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The challenges of first-person perspective

Thanks to Jason for this suggestion, we are going to take a deeper dive into the complexities and questions that arise from using the first-person perspective with the past tense. The problems and possible solutions to them.

This is a follow-up post to “The use of tenses and narrative viewpoints“. If you don’t know what a first-person past tense is, go and read the first post. We can wait.

Still with us? Okay, then; join me as I dive head-first into writing with a first-person perspective.

We are going to explore the following questions:

I have listed some further reading which shows some of the sources that I used when brushing up on the first-person perspective and its related problems.

Does the narrator have to be in every scene?

The short and easy answer is, yes. The more complex answer is “most of the time, yes. Exceptions apply.”

The first-person perspective effectively imprisons you in one character. Much like your own life, where you are limited to what you see and hear for yourself, the same is true for your narrator.

This limit of the narrator always being present for all the action has led to a few workarounds. Use these methods with extreme caution lest your work seem cliche or hackneyed.

I have identified the following possible workarounds:

The narrator as spy

This approach is where writers resort to having the narrator snoop about and eavesdrop a lot. Which is fine if they are an investigative journalist or a detective. Less so in other settings.

If the narrator just-so-happens to hide in a wardrobe every time a secret conversation takes place, you might be doing it wrong. Your readers might start to think, “oh no, not this again”.

The narrator as spy technique locks you into a certain type of character. One who is nosy, intrusive, and maybe just a little too gossipy. Not a good look on a noble hero.

The narrator as historian

If the tone of the story is reflective, you could have the narrator share something they know now but back then did not know. This has to be handled carefully and remember that the narrator must act as if ignorant of those facts. (Because they were).

It might even be possible to try something like this:

I would later learn from Henry that the following events occurred that Tuesday afternoon. [Switch to Third-Person Limited, fixed on Henry].

Like the narrator as a spy, this locks you into a narrator who is organised, methodical, and probably who takes a lot of notes. This is no use at all for a narrator of action.

The narrator as the vampire, Lestat

In Anne Rice’s second and third vampire novels, the titular character (Lestat) grows in power until he can read the memories of others and perspectives of himself over great distances. Thus, despite not being present for all sorts of minor scenes, he has an excuse for knowing those events due to being a larger than life mind-reading vampire.

For any other character in pretty much any other story, this is unlikely to work. Anne Rice pulls this off only by showing us a narcissistic and self-important character that verges on becoming a Mary Sue. It was around book three (Queen of the Damned) that this approach started to lose me as a reader.

I cannot advise against this approach strongly enough. Unless you want to lock into a world of magic, narcissism, and mental super powers.

Revelation by dialogue

How do you find out what happened while you were away from the room? The chances are that you either figured it out from the present situation, made some educated guesses, or you asked someone.

Outside of scope knowledge can come to the narrator by characters which have a reason to talk to the narrator about other events. This is essentially revelation by dialogue.

Revelation by dialogue can be a confrontation or a trusted friend confiding in the narrator. Both can have their place in a well-told story.

While a good confrontation gives you a bucket load of exciting drama, use it too often and it will get boring for the reader. The more you use it, the more you lock yourself into a narrator who is combative or accusatory.

On the other hand, a narrator that asks questions and shows an interest in others, may learn things that they might not otherwise have uncovered. As readers, we learn them at the exact same time the narrator does. Although this locks you into a friendly and sociable narrator.

The narrator as a framing device in a wider story

One technique that can be used is to start in third-person limited and have two or more characters narrate the story. This allows them to bicker over details, contradict each other, and see things the other was unaware of.

The third-party framing device (or outer story) also allows you to continue a story after the death of a narrator. You have to handle it carefully but it can work.

The downside to this approach – one I have experimented with – is that each narrator must have a clear and distinct voice. You should be able to tell who is narrating just from the tone of the writing. I can tell you, that’s a lot more work.

How does the narrator tell you what others are feeling?

The short answer is that they can’t, not directly. You are, by being the one character, locked into guessing, projecting, and/or showing the emotional states of all other characters.

The moment you write something like this, you break the story:

Linda looked at me, seething. “How dare you?” she shouted angrily.

Your reader is immediately going to ask how on earth the narrator know Linda’s inner state. Is your narrator a mind reader? You’ve just broken willing suspension of disbelief and created a stopping point. (A place where a reader will stop reading and might not start again).

We can do better.

Linda’s narrowed eyes seemed to be trying to drill into my soul. “How dare you?” she shouted. Her face was red; her fists clenched.

Now we are showing the reader enough information that they can work out “seething” and “angry” on their own.

There is not much you can do to have the narrator learn things beyond the behaviours you can do in real life. We all have to work at asking or guessing to figure out how other people are feeling. Read their body language and tone of voice, guess, or talk to them (ask questions that show an interest in the other person). How the narrator asks such questions will say a lot about their character.

Does the narrator have to be highly introspective?

Your narrator does not have to be highly introspective. The first-person point of view does lend itself nicely to introspection and reflection. After all, we are inside the head and thoughts of this one character for the entire book.

Dwell too long on the narrator’s inner thoughts and you begin to approach the land of narcissism. Dwell too little and they seem flat and emotionally hard to relate to.

Balancing the internal and external worlds of the narrator is something you have to experiment with. The right balance will differ depending on the character, the setting, their voice, and even the genre. It is one of those things you just have to figure out as you go along. A good writing group can help you find that balance with constructive criticism and critique.

Should I write in the character’s own voice?

The first-person perspective is the only one where authorial voice is replaced mostly or entirely by the character’s own voice. This means that the language of the story is formed by and limited to that of the narrator.

In the first-person perspective, one character is talking almost consistently through the entire story. The only time this is not entirely true is when someone else is actually speaking.

Yes, that does mean that contractions, slang, and colloquialisms may be the order of the day. However the character talks, you may find yourself writing the entire story with that tone. Their voice leads us through their remembered journey.

If your narrator is heavily accented, you may want to dial it back for ease of reading. However, only enough that the unique voice of the character still shines through.

Think of narrator accent like salt and pepper. A little improves the taste but too much is overpowering.

What about bias?

Bias is a natural part of using the first-person perspective. Along with the narrator’s inner thoughts, comes their world view, their biases and hang-ups, and their perspective on everything. The old adage of the “unreliable narrator” is almost de facto with this point of view.

Dickens, for example, writes extremely reliable first-person based stories. This is because the story and not the narrating character were what mattered to him. Sometimes, to keep the narrator’s bias out of the way, you might want to write them as an impartial reporter of events.

Unless a truly neutral narrator is needed for your story to work, I would recommend embracing some bias. This will add a great deal of depth if – and only if – you can show us events unfolding in ways that speak to the unreliable perspective the reader is being given.

For example, let us revisit Linda who, in our last example was angry with the narrator. What happens if, later, she does or says something which shows that she is surprised and worried for the narrator instead of angry? This would cast doubt over the narrator’s presentation that Linda was cross. Your narrator would, then, be showing that they are flawed just like any of us.

How do you handle gender ambiguity and lack of narrator description?

The question of “how do I describe my narrator?” most frequently gets answered by “they look into a mirror“. The problem is this is both cliched and contrived. Not to mention immersion breaking. I’ve yet to see the mirror trick ever make for a good read.

Have you ever looked into a mirror and described yourself? I know I have not. I might look in the mirror and think, “my beard needs a trim” or “when did I get this grey?”

I never look into a reflective surface and consider the shape of my face and the way the sunlight shines through my curls. After all, I’ve seen that face all my life which means my looks are something I hardly notice, much less comment on (grey hairs notwithstanding).

The short answer to the narrator description problem is this: Don’t worry about it. Your narrator is a deliberately ambiguous character so that the reader can project themselves into the character. That said, there are a few descriptive problems that should be addressed.

Pin down gender as soon as possible

Nothing disterbs a reader quite like getting a long way into a story only to be told that a their picture of the character is wildly inaccurate. Key details such as gender, age, and race should be pinned down sooner rather than later.

The first-person perspective can be gender ambiguous at the best of times. (Not to mention pretty ambiguous about other details too). The narrator’s pronouns (he/him, she/her, or whatever) are rarely ever used. Their name comes up much later. The narrator is the utterly neutral “I”.

That neutrality could be something you might want to play with. Hiding the gender of the narrator from the reader might be what you want. The chances are, though, that details such as the gender of the narrator’s friends, their clothing choices (if mentioned), and a million other little details will slowly build up a picture for the reader of one gender or the other.

Unless you are playing with narrator neutrality, pin down gender quickly. This could be as simple as having a character say, “nice dress”, the mother saying “you two girls go and….”, dad saying “come here, son” or being called “bro” by a friend. The clues need not be blatant – or even definitive – but they should arrive swiftly and organically. No mirrors.

Imply critical details

If there are details about your narrator that are story critical – say, skin colour if race is an issue – imply this early on. Not by anything the narrator specifically notices but by the words and actions of those arround them.

For example if you wanted to show that your narrator is wearing a skimpy dress. Rather than have them tell you they put on their most revealing outfit consider this:

I came downstairs grinning like an idiot. I was excited for my date with Brad.

My dad frowned at me. “I hope you don’t plan to go out in that dress, young lady,” he said.

Job done. The narrator’s bias that they look good is juxtaposed with the father’s reaction. The reader knows the dress is a bit skimpy even if the narrator never considers this.

What the narrator is wearing probably does not matter

I once read a truly terrible book where the narrator describes her outfit for half a page only to get changed a few pages later. If the details do not affect the story, they do not matter. Details that do not matter can safely be ignored or left up to the reader’s imagination.

We spend the story looking at the world through the narrator’s eyes. As such, we rarely look at them directly. Which is why it is often unimportant to give those details. This reason is the same reason there are rarely character creation screens in first-person shooting games. The only thing of importance that you can see is the gun you are shooting with.

If it is not plot critical, leave it to the reader’s imagination.

Does the first-person perspective make the narrator more relatable?

Some writers opt for first-person because they think it is easier to feel intimately connected with the narrator. While it is intimate – you are inside their head – that, by itself, does not make the character more relatable.

The first-person perspective gives us a voyeuristic insight into the inner world of a single character. As long as this is interesting and compelling we may follow even a deeply unlikeable character just to see what happens to them.

That said, the first-person point of view does make it easier to craft a character that the audience can root for. This is born of how closely we witness their motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears.

How do you set a scene?

In a third-person narrative, you can delight in the wonders of the sunrise, the view over the city, the droplets of rain on the flowers. In short, you can really go to town with descriptions. With the first-person perspective, this is not the case.

The average person never goes into a room they have seen a hundred times before only to critically analyse and examine all the details of the room. At best they might think, “it looks like my wife has been cleaning again. Where are my car keys this time?”

Much like with the critical narrator descriptors, your narrator is only going to give attention to novel, important, or remarkable features. This is because that is exactly how the human brain works. It paints the room as “stuff I know about already” and “new stuff”. Once you have lived somewhere long enough, you stop noticing the decorations and ornaments.

No matter how fancy your living room is, all you see is “the living room” – all the details are ignored because they are familiar.

This means everything you take the time to describe must be important. If it is not important, do not bog your poor reader down with information they do not need to remember.

How do you break the cycle of tell, tell, and more tell?

When we relate to our friends the key highlights of a holiday we simply tell them what we did. “I went swimming every day and there was a massive roller coaster that I took Suzy on and she screamed her head off…” With a story, your narrator needs to relay the events more directly.

Showing more detail

As with key details and scenes, you need to imply and observe the significant information. Instead of telling us that Suzy asked about hot-dogs every day, Make sure we get daily dialogue where Suzy asks about hot-dogs. In other words show, not tell.

The first-person perspective lends itself to telling rather than showing. Which leaves you, as the writer, looking for ways to build scenes that showcase the relevant events. The narrator is not telling the story so much as reliving the past, moment by moment. We, the reader, are just along for the ride. Your job as the writer is to make sure we see things we need to learn about.

Focus on opportunities for other characters to do and say things. Report those words and deeds in a way that allows the reader to infer further details instead of being told directly.

Showing feelings

The same goes for the narrator. If you were frightened you might tell your mates, “I was crapping myself” but that does not work so well for storytelling. Not unless that sentiment is exactly within the voice of the narrator character.

Saying “I was frightened” is a lot less dramatic than describing what it was like to be frightened. Most of the time, I would focus on the physical manifestations of fear – sweating palms, beating heart, and so on – along with the internal fears – such as, “I hope they don’t see the body. They don’t seem to have seen the body. At least, they’ve not said anything. What if they are keeping that to themselves? They could report me. What do I do now?”

In other words, let us feel the terror and rush of thoughts in the moment of fear.

Likewise, in other moments of strong emotion, help us – the readers – to feel it with the narrator rather than learning about the “fact” of the feelings. Yes, this is another “show, don’t tell” thing. It comes up a lot, that one.

When and how should I use a present or future tense?

You might assume that, as you are writing in the past tense, all sentences should be past tense. This is not the case.

Although you are relating events that have already happened, you are also relating the thoughts and feelings in the moment. So it is perfectly acceptable to have the narrator talk about their plans for the future, (“I will get to London before this car runs out of fuel”), and the present tense too (“why am I doing this?”).

Both present and future tense can be correct when relating the thoughts, words, and plans as they existed at the point being related. This is a “when yesterday was tomorrow” situation.

Here are a few examples that might help to clear things up.

Can I use “this”?

An example question that came up on our Facebook group was the following sentance.

I wondered how I was going to get out of this situation

Is “this” the right word or should it be “that”? I would say, stick with “this”. As it is, the passage leans towards telling over showing and the word choice curves it the other way a little.

I might even suggest a more immediate word order that allows us to live the question rather than learn about it:

How am I going to get out of this situation? I wondered.

While the wondering is past tense, the thought was in the present tense when the narrator thought it. It might seemed mismatched but it is perfectly correct.

Can I use “will be”?

Lets consider another example.

I put my reading glasses into my suitcase. I will be in New York before I need those again, I thought.

Here we have two sentences. One past tense and one future tense. This is correct because, from the perspective of that moment, the narrator’s thought was in the form of an assumption about their future.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has been helpful for you. We have covered a lot of ground and a wide range of questions – some with more complicated answers than others.

If there is a question about using the first-person past tense that has not been covered here, ask it to the comments. If there are enough new questions perhaps this epic post will get a sequel.

If you have come up with novel approaches to some of the limits of the fist-person point of view, please do share them in the comments. I would love to hear about your own writing innovations.

Further reading

Here are a selection of pages I studied to write this post.

5 thoughts on “The challenges of first-person perspective

  1. christensmith2160ebbc1b says:

    Thanks for this. I’m a former tv news journalist, so writing in the first person is a pretty new thing for me. I appreciated your tips.

    1. I’m happy to be of help. Feel free to ask questions. This post was born from questions. Some of our bests posts start that way.

  2. abroadpurpose says:

    Wow, this has really given me perspective on my approach to writing. The use of “linda” throughout the story helps convey what you mean which is super helpful! Thank you for that!

    1. I’m glad it helped. I like to try and find examples that show what I am writing about.

  3. lucasherry020 says:

    Kudos to Jason for steering us towards a deeper exploration of the intricacies surrounding the first-person perspective in the past tense. As a narrative essay writer, this invaluable insight enhances my understanding and fuels my curiosity about the complexities inherent in weaving stories. I am looking forward to delving further into this engaging discussion!

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