Learn About First-Person Point of View in Fiction

Woman drafting in long hand a first-person manuscript at her desk

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Point of view in fiction simply means who tells the story. In the first-person point of view, a character in the story serves as the narrator, using "I" or "we" as the story plays out. This narrator might be a relatively minor character, observing the action, as the character Nick does in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Or, he might be the main protagonist of the story, such as Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."

Why Writers Use 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:

Write What You Know

You are writing a piece of fiction that is, at least to some degree, autobiographical. You want to be sure the reader sees the world you have created exactly as you experienced it. An example of this approach is Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," in which the main character is a thinly disguised version of the poet herself.

Writing in a Unique Voice

You want the world you've created to be seen from a unique "outsider's" point of view. Both "The Catcher in the Rye" and Harper Lee's classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird," are told from the perspective of youngsters 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.

The Intrigue Effect

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 often is 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.

The Plot Thickens

You want to mislead readers and then—in some cases, at least—surprise them with a dramatic revelation. While it is possible to mislead readers with the third-person voice, it is much more effective to do so through an unreliable narrator. Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye" 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."

Multiple Points of View

Some novels will mix points of view. This is more common in longer novels or more complex novels that involve multiple stories happening simultaneously. The author may decide each story has different needs in terms of narration. "Ulysses" by James Joyce is a famous example of this. Much of the novel is written using a third-person point of view, but several episodes use first-person narration.

Pros and Cons 

The first-person point of view allows readers to feel close to a specific character's point of view; it lets the reader in, so to speak. It also provides writers with a tool for crafting the readers' perspective on the fictional world. Using first-person also can be easier for beginning writers since everyone is accustomed to telling stories from their own personal point of view.

However, the first-person point of view limits readers to that one perspective. They only can know what the narrator knows, and this can make telling the story more difficult, depending on the plot and other characters involved.