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A first-person narrative is a story from the first-person perspective: the viewpoint of a character writing or speaking directly about themselves. In films, videos, or video games, a first-person perspective may also mean that the narrative is shot or presented as if directly coming from a character's in-body point of view, portraying exactly what the character sees or experiences (for example, in first-person shooter games).
The narrators of written works explicitly refer to themselves using variations of "I" (the first-person singular pronoun) and/or "we" (the first-person plural pronoun), typically as well as other characters. This allows the reader or audience to see the point of view (including opinions, thoughts, and feelings) only of the narrator, and not of other characters. In some stories, first-person narrators may refer to information they have heard from the other characters, in order to try to deliver a larger point of view. Other stories may switch from one narrator to another, allowing the reader or audience to experience the thoughts and feelings of more than one character or character plural.
First-person narratives can appear in several forms; interior monologue, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground; dramatic monologue, also in Albert Camus' The Fall; or explicitly, as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Point of view device
Since the narrator is within the story, he or she may not have knowledge of all the events. For this reason, first-person narrative is often used for detective fiction, so that the reader and narrator uncover the case together. One traditional approach in this form of fiction is for the main detective's principal assistant, the "Watson", to be the narrator: this derives from the character of Dr Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
In the first-person-plural point of view, narrators tell the story using "we". That is, no individual speaker is identified; the narrator is a member of a group that acts as a unit. The first-person-plural point of view occurs rarely but can be used effectively, sometimes as a means to increase the concentration on the character or characters the story is about. Examples include:
- William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" (Faulkner was an avid experimenter in using unusual points of view; see also his Spotted Horses, told in third person plural).
- Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's memoir Cheaper by the Dozen.
- Theodore Sturgeon's short story "Crate."
- Frederik Pohl's Man Plus.
- Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides.
- Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club.
- Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End.
First-person narrators can also be multiple, as in Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's In a Grove (the source for the movie Rashomon) and Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury. Each of these sources provides different accounts of the same event, from the point of view of various first-person narrators.
The first-person narrator may be the principal character or one who closely observes the principal character (see Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, each narrated by a minor character). These can be distinguished as "first person major" or "first person minor" points of view.
There can also be multiple co-principal characters as narrator, such as in Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast. The first chapter introduces four characters, including the initial narrator, who is named at the beginning of the chapter. The narrative continues in subsequent chapters with a different character explicitly identified as the narrator for that chapter. Other characters later introduced in the book also have their "own" chapters where they narrate the story for that chapter. The story proceeds in linear fashion, and no event occurs more than once, i.e. no two narrators speak "live" about the same event.
First-person narratives can tend towards a stream of consciousness and Interior monologue, as in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The whole of the narrative can itself be presented as a false document, such as a diary, in which the narrator makes explicit reference to the fact that he is writing or telling a story. This is the case in Bram Stoker's Dracula. As a story unfolds, narrators may be aware that they are telling a story and of their reasons for telling it. The audience that they believe they are addressing can vary. In some cases, a frame story presents the narrator as a character in an outside story who begins to tell his own story, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
First-person narrators are often unreliable narrators since a narrator might be impaired (such as Benjy in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury), lie (as in The Quiet American by Graham Greene, or The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe), or manipulate his or her own memories intentionally or not (as in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, or in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Henry James discusses his concerns about "the romantic privilege of the 'first person'" in his preface to The Ambassadors, calling it "the darkest abyss of romance."
One example of a multi-level narrative structure is Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, which has a double framework: an unidentified "I" (first person singular) narrator relates a boating trip during which another character, Marlow, uses first person to tell a story that comprises the majority of the work. Within this nested story, it is mentioned that another character, Kurtz, told Marlow a lengthy story; however, its content is not revealed to readers. Thus, there is an "I" narrator introducing a storyteller as "he" (Marlow), who talks about himself as "I" and introduces another storyteller as "he" (Kurtz), who in turn presumably told his story from the perspective of "I".
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