Using First-Person POV for Characters With Attitude

Photo credit: The Letter Writer by Johanne Mathilde Dietrichson.

If you have a main character who’s articulate and has plenty of attitude, then first-person narration has more sizzle and sparkle than a more neutral third-person viewpoint.

Why? Because a first-person narrator can tell their tale with passion and conviction. This is quite hard to do with third-person narration.

One of my stories starts like this:

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

That’s Jen. She has a sharp tongue and a soft heart and her storytelling gives the reader both barrels.

But your viewpoint character doesn’t have to be verbally aggressive. Another of my first-person narrators, Flavia, is more genteel but has plenty of attitude in her own way:

He was a handsome boy of about fourteen, a year older than myself. He was tall for his age, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I don’t get along with my fellow children.

The Idea of the First-Person Narrative

A traditional first-person narrative works like this: The viewpoint character sits down and deliberately tells their story in their own words and in their own way.

In short, you get into your viewpoint character’s head and write down the story from their perspective, just as they would have written it.

This is a naturalistic form of storytelling and it’s easy once you get the hang of it. If you have a suitable story and a suitable character, you’re home free.

A Suitable Voice

Generally speaking, your first-person narrator should be as articulate in their own way as your third-person narrator, but less objective and more … something. Excitable, or maybe enthusiastic. Or depressed, funny, extravagant, or elegant. But definitely colorful. In short, different, but in a way that helps carry the story.

The narration isn’t the story, though: the story is the story. Letting the story grind to a halt while the narrator holds forth on random topics is hard to pull off successfully.

Framing the Story

Stories have an implicit frame. As I’ve already mentioned, the traditional frame for a first-person narrative is that the viewpoint character wrote down the story after the adventure.

You don’t have to mention this in the story itself, but it’s important to set the timeline in your head. There are a few choices here:

  • The viewpoint character wrote down her adventure shortly after it ended, when she was still the same age and had the same attitudes as she did in the story. This is my favorite. It allows her attitudes and opinions to be the same whether she’s wearing her in-the-moment hat or her narrator hat. This maximizes intimacy (well, probably).
  • She wrote her adventure years later, when she sees her actions from a more mature perspective. This distance is often used as a framing device in films (Titanic, Little Big Man), but I don’t really see the point in prose fiction unless you want to evoke the sadness of an era that’s lost forever, as in True Grit. It adds narrative distance; almost as if she were writing in third-person.
  • She seems decoupled in time from her adventure, sometimes near, sometimes far. I’m not sure how to use this effectively. I only do this by accident, myself.

First-Person, Past Tense?

When we have a narrator with a foot in two different time streams (the time when the events occurred and the time they’re written down), the situation cries out for a past-tense narrative. When our first-person narrator uses the past tense, she’s using the timeframe of the story. When she uses the present tense, she’s talking about things that are still true when she tells the story, as in “Paris is the City of Light.”

For example, when Jen opens her story, “My boyfriend is a real piece of work,” he’s still a piece of work as she writes her story.

You can do the whole thing in present tense. This is especially appropriate if your story is set after present-tense narratives became common, so it’s more plausible that people would write true stories in that mode. I recommend Ben Aaronovitch’s What Abigail Did That Summer as an example.

Why Do Past-Tense Narration at All?

Jen sets the stage for the first scene like this:

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay.

Because Jen wants her readers to understand her story, she does deliberate framing, explaining things to her readers as necessary. Every time she does this in a way that isn’t purely factual, it reveals something about her character.

It allows her to use the benefit of hindsight any way she likes. She can describe action happening elsewhere as, “I didn’t know it at the time, but …” and “I learned later that …” She can also use as much foreshadowing as she likes: “This would turn out to be the last mistake he ever made.”

Our first-person narrator can also go off on tangents, tell the reader jokes, express opinions, and basically indulge in anything a real storyteller might. She can even talk directly to the reader if she likes:

You might think that Frank’s tragic past is romantic. You do, don’t you? You’re an idiot. It was 100% iron-clad board-certified Grade A bad news.

Whether this is a good idea or not is a topic for another day.


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