I am deciding between first and third person narration for a book (and am inclined to write in the first person).

One of the limitations of the protagonist is that he is not a great communicator, and this impacts his relationships in a significant way.

My question is: can he then write a fine narrative in the first person? How do I create the differentiation between me the author, who is actually writing the book, and the voice of the protagonist who is supposed to be narrating the story?

  • I hope that my edit of this question captured the essence of what you were asking since there seemed to be two separate questions in your post. Since you look like you're new, it's always best to put your key question as the title rather than "I am writing a book", as you're more likely to get quality responses quicker. Sep 15, 2015 at 7:45
  • Yes! Thank you indeed. I think the headline happened accidentally...
    – ZARA
    Sep 16, 2015 at 3:55

3 Answers 3


You shouldn't have a problem. People can be very good at expressing themselves in writing, while being terrible at saying the right thing in social situations. Your protagonist has the benefit of distance when communicating to the reader. He can take his time, get his thoughts in order and not only relay what happened, but also reflect on, or rationalise the bad communication choices he made. Think about how many times in film or TV a perfectly eloquent character has made a nervous, confused mess out of talking to someone (usually of the opposite sex). The audience gets it, sometimes it's difficult to talk, sometimes it's easier.

  • My protagonist is not good with the written word either. But when he does talk or write, he is very real, honest. He likes to mask himself. When he does choose to unmask, what he has to say is simple and straight - shorn of all complexities
    – ZARA
    Sep 16, 2015 at 11:39

It depends on why your character is "bad at speaking".

I have written a short first-person story in which the main character does not say a single word, but he's thinking a lot. He is even nearly speaking at himself in his head, he criticizes the other characters, he's thinking about what he should/could have said and then realises it was not worth the effort.

It's very easy with a cynical character which criticizes quite everything he see, but you can do it with a shy one, or any character with a lot of things in mind.

You don't have to make your character speak all the time to have a first person narrative, you only have to write down his thoughts. And he can have a lot of thoughts even if he is quiet.

(I'm even quite sure that quiet people thinks more than the noisy ones, but that's an opinion)

  • Thank you Tyrabel. Yes, that a good question - why is my protagonist a poor communicator. It is just that communication is not his forte. He can't articulate his feelings and emotions. What adds to the challenge is he 'closed' and keeps his deepest feelings to himself. He is also poor with another aspect of communication - which is what makes relationships work - sharing, updating, asking etc., because he simply doesn't understand that it is important. That is what he has observed and imbibed.
    – ZARA
    Sep 16, 2015 at 11:21

There are plenty of examples of first person narratives by a character whose speaking level isn't easily comprehensible by the reader. The character Benjy Compson in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is notoriously difficult to understand, as every sentence is somewhat disconnected from those that come before and after, in both time and space. His brothers, though able to form a consistent narrative, are likewise difficult to understand. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying uses both dialect and intelligence levels in portraying over a dozen first person narrators, and while these do pose a difficulty for the reader, a texture and pattern begins to develop that helps guide the way. Stephen Dedalus, a very careful and articulate thinker in James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses may also be considered a poor communicator, largely because his obsessions are far beyond those of the average reader, and these inform much of what he is saying. Going much further back in English literature, we have Tristram Shandy, whose communication skills are so poor that, while he can write very well, his autobiography doesn't make it much past his own birth (and for all that, it's a very funny and worthwhile book).

As long as the voice is consistently used, and you the author are aware of what is being left out by the speaker, a compelling story can be told.

As a side note, we have a whole category of narrative technique wrapped up in the "unreliable narrator", someone who tells a story, but is either willfully lying or doesn't know as much as he or she thinks they know.

Regarding differentiating the author and the protagonist. A third person narrator (the author) can insert himself into the text via commentary and asides. Readers often need cues if both the narrator and the protagonist are guiding the text. This is a huge challenge, but if you want to portray the thoughts of the protagonist as separate from the narrator's storytelling, the convention is to italicize the thoughts.

  • 1
    Another good example is the amazing Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Admittedly the narrator's speech becomes more advanced during the story, but it's a very good example of how a poor communicator as narrator can be done effectively. Sep 15, 2015 at 7:41
  • See also: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Room, where the narrators are autistic and five years old, respectively. Sep 15, 2015 at 14:20
  • Thank you Fell, Craig and Chris. The examples help. I think the answer is to be true to the voice of the protagonist. Leave the narrative to the protagonist while the author owns the story, its organisation, situations, characters, climax etc. Another example - Emma Donoghue's - The Room, where the story is narrated by a 5 year old. I think I got a bit stuck with The Kite Runner where the protagonist is also a budding writer.
    – ZARA
    Sep 16, 2015 at 11:15
  • Chris, yes, The Room really nails it. Thanks !
    – ZARA
    Sep 16, 2015 at 11:33

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