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Essay In First Person Narrative Examples

 

There is no single ‘right’ approach to how to start a story in first person. That being said, there are several ways to start a story using first person point of view and hook readers from the start. Here are 8 pointers for beginning a book in first person:

1: Perfect your character introductions: Make the reader care

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

4: Make your protagonist’s voice identifiable from the start

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

6: Make your main character confide in the reader

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

To expand on these pointers:

1: Perfect your character introduction: Make the reader care

Many novels now considered classics open with character introductions in first person. This type of opening, where the protagonist extends a friendly hand to the reader, can be very effective. Consider the opening of Dickens’ David Copperfield:

‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’

As far as introductions go, this is very matter-of-fact. Dickens doesn’t create a particularly strong emotional connection with the character right away. What Dickens does do, though, is create intrigue in the reader about David. We want to know whether he turns out to be the hero he refers to or not.

In subsequent paragraphs, Dickens adds details that make us care about his main character more:

‘I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.’

Dickens makes us want to know the outcome of the story, then proceeds to make us empathize with his narrator through his story of loss.

Making the reader care doesn’t necessarily mean making the reader feel sorry for your character: Readers can just as easily dislike your cunning anti-hero or feel in two minds. The most important thing is to make readers care, whether about your character or the outcome of a situation they announce.

Besides making the reader care, there are other ways to make your first-person story opening enticing:

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

Beginning with character actions is another useful device for drawing the reader in immediately. Instead of your character describing a memory or past experience, begin with your character doing something.

Think about the type of action your story opens with. To create immediate interest, try actions that:

  • Create suspense or foreboding (E.g. ‘I lift the body as carefully as I can – no inexplicable bruises – and move slowly towards the edge of the boat.’)
  • Create empathetic curiosity (E.g. ‘I hold it together until the last person passes through the airport terminal and break down only once i’m in the relative privacy of the car park.’)

Showing your main character in either a state of high emotion or in a process of perplexing activity teases the reader with a sense of there being much more to the story and promises the reader that more will be revealed.

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

Part of what makes the example openings above fairly effective is how little they give away about the first person narrator’s circumstances. For the first, the reader might ask ‘Whose body?’ or ‘Is the protagonist a killer disposing of the body or is the situation more complicated?’

This is an important element of how to start a story in first person: Leave some of the most interesting tidbits about your character for later. When we meet someone for the first time, it’s overwhelming if they tell us every minute detail about themselves. The same goes for your characters – a little mystery keeps us wanting to find out more.

4: Make your character’s voice identifiable from the start

Many writers make the mistake of making their first person narrators’ voices too similar to their own. Characters that feel like stand-ins for the author feel flat and one-dimensional. Instead, make your character distinctive from the outset. Do this with:

  • Personality: Is your character mostly optimistic or negative? Poetic in the language they use or plain-speaking?
  • Language: Does your character use lots of expletives or not? are they wordy or do they get to the point quickly?

Some other methods for making your first person narrator’s voice distinctive:

  • Choose 4 or 5 words that your character likes to use and make a note of them. They could be adjectives they use most often for things they like or dislike (e.g. ‘fantastic’ or ‘weird’), for example
  • As Jackie Cangro at Loft Literary reminds, it’s useful to think about tone. What is the tone of your character’s self-expression like overall? Do they come across as comical or serious, anxious or mellow? Sarcastic or sincere?

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

Compare passive voice and active voice:

‘I was led to the hilltop house and told by my guide to wait while he disappeared around the side.’

Compare this to:

‘I followed my guide to the hilltop house. “Wait,” he said, disappearing around the side.’

In the second, active voice example, we have more of a sense of the first person narrator acting in his world as opposed to just being moved around in it. We have a stronger sense of the character as a real person who has choices and can make decisions of his own free will. We see the experience from his immediate perspective.

6: Have your first person character confide in the reader

One way to start a book in first person effectively is to make your narrator take the reader into her confidence. Secrets and intimate revelations create curiosity. As readers, being let into the narrator’s confidence makes us feel party to (and even complicit in) something important. Whether your narrator confides a misdeed in the reader or shares an intimate fact about their history (like David does in the opening pages of David Copperfield), this act makes the reader invest in the story by making the reader feel privy to privileged information.

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

Filter words are words that place the reader at one remove to seeing and experiencing what the character is seeing and experiencing. For example, a character might say ‘I saw that the building had started to collapse’. Instead, however, you could simply make your first person narrator say ‘the building had started to collapse’.

Ruthanne Reid has an excellent piece on filter words over at The Write Practice. Says Reid:

‘Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.’

Reid does also make the important point that filter words aren’t always bad. Reid’s example of an acceptable use is the sentence ‘I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors’. This is describing the act of seeing explicitly – you could write ‘The shelves are there and the counter but not the scissors’, but the former question conveys the character’s frustration at not finding what she’s looking for better. There is a keener sense of the character’s eyes roving over the counter.

Make sure that you aren’t unintentionally placing your reader at one remove to your first person character’s observations and experiences, right from the start of your novel.

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

Just because you’re starting your story with your main character’s first person perspective doesn’t mean the focus has to be on them alone. Create intrigue by having your protagonist refer to a secondary character in your opening. Having your main character mention a cast member of your novel who is yet to appear will keep readers anticipating developments in your story and new entrances and exits.

Create a blueprint for your novel so you can find the voice of your first person narrator easier. Use the Now Novel process to start or finish writing a book.

The first person—“I,” “me,” “my,” etc.—can be a useful and stylish choice in academic writing, but inexperienced writers need to take care when using it.

There are some genres and assignments for which the first person is natural. For example, personal narratives require frequent use of the first person (see, for example, "Employing Narrative in an Essay). Profiles, or brief and entertaining looks at prominent people and events, frequently employ the first person. Reviews, such as for movies or restaurants, often utilize the first person as well. Any writing genre that involves the writer’s taste, recollections, or feelings can potentially utilize the first person.

But what about more formal academic essays? In this case, you may have heard from instructors and teachers that the first person is never appropriate. The reality is a little more complicated. The first person can be a natural fit for expository, critical, and researched writing, and can help develop style and voice in what can often be dry or impersonal genres. But you need to take care when using the personal voice, and watch out for a few traps.

First, as always, listen to your teacher, instructor, or professor. Follow the guidelines given to you; if you’re not supposed to use the first person in a particular class or assignment, don’t! Also, recognize that, while it is not universally valid or helpful, the common advice to avoid the first person in academic writing comes from legitimate concerns about its misuse. Many instructors advise their students in this way due to experience with students misusing the first person.

Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter. Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project. Particularly troublesome can be constructions like “I think” or “in my opinion;” overused, they can make a writer appear unsure or noncommittal. On issues of personal taste and opinion, statements like “I believe” are usually inferred, and thus repeatedly stating that a statement is only your opinion is redundant. (Of course, if a statement is someone else’s opinion, it must be responsibly cited.)

Given those issues, why is the first person still sometimes an effective strategy? For one, using the first person in an academic essay reminds the audience (and the author) of a simple fact: that someone is writing the essay, a particular person in a particular context. A writer is in a position of power; he or she is the master of the text. It’s easy, given that mastery, for writers and readers alike to forget that the writer is composing from a limited and contingent perspective. By using the first person, writers remind audiences and themselves that all writing, no matter how well supported by facts and evidence, comes from a necessarily subjective point of view. Used properly, this kind of reminder can make a writer appear more thoughtful and modest, and in doing so become more credible and persuasive.

The first person is also well-suited to the development of style and personal voice. The personal voice is, well, personal; to use the first person effectively is to invite readers into the individual world of the writer. This can make a long essay seem shorter, an essay about a dry subject seem more engaging, and a complicated argument seem less intimidating. The first person is also a great way to introduce variety into a paper. Academic papers, particularly longer ones, can often become monotonous. After all, detailed analysis of a long piece of literature or a large amount of data requires many lines of text. If such an analysis is not effectively varied in method or tone, a reader can find the text uninteresting or discouraging. The first person can help dilute that monotony, precisely because its use is rare in academic writing.

The key to all of this, of course, is using the first person well and judiciously. Any stylistic device, no matter its potential, can be misused. The first person is no exception. So how to use the first person well in an academic essay?

 

  • First, by paying attention to the building blocks of effective writing. Good writing requires consistency in reference. Don’t mix between first, second, and third person. Although referring to yourself in the third person in an academic essay is rare (I hope!), sometimes references to “the author” or “this writer” can pop up and cause confusion. “This author feels it is to my advantage…” is a good example of mixing third person references (this author) with first person reference (my advantage). If you must use the third person, keep it consistent throughout your essay: “This author feels it is to his advantage…” Be aware, however, that such references can often sound pretentious or inflated. In most cases it will be better to keep to the simpler first person voice: “I feel it is to my advantage.”
  • Similarly, be cautious about mixing the second and first person. Second person reference (“You feel,” “you find,” “it strikes you,”) can be a useful tool, particularly when trying to build a confessional or conversational tone. But as with the third person, mixing second and first person is an easy trap to fall into, and confuses your prose: “I often feel as if you have no choice….” While such constructions can potentially be grammatically correct, they are unnecessarily confusing. When in doubt, use only one form of reference for yourself or your audience, and be clear in distinguishing them. Again, use caution: as the second person essentially speaks for your readers, it can seem presumptuous. In most cases, the first person is a better choice.
  • Finally, consistency is important when employing either the singular or plural first person (“we,” “us,” “our”). The first person plural is often employed in literary analysis: “we have to balance Gatsby’s story with Nick’s skepticism.” Here, I would recommend maintaining consistency not just within a sentence or paragraph, but within the entire text. Shifting from speaking about what I feel or think to what we feel or think invites the question of what, exactly, has changed. If a writer has made observations of the type “we know,” and then later of the type “I believe,” it suggests that the writer has lost some perspective or authority.

Once you’ve assured that you’re using the first person in a consistent, grammatically correct fashion, your most important tools are restraint and caution. As I indicated above, part of the power of the first person in an academic essay is that it is a rarely used alternative to the typical third person mode. This power only persists if you use the first person in moderation. Constantly peppering your academic essays with the first person dilutes its ability to provoke a reader. You should use the first person rarely enough to ensure that, when you do, the reader notices; it should immediately contrast with the convention you’ve built in your essay.

Given this need for restraint, student writers would do best to use the first person only when they have a deliberate purpose for using it. Is there something different about the particular passage, paragraph, or moment into which you want to introduce the first person? Do you want to call attention to a particular issue or idea in your paper, particularly if you feel less certain about that idea, or more personally connected to it? Finally, have you established a consistent use of the third person, so that using the first person here represents a meaningful change? After a long, formal argument, the first person can feel like an invitation for the reader to get a little closer.

Think of the first person as a powerful spice. Just enough can make a bland but serviceable dish memorable and tasty. Too much can render it inedible. Use the first person carefully, when you have a good reason to do so, and it can enliven your academic papers.

See also:

Use the First Person

Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When is It Okay?