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I'm writing a novel where my original idea was to use first person narrative in most chapters, since the story focuses on the main character's thoughts/feelings/mental issues. I planned to use third person in some other chapters where I'd share some information that the main character is not aware of, focusing on other character's side of the story.

Recently I was advised by a teacher to rethink the first person, because 'it's very limited' when it comes to show and tell. I'm not quite sure what she meant by that and even though, I'm still convinced first person is the better choice, I would like to learn from what she said. Could anyone give me a particular example and/or pros and cons in general?

Thank you all!

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    Henry's reply, below, is very good, and focuses on the issue: "inherent honesty." Some of the most interesting first-person narratives (where the character is entirely fictitious, NOT a stand-in for the actual author) involve exaggeration. I urge you to locate the detective novels by Raymond Chandler (likely in your public, library, if you are American). They are very famous. A third-person narrator cannot tell a story that way. Further comment: A first-person narrator can say "I found out later that..." when a fact needs to be revealed now, but would not be known now by the narrator. – user23046 Apr 18 '17 at 3:30
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    Just to throw this out there: The answers below that address first-person narrative also apply to third-person limited points of view. That's where I'm most comfortable, in one character's head. – Ken Mohnkern Apr 18 '17 at 13:45
  • @KenMohnkern Indeed, third-person limited is probably the best, for most novice (and many experienced) writers. Additional current details can be revealed by an extra character, who speaks. Thus, the author could write, "Jack felt as if a dog had been chewing on his shoes." Or, another character could say, "Hey, Jack, what's up? You like like a dog has been chewing on your shoes." However, the trick of "I found out later that..." does not work well, in third person limited. – user23046 Apr 18 '17 at 18:40
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In Portugal, we don't really fuss with 'show and tell'. Especially not in literature classes (whether high school level or college level). We do talk extensively about the effects each type of narrator produces.

A first person narrative has one big disadvantage: it limits what the narrator knows. One can play around with this limitation, though. In fact, it can even become an advantage. On the other hand, the greatest advantage is that the reader becomes more easily one with the character-narrator.

But let's not think of advantages and disadvantages, since that depends on what you want to do, and focus on the effects instead. Then you simply choose the approach that best suits the effect you want to evoke on the readers.

There are two types of first person narrator:

a) the narrator is the main character (eg. Jane Eyre)

The readers live the events with the main character. They share the feelings, the thoughts, everything, so it becomes very intimate. If the character is not likeable, the reader can become fed up and give it up. However, Gone with the wind has a spoilt, conceited, unkind main character and most readers won't give up the book. The most important thing is to make sure you have a fully fleshed out character.

It also allows for interesting 'games': you can describe the words and actions of other characters so that the reader understands them, and then have the main character misunderstand them (or not understand them at all). Scarlett O'Hara often says she couldn't make heads and tails of Ashley when it is obvious what he's saying.

b) the narrator is a secondary (or tertiary) character that witnesses the events lived by the main character (eg. Watson and Sherlock Holmes)

This a good choice if your main character is mysterious, unlikeable, a genius or just peculiar and, therefore, difficult for the readers to get in their shoes. The narrator serves as a go-between and can explain the actions of the main characters. Poirot, Holmes and other incredibly intelligent detectives often need a side-kick for this same reason. It's difficult for the writer to mimic the mind of a genius, and since they can spot the guilty one so easily, it's not that much fun for the reader either.

While all first-person narratives have unreliable narrators (it's the character's interpretation of the world and they may view the world in a distorted way, or they may simply wish to hide the skeletons in their closets), this case can allow for the narrator to manipulate the truth a bit more as, being a midle-man between main character and reader, they can more easily 'tell' the reader the motivations and feelings of the main character... but is it really true? The narrator can even paint the main character as a villain and, at the end of the book, we may finally discover the main character is more of a hero than a villain.

In a variation of the second case, the narrator can be a character very removed from the main characters. I remember a book I read years ago by a Japanese author (can't recall the title or the author's name, I'm afraid). The main character and narrator visits this far off place as a holiday of sorts and has small, mundane problems to solve. In the meantime he meets a few random characters, hears apparently unimportant gossip about them. In the end, these far off characters' lives end in death and fire and we find out their tragedy was the main event of the book all along. Like a real life tragedy: it's usually an acquaintance that will live a great personal tragedy (thank God it's not us) and we only find out about it in the very end and, likely, from afar.


On another category, we can divide a first-person narrative in two different time approaches:

a) the narrator is basically living the events as they are 'written'

This approach means you are limited to what the narrator knows now. It's great to cause tension and even fear (the unknown is the most terrifying thing in the world). If you're writing a thriller or a horror tale, this is a good approach.

b) the narrator has lived the events and is now relating them as a biography or memoir

This allows to mix far off past and recent past (or even future). You can have snippets such as 'who would have known, at the time, that Y would end up becoming YY?'.


This is a simplist relay of some main things to keep in mind. One could write a book (a thin one) on the subject, really. I strongly suggest that you read a few books in the first person and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of that choice.

(Hint: If you choose only great books to analyse, you'll find only strengths. A good writer will know how to avoid the weaknesses of their choice, after all; so pick a couple of bad examples to analyse too.)

Moreover, keep in mind you can have two narrators. You can have most of the book written by a character and then a few (as a counter-weight) writen by a different character as the narrator. This approach is great if you want to balance two very partial world views (eg. narrator A lives a hellish life because of character B and then, later, narrator B shows he's really doing his best to help character A overcome a childish, egotistical phase) or if you want to up tension while at the same time making the reader feel the humanity of both hero and villain (eg. narrator A is the hero trying to stop a terrorrist and then narrator B is an everyday guy who wants to avenge the death of his family... albeit going a bit too far).

This last option requires very, very careful handling because the two 'I's of the narrators must have completely different voices so that the readers cannot confuse who is who.

  • "keep in mind you can have two narrators" Actually, the sky is the limit, although even double-first-person narrative is hard to write, but technically there is no law, governing the number. Three different first persons would be more difficult than two, etc. – Lew Apr 18 '17 at 13:10
  • @Lew: While I agree wholeheartedly with you, I have yet to come across a successful example of more than two narrators in first-person. In fact, most cases of dual first person narrators I've met had voices that were too similar. If you know of a good multiple first-person narrator novel, I'd love to hear about it. – Sara Costa Apr 19 '17 at 8:12
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The idea that first person narration is very limited in terms of show and tell arise from most authors' inherent honesty.

In third person POV, the author gets to speak openly and honestly about what is going on in each scene. The reader may assume that they are not being "told" everything about what is going on, but they can rely on the truthfulness of what they are being "shown". It is also possible from this perspective to inform the reader of a fact or event which the characters cannot perceive.

In first person POV, everything the reader sees is also seen by the character. So whenever the author wants the reader to know something that the character doesn't, the character must lie to themselves in one way or another, misinterpreting what they see or ignoring it as irrelevant. Over the course of an entire novel, this chronic self deception can wear away the character's believe-ability. As pages pass, it becomes increasingly more difficult to justify the character's ignorance in contrast with the reader's insights.

I would prefer to say that first person POV is very limiting to foreshadowing and theme development, rather than limiting to show vs. tell.

Especially since the first person POV character, being a part of the story, is always being shown to the reader. When a first person POV character tells the reader what is happening, what they are really doing is showing the reader what they think is happening. So first person POV stories are always 100% shown... which is where all the limits and writing difficulties arise from.

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    "...first person POV stories are always 100% shown..." That is not correct. There are plenty of the 1st POV stories which are told narrative-like (most of the PI detective stories mid-last century) just as well as shown through the character's perspective. – Lew Apr 17 '17 at 17:40
  • But a first person POV story of a narrator telling a story is all show. The author is showing the reader a scene (usually dark and unobtrusive) of a narrator telling a story. At least that is how I always look at it. – Henry Taylor Apr 17 '17 at 17:45
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    "...the balding clerk at the pawn shop looked like he'd known better days..." is showing. "...this part of the inner city was traditionally controlled by the two rival gangs—Sharks and Jets..." is telling. The POV is irrelevant. – Lew Apr 17 '17 at 17:50
  • I will bow to your more conventional view, but that is exactly the kind of distinction which makes unreliable narration so difficult to write... which is the point I was trying to make. I will go change my answer to abide by your distinction. – Henry Taylor Apr 17 '17 at 17:52
  • First person is more immersive. It's a great advantage to offset the limitations. While it's more difficult to write generally, it's harder to botch: either you write well, or not at all, it's pretty hard to write 1st person badly. And while unreliable narrator may be wearing, it's also the best perspective to pull it off. It's awfully hard to make "3rd person omniscient unreliable narrator" without making it completely cheesy. – SF. Apr 18 '17 at 10:31
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...'it's very limited' when it comes to show and tell. I'm not quite sure what she meant by that...

Neither am I. It is probably better to ask your teacher what she meant because the limitations of the selected point of view, whether it is a first or any flavor of the third person, have no direct impact on the show vs. tell methods of the story delivery. You can do either and any combination of the two regardless of the POV.

If you feel that you will be more comfortable writing from the first person POV, by all means, you should do it and see where it takes you. It is your story. It will be challenging in many ways but were the first person inferior to other points of view nobody would ever write from it.

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