The Role of First Person Point of View in Fiction

Learn When to Use the First Person Point of View in Your Story

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First person point of view is a point of view in which an "I" or "we" serves as the narrator of a piece of fiction. The narrator may be a minor character, observing the action, as the character Nick does in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or the main protagonist of the story, such as Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Why and How Writers Use the First Person Point of View

There are a number of good reasons for using the first person point of view in fiction; used correctly it can be an extremely effective tool for storytelling.

Here are just a few situations in which first person is an ideal choice:

  1. You are writing a piece of fiction that is, at least to some degree, autobiographical. You want to be sure that the reader sees the world you have created exactly as you experienced it. An example of this approach is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jarin which the main character is a thinly disguised version of the poet herself.
  2. You want the world you've created to be seen from a unique "outsider" point of view. Both Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird are told from the perspective of children whose observations of the adult world are both naive and incisive. No third person narrator or adult storyteller could bring the same qualities to these stories.
  3. You want the reader to experience only a carefully edited set of story elements and to experience them only from a particular point of view. This technique is effective in both literature and genre fiction. It is often used by romance and mystery writers to provide the reader with a sense that they are participating in the drama and uncertainty experienced by the main characters.
  1. You want to mislead the reader and then (in some cases, at least) surprise him or her with a dramatic revelation. While it is possible to mislead a reader with the third person voice, it is much more effective to do so through an unreliable narrator. Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. Another extremely effective use of the unreliable narrator is in Agatha Christie's renowned mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

    Pros and Cons of the First Person Point of View

    The first person point of view can allow a reader to feel very close to a specific character's point of view. It also provides the writer with a tool for crafting the reader's perspective on the fictional world. Using first person can also be easier for beginning writers; we are all accustomed to telling stories from our own personal point of view.

    First person point of view does, however, limit the reader to that one perspective. The reader can only know what this character knows. Some writers, especially beginning writers, have a tendency to get stuck in first person point of view. It's helpful to at least try writing in third person from time to time.

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