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My first person narrator is telling his story in the past tense but there are present tense realities too that get me confused what tense to use.

For instance, here are two paragraphs:

When I came into the room, the lady stopped and stared. I am six-foot six, burly and bronzed from working so much in the sun, and I am used to ladies staring at me in a roomful of other men. But there was something in the way she looked at me that made me take off my hat and stand up even taller. I know that look, too.

When I came into the room, the lady stopped and stared. I was six-foot six, burly and bronzed from working so much in the sun, and I was used to ladies staring at me in a roomful of other men. But there was something in the way she looked at me that made me take off my hat and stand up even taller. I knew that look, too.

Does anyone else have any difficulty deciding what tense to use or whether to use both the past and present tense? I can only find reference to a FP/Past and FP/Present online, but not both.

Is there a name for this so I can research it further, or is it not even a thing?

Which of these examples is better or more usual?

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  • O Yea, definitely. You could be relating somethin' from the past, or could be thinkin' in your head. – undocumented sophistication Sep 5 '20 at 7:15
  • In this case I think the past tense works better, but the present works just as often. – Lt. Commander. Data Sep 5 '20 at 17:32
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It depends on the time you pick for your narrator to tell the story.

If he's reminiscing of his youth in his old age, the physical description probably doesn't apply anymore, and women no longer react to him the same way they used to when he was younger. In that case, he would tell of his experiences in the past tense. Similarly, even if only a comparatively short time has passed since the events in the story, maybe at the narrator's point in time, something in his behaviour or outlook might have changed. For example, meeting this particular woman could change the way he views women in general.

If none of that applies and your example sentences are still true (or he views them as true), present tense is perfectly fine.

To summarise, part of the narration could be told in present (the parts that are still true in the narrator's time) but others could use past tense (the ones that have changed).

For the reader, a shift in tenses can give interesting information about the character or foreshadow future events. For example, if you introduce a character as "She was the most beautiful woman I ever met", that leaves a few options for the reader to ponder: did she die? did she lose her beauty? did he meet someone more beautiful later on?

You can also increase this effect by including comparative phrases like "at the time" or "back then". For example, "Back then, I was six-foot six ... and used to ladies staring at me" carries a hint of regret over his lost youth.

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  • Thanks for the clarity! – user191110 Sep 5 '20 at 20:20
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Depends on the voice!

You want the character to sound consistent. First, you want it to be the voice to be consistent with the character, and then you want to be consistent with the manner in which the character is telling the tale.

You have some flexibility here, because readers will accept first-person narrators who are not recounting a tale to their buddies in the bar, or writing up a report for the Celestial Emperor, but just telling their tale to no one in particular for no reason in particular. Still, the story should pick a level of formality and stick to it.

Your examples sound conversational, and therefore, the first one sounds better to me because that is the way people talk. Which does indeed make shifting between tenses tricky to figure out.

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    Yes, voice sounds like key. I'll keep that in mind and write like it's a conversation. But it means, for me, that some parts will need to be past and some present tense. I won't sweat it. I think if I try to write it like the character was 'telling the tale to no one in particular for no reason in particular' I will be fine. If it sounds natural to speech, then that will be that. Thanks! – user191110 Sep 5 '20 at 20:26
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Llewellyn's answer is good, but I'm going to add on another angle:

You can do first person POVs in two basic ways. First, you can have a first person narrator who is telling this story from some specific point in time in the future, which I'm just going to call first person POV #1. (If anyone has technical vocabulary for this, please let me know - I'm writing this answer based on intuition formed by writing and reading first person stories.)

However, you can also have a first person narrator without that extra layer. In this case, there is no "future point in time" for the story and the first person is more of a conceit than a real narrative device - you're asking your readers not to think too hard on how and when they're "telling the story". There are a number of consequences depending on which one you choose, but the important one for your question is that for #2, everything is in past tense and happening at the time of the story's events.

The reason is that whenever narrator #1 relates a thought or opinion, there are two possibilities: either they are giving commentary from their current perspective (which can be either present or past tense), or they're relating something that they thought or felt at the time (always past tense). Narrator #2 can only do the latter.

So there are actually three options for how the tenses pan out:

I am six-foot six, burly and bronzed from working so much in the sun, and I am used to ladies staring at me in a roomful of other men.

Narrator #1, commenting on events at the time from a point from a point in the future where all these things are still true.

I was six-foot six, burly and bronzed from working so much in the sun, and I was used to ladies staring at me in a roomful of other men.

Narrator #1, commenting on events at the time from a point in the future where these things are no longer true (maybe it's fifty years later and he's an old man)...

OR

Narrator #2 or theoretically narrator #1, faithfully relating what they felt at the time. Which of the two it is for narrator #1 will depend on context and character voice; this particular example doesn't work well for "felt at the time" because it's high-level meta-commentary but the later one in your passage...

But there was something in the way she looked at me that made me take off my hat and stand up even taller. I knew that look, too.

would work better for it, because it's a direct reaction to a minute detail and it makes sense for this to be something the guy thought/felt directly back then.

In general, the first thing I'd do if you start writing a first person story is figure out which of the two narrator options you're going for, because it determines a lot about the narration. Frankly, I would also probably default to #2 unless you plan to do fun things with your story's framing, really push the idea of the story being told by someone, have the narration heavily affected by things future-POV-character knows but the one going through events does not, or do something else that #2 bars you from. This is because in #1, juggling the two different points in time your story belongs in ("back then" and "now when I am telling you this"), your narrator's opinion now and then and how to distinguish the two, etc. can be complicated and a headache, so why bother if you're not going to actually make real use of it? Similarly, because #2 is more straightforward, you're not asking your reader to split their attention and you don't have the implicit spoilers of the future POV hanging around, it can come off as a lot more immediate and suspenseful. It's simpler in a lot of ways, and that can be a very good thing.

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