First-person narrative

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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.

Point of view device[edit]

The telling of a story in the grammatical first person, i.e. from the perspective of "I". An example would be Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which begins "Call me Ishmael".[1]

First-person narration often includes an embedded listener or reader, who serves as the audience for the tale.[1] First-person narrations may be told by a person directly undergoing the events in the story without being aware of conveying that experience to readers; alternatively, the narrator may be conscious of telling the story to a given audience, perhaps at a given place and time, for a given reason.

Identity[edit]

A story written in the first person can be told by the main character, a less important character witnessing events, or a person retelling a story they were told by someone else. This point of view is often effective in giving a sense of closeness to the character.[2]

Reliability[edit]

First-person narration presents the narrative through the perspective of a particular character. The reader or audience becomes aware of the events and characters of the story through the narrator's views and knowledge.[3] As a participant in events, the conscious narrator, is an imperfect witness by definition, unable to fully see and comprehend events in their entirety as they unfurl, not necessarily objective in their inner thoughts or sharing them fully, and furthermore may be pursuing some hidden agenda. In some cases, the narrator may give or withhold information based on his own experience.

Character weaknesses and faults, such as tardiness, cowardice, or vice, may leave the narrator unintentionally absent or unreliable for certain key events. Specific events may further be colored or obscured by a narrator's background, since non-omniscient characters must by definition be laypersons and foreigners to some circles, and limitations such as poor eyesight and illiteracy may also leave important blanks. Another consideration is how much time has elapsed between when the character experienced the events of the story and when they decided to tell them. If only a few days have passed, the story could be related very differently than if the character was reflecting on events of the distant past. The character's motivation is also relevant. Are they just trying to clear up events for their own peace of mind? Make a confession about a wrong they did? Or tell a good adventure tale to their beer-guzzling friends? The reason why a story is told will also affect how it is written.[2] Why is this narrator telling the story in this way, why now, and is he to be trusted? Unstable or malevolent narrators can also lie to the reader. Unreliable narrators are not uncommon.


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:

Other examples include Twenty-Six Men and a Girl by Maxim Gorky, The Treatment of Bibi Haldar by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase, Our Kind by Kate Walbert, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, We Didn't by Stuart Dybek, and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.[4]

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.

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.

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.

The narrator can be the protagonist (e.g., Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels), someone very close to him who is privy to his thoughts and actions (Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories), or an ancillary character who has little to do with the action of the story (such as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). Narrators can report others' narratives at one or more removes. These are called "frame narrators": examples are Mr. Lockwood, the narrator in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; and the unnamed narrator in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Skilled writers choose to skew narratives, in keeping with the narrator's character, to an arbitrary degree, from ever so slight to extreme. For example, the aforementioned Mr. Lockwood is quite naive, of which fact he appears unaware, simultaneously rather pompous, and recounting a combination of stories, experiences, and servants' gossip. As such, his character is an unintentionally very unreliable narrator, and serves mainly to mystify, confuse, and ultimately leave the events of Wuthering Heights open to a great range of interpretations.

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.

A rare form of first person is the first person omniscient, in which the narrator is a character in the story, but also knows the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. It can seem like third person omniscient at times. A reasonable explanation fitting the mechanics of the story's world is generally provided or inferred, unless its glaring absence is a major plot point. Two notable examples are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, where the narrator is Death, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, where a young girl, having been killed, observes, from some post-mortem, extracorporeal viewpoint, her family struggling to cope with her disappearance. Typically, however, the narrator restricts the events relayed in the narrative to those that could reasonably be known. Novice writers may make the mistake of allowing elements of omniscience into a first-person narrative unintentionally and at random, forgetting the inherent human limitations of a witness or participant of the events.

Autobiography[edit]

In autobiographical fiction, the first person narrator is the character of the author (with varying degrees of historical accuracy). The narrator is still distinct from the author and must behave like any other character and any other first person narrator. Examples of this kind of narrator include Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Timequake (in this case, the first-person narrator is also the author). In some cases, the narrator is writing a book—"the book in your hands"—and therefore he has most of the powers and knowledge of the author. Examples include The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

Detective fiction[edit]

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.

Forms[edit]

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.

Other forms include temporary first-person narration as a story within a story, wherein a narrator or character observing the telling of a story by another is reproduced in full, temporarily and without interruption shifting narration to the speaker. The first-person narrator can also be the focal character.

Styles[edit]

With a first person narrative it is important to consider how the story is being told, i.e., is the character writing it down, telling it out loud, thinking it to themselves? And if they are writing it down, is it something meant to be read by the public, a private diary, or a story meant for one other person? The way the first person narrator is relating the story will affect the language used, the length of sentences, the tone of voice and many other things. A story presented as a secret diary could be interpreted much differently than a public statement.[2]

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."[5][6]

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".

Film[edit]

First person narration is more difficult to achieve in film; however, voice-over narration can create the same structure.[1]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "First Person Narration", Perdue University College of Liberal Arts
  2. ^ a b c "Point of View and Narrative Voice", Ohio University
  3. ^ Ranjbar Vahid. The Narrator, Iran:Baqney. 2011
  4. ^ Miller, Laura (April 18, 2004). "We the Characters". nytimes.com. Retrieved 2007-02-25. 
  5. ^ Goetz, William R. (1986). Henry James and the Darkest Abyss of Romance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-1259-3. 
  6. ^ The Ambassadors (p. 11) on Project Gutenberg Accessed 17 March 2007

Further reading[edit]

  • (French) Françoise Barguillet, Le Roman au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: PUF Littératures, 1981, ISBN 2-13-036855-7 ;
  • (French) Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, Paris: Gallimard, 1966, ISBN 2-07-029338-6 ;
  • (French) Belinda Cannone, Narrations de la vie intérieure, Paris: Klincksieck, 1998, ISBN 2-911285-15-8 ;
  • (French) René Démoris, Le Roman à la première personne : du classicisme aux lumières, Paris: A. Colin, 1975, ISBN 2-600-00525-0 ;
  • R. A. Francis, The Abbé Prévost's first-person narrators, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1993, ISBN 0-7294-0448-X ;
  • Marie-Paule Laden, Self-Imitation in the Eighteenth-Century Novel, Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-691-06705-8 ;
  • English Showalter, Jr., The Evolution of the French Novel (1641–1782), Princeton, N. J. : Princeton University Press, 1972, ISBN 0-691-06229-3 ;
  • Philip R. Stewart, Imitation and Illusion in the French Memoir-Novel, 1700-1750. The Art of Make-Believe, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1969, ISBN 0-300-01149-0 ;
  • Martin Turnell, The Rise of the French novel, New York: New Directions, 1978, ISBN 0-241-10181-6 ;
  • Ira O. Wade, The Structure and Form of the French Enlightenment, Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1977, ISBN 0-691-05256-5 ;
  • Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965, ISBN 0-520-01317-4 ;
  • Arnold L. Weinstein, Fictions of the self, 1550-1800, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1981, ISBN 0-691-06448-2