[by Ross Browne]

I’ve been editing novels for more than 30 years, and one thing that still fascinates me to no end is the art and craft of introducing (and cultivating quick engagement with) viewpoint characters when writing in the first person.

Like many readers, I enjoy first-person narratives because of the viewpoint’s intimacy and the direct line it gives us to a character’s thoughts, observations, perceptions, and worldview. It’s not right for every story but can be a fine choice, especially for more character-driven novels where the narrator’s perspective is central to the reader’s experience of the story. Ditto for mysteries and detective fiction, where the observations of a sleuth/protagonist matter so much to the storytelling.

But writing in the first person does have its challenges, and one big one for writers is how to best introduce their protagonist and quickly get readers interested in the story they intend to tell. Writing in the “I” voice makes this more challenging because the supporting points of exposition that can feel so natural and comfortable in the third person often don’t play as well in the first person. Even something as simple as introducing the narrator’s name becomes a little more challenging when writing from this viewpoint because the natural reference to oneself would use the pronoun “I rather than a name.

Providing basic contextual information about your protagonist can be especially challenging if you’re writing first person in a way that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge your narrator’s awareness of his or her readers—or the fact that the narrative will be read by anyone.

Some first-person novels go so far as to speak directly to the reader and even refer to the reader in the story itself. In this case, it’s natural for a character to directly introduce themself. At the other end of the spectrum are novels where the narrator simply tells a story into a void of sorts, without any indication of awareness that this narrative is to be read by anyone. Your own decision about this—that is, if you’re the kind of writer who plans such things—can have a significant impact on the options your narrator has for self-introduction.

What follows is an exploration of the four common approaches to introduce characters when writing in the first person and how writers bring them to bear in a wide range of popular fiction. I’ll look not only at the mechanics of how the character is introduced (and how their name is brought to readers’ attention), but also the more important matter of how the author attempts to get us interested in the narrator and drawn into his or her world.

How (and When) to Establish Character Identity

To the first point, barring some kind of immediate introduction—Call me Ishmael, for instance—readers often won’t be given the viewpoint narrator’s name immediately the way they usually are in third-person novels. In the latter, it can be a first name only:

Jessie could hear the back door banging lightly, randomly, in the October breeze blowing around the house. (Gerald’s Game, by Stephen King)

Or first and last names:

At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise lines M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.

I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves. (Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen)

Both these novels are written in the third person, which makes naming the viewpoint character easy. (But note how Hiaasen writes his interior monologue—editorspeak for a character’s thinking—in the first person while the narrative is in the third. This is not uncommon.)

Anyhow, it’s a funny thing, but I believe there’s a sort of expected comfort in being told the name of the character narrating early on (even if we can already surmise it from the flap copy). Giving readers some kind of deliberate introduction to who’s speaking to them helps us engage. The sooner you somehow share your narrator’s name with readers along with whatever tidbits of info help readers understand who they’re dealing with, the more quickly they’ll have a bit of that comforting foothold into the identity of their guide for the story. (This is usually a good thing, though there are certainly stories that deliberately withhold this info to good effect.)

The first approach I’ll be looking at fast-tracks this bit of information.


One option is direct self-introduction, where the narrator introduces himself by name to readers as Herman Melville does in Moby Dick. Our own John Cunningham used this approach to good effect in the first book of his Buck Reilly action-adventure series about a flying-boat pilot/salvage operator who lives in Key West, Florida, and seems to be a magnet for trouble. Red Right Return opens with a short paragraph that sets the scene—an ocean landing near Fort Jefferson, Florida—and mentions the beautiful but mysterious passenger he’s dropping off. Then the narrator delivers this line:

My name is Buck Reilly, but don’t bother to Google me. You won’t find a thing.

I like this approach because it introduces the narrator by name, then provides a single detail to pique curiosity about him. It acknowledges that the narrator is aware of his reader, which I find comfortable and logical when it comes to the voice of this particular series. But after that, it’s right back to the story, which also makes sense given this is a fast-paced action thriller. (Readers will learn plenty about Buck as things move along, but the information is served up in small unobtrusive bites that don’t interfere with the momentum of the story.)

I know from our work with John how seriously he takes the effort to write effectively in the first person and make that choice an asset to his readers’ experience of his novels. While he’s written or co-written several novels outside this series in the third person (one of which became a USA Today bestseller!) I think one reason for the good reception Buck Reilly has enjoyed is John’s comfort with first-person narrative and the way he uses it to help readers identify with his protagonist. While not without dark moments and rendering of difficult circumstances, Buck Reilly novels tend to be light and sometimes funny with a vibe that is closely tied to their namesake character’s attitude, sense of humor, and worldview. First person is ideal to convey this vibe, and I think writing the series from this viewpoint is a good decision.

Another example of the self-introduction approach can be found in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which one might think of as a literary crime story. Tartt’s protagonist begins with a long, somewhat leisurely buildup to a deeply absorbing story that I’m probably not alone in finding slowly paced. (If deliberately so—I don’t mean this as a criticism.)

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that shadowy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

A moi. L’histoire d’une de mes folies.

My name is Richard Papen. I’m twenty-eight years old and I had never seen New England or Hampden College until I was 19. I am a Californian by birth and also, I have recently discovered, by nature. The last is something I admit only now, after the fact. Not that it matters.

While the mechanics of the two approaches above may be identical—both narrators introduce themselves to readers directly with first and last names—the effects of the two introductions are, of course, very different. Tartt’s introduction is introspective and brooding (and it provides a fine example of how one or more of the techniques I’ll be discussing here can be combined), whereas John’s introduction does its job and gets right back to the action of the story. Both methods have their merits, and it’s up to you as the author to decide which is the best fit. This is an important question—What’s going to work best here?—and one I encourage you to consider carefully.

Let’s suppose the self-introduction method doesn’t appeal or seem right for whatever reason and look at other options.

Contextual Introduction

One approach I think is especially conducive to keeping readers from feeling like they’re being “written to” is a contextual introduction, where the narrator establishes identity indirectly, often by providing information about themself that allows readers to gradually piece things together. In some cases, the information is stated explicitly. In others, it comes more by implication. A terrific example of the latter can be found in Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow, which opens thusly:

Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of telltale signs. Mostly because they are nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.

Israeli counterintelligence wrote the definitive playbook. They told us what to look for. They used pragmatic observation and psychological insight and came up with a list of behavioral indicators. I learned the list from an Israeli army captain twenty years ago. He swore by it. Therefore I swore by it too, because at the time I was on three weeks’ detached duty mostly about a yard from his shoulder, in Israel itself, in Jerusalem, on the west bank, in Lebanon, sometimes in Syria, sometimes in Jordan, on buses, in stores, on crowded sidewalks. I kept my eyes moving and my mind running free down the bulleted points.

Twenty years later, I still know the list. And my eyes still move. Pure habit. From another bunch of guys I learned another mantra: Look, don’t see, listen, don’t hear. The more you engage the longer you survive.

The list is twelve points long if you’re looking at a male suspect. Eleven, if you’re looking at a woman. […]

It’s worth mentioning that as the story opens, Jack Reacher is on a New York City subway in the middle of the night looking at a nervous woman he thinks may well be a suicide bomber. So there’s no shortage of tension from the very first page. The twelve points from the Israeli anti-terrorism “playbook” become the focus of the next few (short) chapters as Reacher watches the woman carefully and tries to decide what to do.

Lee Child only occasionally writes Reacher in the first person (the vast majority of Jack Reacher novels are written in the third), but I think he demonstrates considerable skill when he does. In this excerpt, Reacher doesn’t tell us much about himself directly, yet we can glean that he’s a thoughtful, observant, highly trained dude with a military background. One thing I like about this approach is that it sends the message of a narrator’s intent to focus on a story rather than to talk about himself. There’s a subtle humility in this, one I think readers often respond well to even if it means we go a bit longer before learning the storyteller’s name.

If I’m not mistaken, we won’t learn Reacher’s name until page 33 in Gone Tomorrow. Here’s how it … ahem … reaches us:

[…] He led me deep into the station and put me in a hot stale white-tiled room that could have been part of the transport police facility. He sat me down alone on a wooden chair and asked me for my name.

“Jack Reacher,” I said.

He wrote it down and didn’t speak again.

Withholding the name of the narrator for a few pages—or even a few chapters—isn’t uncommon when writing in the first person. As a general rule, it’s better to introduce the name organically where it fits than to force it into the narrative where it doesn’t fit comfortably. Here, I’d say it feels perfectly natural.

One potential drawback to the contextual introduction approach is that it can tend to be more exposition-centric and take longer than is sometimes ideal in opening pages. Gone Tomorrow presents a somewhat extreme example where the effort to establish context takes time. While there’s plenty of tension in the opening, the first significant plot event doesn’t happen until chapter five when Reacher discovers the woman has a gun. And [spoiler alert!] the plot doesn’t fully spring into action until she shoots herself in the last line of the chapter.

Now, contextual introduction doesn’t always have to be that leisurely. But it does usually require more ink than other approaches and may well push back the inciting plot event, which as we know isn’t always a good thing. (That said, I think this is a brilliant opening of a brilliant book that never lags in terms of pace.)

Action Introduction

Authors who want to cut right to the chase may find the action introduction a good option. When written in the first person, action introductions rarely mention the narrator’s name or descriptive details because there’s often no natural place to do so. Instead they show the narrator in action—doing something—often at a tense moment with something exciting happening or about to happen.

Lee Child uses a variation of this technique in his very first Jack Reacher novel, which also happens to be written in the first person.

I was arrested in Eno’s Diner at twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a president I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

I just sat and watched them. I knew who was in the diner. A cook in back. Two waitresses. Two old men. And me. This operation was for me. I had been in town less than a half-hour. The other five had probably been here all their lives. Any problem with any of them and an embarrassed sergeant would have shuffled in. He would be apologetic. He would mumble to them. He would ask them to come down to the station house. So the heavy weapons and the rush weren’t for any of them. They were for me. I crammed egg into my mouth and trapped a five under the plate. Folded the abandoned newspaper into a square and shoved it into my coat pocket. Kept my hands above the table and drained my cup.

Readers won’t learn Reacher’s name until page 22:

“My name is Jack Reacher,” I said. “No middle name. No address.”

Another example of action introduction can be found in Adrian McKinty’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone:

The beeper began to whine at 4:27 p.m. on Wednesday September 25, 1983. It was repeating a shrill C sharp at four-second intervals, which meant—for those of us who had bothered to read the manual— that it was a Class 1 emergency. This was a general alert being sent to every off-duty policeman, police reservist, and soldier in Northern Ireland. There were only five Class 1 emergencies and three of them were a Soviet nuclear strike, a Soviet invasion, and what the civil servants who’d written the manual had nonchalantly called “an extraterrestrial trespass.”

So you’d think I would have dashed across the room, grabbed the beeper, and run with the mounting sense of panic for the nearest telephone. You’d have thought wrong. For a start I was high as a Skylab, baked on Turkish black cannabis resin that I’d cooked myself and rolled into sweet Virginia tobacco. And then there was the fact that I was playing Galaxian on my Atari 5200 with the sound on the TV maxed and the curtain pulled for a full dramatic and immersive experience. I didn’t notice the beeper because its insistent whine sounded a lot like the red ships peeling off the main Galaxian fleet as they swooped in for their oh-so-predictable attack.

After one more paragraph of contextual narrative, we’re told our narrator has picked up the phone and is talking to Sergeant Pollack, the duty man at Bellaughray Station.

“Duffy, you didn’t answer your beeper!” he said.

“Maybe the soviet army blocked the signal.”

And so goes the introduction to former Detective Inspector Sean Duffy. I can’t speak with certainty to the author’s intentions, but I suspect there’s some deliberate misdirection here, as Duffy is far more intelligent and competent than he comes across in this opening. (He’s in fact one of the most intelligent and literate sleuths I’ve ever come across in crime fiction.) But at this moment, he’s at a low point, demoted and stigmatized after a controversial investigation into none other than John DeLorean. But he’s also a convincingly flawed individual—with some surprising habits for a cop—and this glimpse we get of him in the opening is certainly different from what you might expect. This is an example of how surprising readers in the opening—in this case with a cop smoking dope, blowing off a superior, and playing Atari—can work.

Dialogue Introduction

With this approach, the narrator makes their identity known to readers via a conversation with another character. One of my favorite mystery writers on the planet, Caz Frear, uses this approach in Stone Cold Heart. Here’s how the novel opens:

“Cat, wait …”

He knows my name. How the hell does he know my name?

I keep moving forward, pretending I haven’t heard him over the incessant gurgle of the coffee machines and the insipid soft jazz. I’m nearly at the door now. Just a few more strides and I’ll be safely outside, away from Casanova’s attention and basking in the scents of a grimy London summer.

Warm beer. Bus diesel. Raindrops hitting hot pavement.


And so readers are introduced to Detective Constable Cat Kinsella, in a moment where she’s clearly irritated and perhaps a little spooked when the creepy proprietor of a local coffee shop knows something he has no business knowing about her.

The dialogue with this fellow makes it clear she’s a detective in London, and her reaction to the conversation conveys tidbits to attract readers to her and make them want to follow her into the story’s world. She’s smart, funny, self-deprecating, observant, and … just a wonderful character.

Another approach to dialogue introduction involves the narrator introducing themself to someone: “Hi, I’m Ross,” I said, offering my hand. “I’m a book editor writing about viewpoints.” It can be as simple as that. But it’s best if the dialogue that carries an introduction is a little more interesting.

As a quick aside here, while a character’s name usually doesn’t mean much in its own right—it’s just a name, after all—I do place stock in that comfort I mentioned before in knowing the name of who’s narrating and, better yet, quickly understanding at least a little something about who’s telling the story.

Conversely, not knowing the narrator’s name or anything about the character can leave readers feeling adrift in the narrative in a way that works against the immediate engagement most authors want to cultivate with their openings. In general, I’d say the sooner you tell the reader your narrator’s name, the better, but only when it comes naturally and there’s not something valuable served by delaying it. Here’s an example of why.

While I’ve come to love Walter Mosely’s work, I had a hard time getting into the first Easy Rawlins novel that drifted through my transom (the second in the series) for this reason. Here’s how A Red Death opens:

I always started sweeping on the top floor of the Magnolia Street apartments. It was a three-story pink stucco building between Ninety-first Street and Ninety-first Place, just about a mile outside of Watts proper. Twelve units. All occupied for that month. I had just gathered the dirt into a neat pile when I heard Mofass drive up in his new ’53 Pontiac. I knew it was him because there was something wrong with the transmission, you could hear its high singing from a block away. I heard his door slam and his loud hello to Mrs. Trajillo, who always sat at her window on the first floor—best burglar alarm you could have.

I knew that Mofass collected the late rent on the second Thursday of the month; that’s why I chose that particular Thursday to clean. I had money and the law on my mind, and Mofass was the only man I knew who might be able to set me straight.

I wasn’t the only one to hear the Pontiac.

Who is this guy? I wondered. Who the heck is Mofass? Why should I care about someone sweeping up an apartment when nothing else especially interesting seems to be happening?

I do like the writing and scene-setting, but overall I just didn’t find this opening especially compelling. I think that’s because the way Mosely writes it presumes reader interest in the narrator that he doesn’t make an apparent effort to cultivate. Child cultivates this interest by showing us what his protagonist knows. McKinty surprises us with a cop doing something unexpected while god-knows-what goes down. Frear charms us with light touches of humor and voice. But Mosely just kind of starts narrating the details of a fairly mundane moment, and frankly I felt like I had to stifle a yawn for a second there.

I must confess that the promise of the book’s flap copy and what I knew about Mosely and his character Rawlins got me over this hump. I stuck with the book and I’m glad I did. But had this been a first novel from a new author without such a great reputation, the reader in me may have harrumphed and moved on. The editor in me would call this an action introduction where the action to speak of is perhaps more mundane than is ideal. My advice is: if you open with action, make it interesting action—or at least not too humdrum.

Now let’s consider a hybrid approach: an action introduction coupled with self-introduction. This comes from the very first few paragraphs of Plum Island, the first in Nelson DeMille’s popular John Corey series:

Through my binoculars, I could see this nice forty-something-foot cabin cruiser anchored a few hundred yards offshore. There were two thirtyish couples aboard, having a merry old time, sunbathing, banging down brews and whatever. The woman had on teensy-weensy little bottoms and no tops, and one of the guys was standing on the bow, and he slipped off his trunks and stood there a minute hanging hog, then jumped in the bay and swam around the boat. What a great country. I put down my binoculars and popped a Budweiser.

It was late summer, not meaning late August, but meaning September, before the autumnal equinox. Labor Day weekend had gone, and Indian summer was coming, whatever that is.

I, John Corey by name, convalescent cop by profession, was sitting on my uncle’s back porch, deep in a wicker chair with shallow thoughts running through my mind. It occurred to me that the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.

The action isn’t as riveting as what will follow, but it is attention-getting. The voice of the narrative is John Corey through and through, and there are whiffs of the humor that’s a big part of this series’ identity. The joke that closes paragraph three was hopefully a little less familiar when the book was released than it is now.

Plum Island is not my favorite John Corey novel, but all in all I’d say this opening does its job pretty well where the topic of this piece is involved. I have ideas on how it could be strengthened, but this opening set the stage for a very successful series and I thought it was worth taking a look at.

Reflection or Introspection

A less common but sometimes effective means of introduction is when the narrator shares their thoughts or reflects on their own observations, providing insights into their personality or past experiences. This can help readers take an interest in—if not form a budding connection with—the narrator, even though the reader doesn’t know them.

One timeless example of this approach comes from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He’s going to drive me home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to just be a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was “The Secret Goldfish.” It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.

This is a gutsy opening in some respects, but boy did it get its teeth into me when I first read it back in Mrs. Handler’s seventh-grade English class. And it still does now.

What we have here is the as-yet-unnamed Holden Caulfield reflecting on a seemingly random collection of things in a way that I think does draw us into the world of his story, despite being somewhat convoluted and even a bit hard to follow. There’s a distinct narrative voice here, to be sure, one I find compelling, but there’s also lots to suggest a difficult person going through a difficult time. No story is ignited in these opening paragraphs, but they somehow give confidence that an interesting one is in store, that Holden Caulfield will be worth following, and that this book’s journey will be an unusual and worthwhile one.

This is all vital, especially in more mainstream, literary, or character-driven fiction where a clear, immediate plot hook may not be as evident. And I think it’s in these kinds of novels that a reflection-based opening serves the work best.

Here’s another example, from Charles Bukowski’s Women:

I was 50 years old and hadn’t been with a woman for four years. I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the streets or wherever I saw them, but I looked at them without yearning and with a sense of futility. I masturbated regularly, but the idea of having a relationship with a woman—even on non-sexual terms—was beyond my imagination. I had a 6 year old daughter born out of wedlock. She lived with her mother and I paid child support. I had been married years before at the age of 35. That marriage lasted two and one half years. My wife divorced me. I had been in love only once. She died of acute alcoholism. She died at 48 when I was 38. My wife had been 12 years younger than I. I believe that she too is dead now, although I’m not sure. She wrote me a long letter at each Christmas for 6 years after the divorce. I never responded…

There’s a good deal of exposition here that appears to be written with the presumption that readers will take an interest in these ramblings. We don’t learn the narrator’s name, but we do get indications that the book will give us the up-close-and-personal perspective of a man who’s probably very lonely, is unlikely to be in good shape, and who’s willing to be almost candid with readers, answering questions we didn’t ask. I find it enticing in an odd way. What he shares may border on TMI in the eyes of some, but this kind of thing isn’t without its place.

Engaging is what the first lines of first-person narrative must be. There are a lot of ways to get there.

Introduction by reflection can work quite well in commercial fiction, as is evident in Still Missing by Chevy Stevens, a debut novel edited by TED’s founder Renni Browne that went on to become a national bestseller and opened doors to a writing career that’s going strong.

You know, Doc, you’re not the first shrink I’ve seen since I got back. The one my family doctor recommended right after I came home was a real prize. The guy actually tried to act like he didn’t know who I was, but that was a pile of crap—you’d have to be deaf and blind not to. Hell, it seems like every time I turn around another asshole with a camera is jumping out of the bushes. But before all this shit went down? Most of the world had never heard of Vancouver Island, let alone Clayton Falls. Now mention the island to someone and I’m willing to bet the first thing out of their mouth will be, “Isn’t that where the lady Realtor was abducted?”

Even the guy’s office was a turn off—black leather couches, plastic plants, glass and chrome desk. Way to make your patients feel comfortable, buddy. And of course everything was perfectly lined up on the desk. His teeth were the only damn thing crooked in his office, and if you ask me, there’s something a little strange about a guy who needs to line up everything on his desk but doesn’t get his teeth fixed.

I love this opening because it teems with emotion—judgment, anger, and resentment—and immediately introduces the abduction at the heart of the story. It introduces a fiery, blunt-spoken, and highly opinionated narrator who is clearly recovering from something traumatic. There’s plenty to pique curiosity and pull us in—an edge to the writing and character that readers clearly respond well to.

Here’s an example of an opening that failed to entice me, from Silent Partner by Jonathan Kellerman.

I’ve always hated parties and, under normal circumstances, never would have attended the one on Saturday.

But my life was a mess. I relaxed my standards. And stepped into a nightmare.

Thursday morning I was the good doctor, focusing on my patients, determined not to let my own garbage get in the way of work.

I kept my eye on the boy.

He hadn’t yet gotten to the part where he tore the heads off the dolls. I watched him pick up the toy cars again and advance them toward each other in inevitable collision.

I love Kellerman, but I think he can do better than he did in this opening. (What do you think of it? And why?)

By contrast, here are the first three paragraphs of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which is an introduction by reflection.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.

I know her head anywhere.

And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions storm cloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

I mean, wow! Such a strange, vivid image in uncoiling the brain. Such strange questions. The whole thing is foreboding and irresistible in my view, despite one of the odder first paragraphs I’ve come across lately. This is a sterling example of how using reflection to show what’s surprising, unusual, or even shocking about the way your narrator thinks can be very effective.


The most important thing to remember about introducing your narrator in the first person is that there really ought to be something immediately compelling in that introduction, hopefully several things. This can come from an irresistible narrative voice, an interesting perspective or worldview, entertaining dialogue, an unexpected plot event and reaction to it, a likable attitude, a dislikable attitude, something unexpected, or any combination of the above—but there’s got to be some sort of magnetism. And readers are likely to respond best if they learn something about who the narrator is, as this makes it easier to get sucked into the story’s world.

I believe openings to first-person novels are usually best served by a thoughtful, deliberate effort to do just that. And I hope the above examples serve as good food for thought to help you decide which approaches you like and dislike—and what might serve your own novel best.

The thing to avoid, in first novels especially, is presuming that readers will take an interest just … well, because. In my mind, that’s like fishing with no lure. It’s up to you as the writer to give the reader something to latch on to and take interest in, hopefully in the first paragraph but certainly on the first page.

Before signing off here, I want to return to the very important question, the answer to which will be helpful in shaping how you introduce your character and how you handle first-person narrative throughout the book.

First, ask yourself if you want your narrator to come across as aware of the reader. If the answer is yes, then ask if you want to carry that awareness to the point where they talk to readers directly in the course of the narrative. You’ll find this in play to varying degrees in The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger), Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk), American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis), and Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov).

Alternatively, you can tell the story in the first person without speaking directly to readers or explicitly acknowledging them, such as in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), and The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath).

Answering this question early on will help shape things, and if you’re the kind of writer who likes to plan, giving it some thought should be very worthwhile.

Or you can just wing it, write it as you feel it, and make decisions later.

Thanks for reading and please don’t hesitate to contact me if I or one of my colleagues here at The Editorial Department can help you on your journey to first-rate use of first-person narrative.

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Ross Browne President/Director of Author Services
Ross has been editing books since 1992 and managing operations at the country’s oldest freelance editorial firm since 1997. He has worked closely with hundreds of authors during his time with The Editorial Department, LLC and seen many projects through from first draft to final publication. He loves mysteries, thrillers, European crime novels, craft beer, music, and writing about writing.