The Advantages and Disadvantages of First-Person Perspective

A series looking at the positive and negative aspects of writing from each point of view. This essay deals with first-person perspective.

Image Credit: 
© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

When writing a story it is incredibly important to use the most suitable point of view. Some tales live or die on the use of perspective, and choosing the wrong one can be the downfall of a piece.

First-person perspective is writing from the point of view of your narrator, putting across the world as they see it. This allows the writer to portray scenes through that character’s eyes.

The gun sat on the table, inviting me to pick it up. It felt cold in my hand and was heavier than I expected. My hand gripped it as if it belonged in my palm; my finger wrapped around the trigger as I aimed.

Typically, first-person falls into two categories: first-person singular, where the story is told from one individual point of view; and first-person plural, where the narration comes from a group. First-person singular uses variations on ‘I’ and ‘me’ to include the narrator in the story, whereas first-person plural uses ‘us’ and ‘we’ to impart opinion and decisions.

On some occasions, writers choose to include multiple first-person points of view. This allows the story to ‘jump’ between different perspectives whilst maintaining the first-person style, although it must be clearly identified to avoid confusing the reader.

The Advantages

First-person immediately puts the reader inside the narrator’s head, which allows for an intimate portrayal of thoughts and emotions. You can effectively communicate how each moment feels; delivering sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, all through the prism of your narrator. What they feel, your reader feels. Their fears, their hopes, their love, their despair, all can be delivered to the reader directly and with maximum emotional impact.

Your narrator’s reactions to situations and other characters can be imparted effectively, and all this creates a strong sense of empathy in the reader. You can also put across the motivations of your main character, which to an outsider may not seem relatable, yet as you are inside their brain the logic behind their actions makes more sense.

By writing in first-person you can deliver the entire story in your narrator’s voice, giving the text a clear identity and submerging the reader further into the world you are creating. Writers are also able to hide exposition within a first-person stream-of-consciousness by turning it into thoughts and musings.

The great advantage of the first-person narrator has to be their unreliability. They can lie to the reader, misdirect, say whatever they want, in a way that third-person is unable to, and be completely excused as it is part of their character.

Your narrator does not even have to be your protagonist, and although they are the protagonist in their story, that is only one facet of the overarching tale that is happening around them. Think of a first-person narrative from Judas Iscariot. Jesus Christ would be the protagonist, Satan the antagonist, yet Judas is the lead in his own character arc.

The Disadvantages

As you are writing entirely from one person’s point of view, first-person can be very limiting. The reader can only experience the world through that character’s eyes, and so as a writer you cannot share the thoughts and feelings of others, only your narrator’s interpretation of them.

Describing your narrator is nigh-on impossible within a first-person story, unless you want to include a scene where they look at themselves in a mirror and describe, to themselves, how they look. My advice is don’t do that; it’s a terrible cliché and is completely unnecessary.

First-person narrators tend to not understand the big picture of the story, and as a writer you need to be careful that you don’t give them too much knowledge or awareness, whilst hinting at enough that the reader can surmise the overall plot at that point in time. This is a difficult trick to pull off, and many writers struggle with it.

There is a danger of your narrative becoming self-indulgent in the narrator’s emotions. Constant self-referencing, over-the-top emotional response, can all drown out the story and become too much.

On the other hand, a passive narrator that simply observes is a trap that many writers fall into. The narrator is in the scene, but not doing much, and so they just watch the other characters with no reaction or feeling. If it becomes almost a third-person tale then perhaps that would be a better perspective for the story.


Next: Second-Person Perspective

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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