The Problem with First-Person Narration

First things first: There’s nothing wrong with first-person narrative.

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In fact, numerous stories are successful by having a first-person narrator. Many of my favorite novels used “I” and “me” throughout the tale. And I’m sure many of your favorite books were written with first-person narration.

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Whew, glad I got that out of the way!

The first-person narrative is quite effective. We get a lot of out having a character tell his or her story, such as:

  • The inside scoop on the character’s POV
  • A personality that shines through what words they use and how s/he describe the situation
  • Picking up clues about the situation that the narrator might have missed

And, dare I say, the joy of the occasional unreliable narrator?

What’s quirky about first-person narration is that it feels like the narrator is actually telling the story just to you.

Key phrase: “feels like.”

Perspective From First-Person Narration Point of View

The truth is that the character isn’t telling the story to you specifically. That’s because you don’t know the character (since, you know, the character is fictional) except for what’s expressed within the story, the character doesn’t know you and the story’s writer probably doesn’t know you the heck you are.

Not to be rude.

But that’s just the problem. The writer doesn’t know the person with whom the narrator chooses to share this story.

Writers often make the mistake of wanting the story to be told to the reader. But who is the reader in relation to the narrator?

Readers of this story share one common trait: A love for this genre of fiction. But beyond that, each reader varies when it comes to age, demographics, life experiences and likes or dislikes. This should greatly impact how the story is told.

Yet often it doesn’t. The writer writes the first-person narration as if the character is shouting their tale to anyone who will listen in an unapologetic way.

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I already hear the objections: “Why should a character limit his or her personality? Why should they change how they tell their story based on someone’s opinion?”

That’s just it. We tell our stories differently depending on the person who is listening.

When we tell a story to our grandparents, we cut out the curse words or actions that make us look less favorable.

When we tell a story to our peers, we exaggerate some traits or heighten scenes in order to look more awesome.

When we tell a story to a stranger, we tend to use identifiers (my sister, my boss) instead of names and need to explain some situations in more detail since they are unfamiliar with your life.

First-Person Narrative Quote by James McBridge

In short, we tell a story differently when we want to gain approval, sympathy or support from our listener. We heighten the situation or stress certain points more depending on how we think our listener needs to hear the story in order to agree with your opinion.

That’s why it’s important for a first-person narrator to tell this story to an actual character that they know within their fictional universe. It doesn’t matter if that character makes an appearance or is ever referenced to. If your narrator has a focus point when telling this story, then the story becomes more targeted and intentional.

Because the truth is that (most of) your readers share another trait: They love listening in on a story that’s meant for someone else.

Do you think this is a problem with a first-person narrator? Share your opinion below.

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