Understanding First Person Narrative Theory

To get the most from this article on Understanding First Person Narrative Point of View, you first need to read the companion article on Third Person Narrative POV.

Still here? That means you are already familiar with the roles of four different people in a third person novel: the author, the narrator, the viewpoint character, and the protagonist.

I now want to talk about these same people in respect to first person narrative point of view...

The Author and the Narrator

Just like in a third person novel, every reader understands that a first person novel is written by the author - the man or woman whose name appears on the cover.

But in order to better imagine that the book is in fact an account of a real person undergoing real experiences, the reader will conveniently ignore the author's name and pretend that the words are written instead by the narrator.

Unlike in a third person narrative, where the narrator is this invisible, godlike witness to the events, the narrator in a first person narrative is an actual character in the story - the one whose eyes we see the events through and whose thoughts we have access to.

So in The Catcher In The Rye, for example, the author is J. D. Salinger and the narrator is Holden Caulfield. We know on a logical level that Salinger wrote all the words and dreamed up Holden Caulfield in his imagination. But when we read the book, it feels like Holden is real and that he is speaking to us directly.

As a matter of fact, if Holden Caulfield's name had appeared on the cover in place of Salinger's, and if the book had been marketed as an autobiography, it would have made perfect sense.

If a third person narrator's job is to be as unobtrusive as possible, keeping their voice neutral and non-opinionated (except when they are standing in the viewpoint character's shoes, when they can allow their words to become coloured by the viewpoint character's voice), the narrator of a first person novel clearly has a very different job to do.

Imagine if Holden Caulfield kept his attitudes and opinions to himself and told the story straight. Imagine if Huckleberry Finn did. If that was the case, there wouldn't be a lot of heart and soul left in either of those wonderful first person narrative novels.

The Viewpoint Character

If a first person narrator is the character whose eyes we see the novel's action through and whose thoughts we hear, does that also make them the viewpoint character? Yes, it does.

And does that mean that there is no difference whatsoever between a narrator and a viewpoint character in a first person narrative? Sorry, but no - not exactly.

It all comes down to the difference between when a story takes place, and when it is told.

A first person narrative is narrated by a character looking back on something that happened to them in the past - maybe just a few hours ago, maybe several decades ago.

So if a 40-year-old adult tells us about something that happened to them as a 13-year-old kid, that makes the narrator 27 years older than the viewpoint character. And which of us can claim to be the same person at 40 as we were at 13?

Even if the story being narrated only happened a short time ago - just one day, say - the fact that...

  • The story has changed the character in some way (as most stories do), and
  • The narrator is telling us the story after the change has occured (whereas the viewpoint character has yet to experience the change)

...means that they are still essentially different people.

Why does all that matter?

The pattern of a typical scene in a third person novel is for the neutral, non-opinionated narrator to "set the scene" with a little description, before stepping into the shoes of the viewpoint character and allowing their words to approximate the viewpoint character's way of speaking.

And it is exactly the same at the start of a typical scene in a first person narrative...

  • The narrator - a 40-year-old man, say - begins by "setting the scene." Their voice won't be neutral and non-opinionated like their third person counterpart, but it will nevertheless be their adult voice they are using.
  • Soon, they slip into their 13-year-old skin (the viewpoint character's skin). The words are still technically being written by their adult selves, but the language will nevertheless begin to approximate the way they spoke at 13 and the beliefs and opinions they held at that age.

And remember, these voices will be different not just because of the years that have passed, but because the narrator has already been changed in some small or large way by the story's events, whereas the viewpoint character is still unaware of what is about to happen.

The Protagonist

The narrator and the viewpoint character, then, are essentially the same person in a first person novel, but with subtle but important differences between them.

What about the protagonist: are they the same person as the narrator/viewpoint character?

Usually, yes, but not always.

In The Catcher In The Rye, Holden Caulfield is...

  • The narrator (the one telling the story), and
  • The viewpoint character (the one whose eyes we witness the events through), and
  • The protagonist (the one the novel is about).

But you will also find first person novels in which the narrator/viewpoint character is somebody lower down the cast list, and the perfect example is the Sherlock Holmes novels.

These novels are certainly "about" Sherlock Holmes, making Holmes the protagonist, but they are narrated by, and seen through the eyes of, Doctor Watson, making Watson the narrator and the viewpoint character.

(Incidentally, I refer to this type of novel 1st Person Narration Using an "Observer", and I will be talking more about it later in the section, in the part looking at less common viewpoints.)

I've said this before but I will say it again...

If you haven't fully grasped everything I have said about the theory of writing first and third person narratives, re-read the articles as many times as it takes.

You will never be able to master point of view in literature without a 100% understanding of this material.

Next Step: Keep reading for a worked example of Writing in the First Person...