fantasy/science fiction novel set in a wholly different world. The protagonist will not know the whole world. A person from Kansas who’s never been to Los Angeles should not be able to make observations about what life is like there.
To summarize, decide and keep in mind what the protagonist knows about the world, how it works, and about the other characters, and ensure you don’t provide information that would make no sense for the protagonist to know.
5. Have short internal monologues
Internal monologues come in three different forms. The first form is when the protagonist is talking at length about a certain issue and shares their opinion with the reader (almost needlessly). Oftentimes, it is the writer who is sharing their own opinions with the readers, even when that does not make sense for the protagonist themselves.
The second form comes in as the protagonist contemplating absolutely every single possible consequence when planning their next action. While it is less jarring than an opinionated internal monologue, it still detracts from the story. The bigger problem is that in any novel, whenever the protagonist makes lengthy and detailed plans, or contemplates some consequences very thoroughly, it signifies to most readers that none of that will actually pan out. Something entirely different or unexpected will happen (a twist). But, instead of surprising the readers, you have already prepared them to expect it.
The third one is when the protagonist reflects on what has happened to them so far (at length, with details about how they felt). This type of inner monologue slows down the pacing of the story, because nothing actually happens while the protagonist is contemplating . Moreover, the reader knows what happened to the protagonist already – they were along for the ride. This kind of repetition is quite unnecessary.
However, internal monologue is needed in and of itself. You do need to have the protagonist have their own beliefs and opinions. You need to have the protagonist contemplate the consequences of their plans and actions. You also should have the protagonist reflect on what has happened to them so far, and how they feel about it.
So, ideally, you would save the protagonist’s opinions for moments when that is really important to the story, for example, when they have to make a certain decision based on their opinions, principles, or morals.
When it comes to planning and contemplating the consequences of their plans and actions, keep those short and to the point. These contemplations of the consequences and making active plans should be limited, even if there is another character present and you’re trying to convey them through dialogue.
Furthermore, instead of reflecting fully on what happened to the protagonist, just convey that they remembered something, and instead of sharing their internal monologue, simply have the protagonist physically react to the memory. For example, smile at a happy memory, cry, shiver, have their hands shake if it was something traumatic, and so forth.
6. Be careful with multiple points of view and other narration types
Modern romance novels often have dual points of view, both from the hero and the heroine. Oftentimes, both are written in first person narrative. Even if your story is not a romance, you might want to have multiple points of view (multiple protagonists or simply the points of view of other characters).
Be careful when making the decision to have multiple points of view because it takes a lot of skill to make each narrative voice different. It goes without saying that you should not switch points of view in first person narrative in a single chapter. If you are switching points of view, start a new chapter.
Each narrative voice written in first person then needs to convince the reader as soon as they read the first line of the chapter that they are in another character’s head now. This can be very difficult. The best way to approach writing such a novel might be to finish all chapters from one character’s point of view first, then the other – that way, you wouldn’t have to change writing styles interchangeably as you write.
A lot of writers, when they include the points of view of the other characters, tend to use third person limited point of view. The use of the third person point of view does break up from the first person narrative of the rest of the novel, but it does convey immediately to the readers that they are now following a different character.
But, switching the narrative type from first to third person might be more difficult when it comes to the writing process. It’s a lot easier to use one type of narrative (first, second, or third person limited or omnipresent) and write a whole novel in that type. Again, you can make it easier for yourself if you take the protagonist first, write all of their chapters in first person narrative, and then proceed to write the chapters from the other characters’ points of view in third person narrative.
On the other hand, if you keep to first person narrative for all of your point of view characters, you might make all of them sound the same. So, if you decide to add more points of view and other narrative types, be sure that it is the best decision for your novel and that the story would be incomplete without the other points of view.
7. Use unreliable narration
There is nothing more enthralling than an unreliable narrator done right. First person narrative does give you the opportunity to create an unreliable narrator who may or may not be telling the truth when they are retelling their story.
However, unreliable narrators hint at a protagonist who may not be all that stable, psychologically speaking. Those types of characters belong only in some specific genres, like psychological thriller and horror.
When they occur in novels, them being unstable is the point of the story, like in the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, written in both first person narrative and in the present tense, and in H. P. Lovecraft novels, whose protagonists often start out sane but become increasingly less so by the end of their journeys.
Here, we are referring to unreliable narration not based on the protagonist’s mental state, but on their knowledge. Earlier, we mentioned that you should not share information about the world and other characters that the protagonist does not know. But, that does not mean that you cannot share what the protagonist thinks they know about the world, how some things work, or about the other characters.
For example, perhaps the protagonist is envious of a colleague who always seems to be perfectly on time with their tasks and very much in control. The protagonist might be convinced that the colleague has a happy life at home, a partner that loves them and two or three happy children that run around and never make problems.
Until one day, the protagonist offers the colleague a ride home. Upon arrival, the colleague lingers before the door with haunted eyes for a moment before opening it, revealing utter disorder – their partner is drunk, the children are unruly, disrespectful, and the house is a mess, with toys strewn everywhere, unwashed dishes in the sink, and liquor spilled on the carpet.
The use of such unreliable narration that stems from what the protagonist believes they know about the world and the other characters allows you to add layers to both the world and the other characters. It also gives you the opportunity to have the protagonist learn something through such situations of discovery.
All in all, this type of unreliable narration helps you to build the world better, create three-dimensional characters, and develop the protagonist through the simple act of them changing their opinion because they learned something new.