Describing Your First Person Narrator

Re-blogged from my monthly column over at Flash Fiction Chronicles.

Among the challenges presented by writing in first person point of view, one of the toughest (for this writer at least) is describing your first person narrator. Offering details about a character’s age, physical appearance, and clothing is a great way to build that character, but there are only so many times he or she can walk past a mirror in a single story. I’ve looked through some of my favorite first person stories to find examples of how other writers have attacked this challenge.

Age is probably the easiest character trait to mention. In my opinion, the best way to dole out this information is in a simple declarative sentence. Sometimes writers try to bury it awkwardly in phrases like “my nine-year-old hands,” or “my experience as a forty-two year old.” They are working too hard and the machine of the story shows through clearly in these moments. In published stories, I usually find the narrator’s age stated directly, often right next to the age of another character, like this: “She was twenty-five. I was thirty-three” (Gaitskill, “Today I’m Yours”); “I was eight, and small for my age. Tim was seven” (Tartt, “The Ambush”); “I was eleven that summer, and my sister, Lila, was thirteen” (Swann, “Secret”). The lesson here? Don’t over-think it. If we need to know, just tell us.

Slightly more difficult is describing your character’s physical appearance (what he/she looks like or how he/she is dressed). One effective way to convey this information is by having your narrator compare himself to another character and point out the similarities, like Percy does in “Refresh, Refresh”: “Like me, my father was short and squat, a bulldog.” In other instances, you can point out differences between characters. Here’s an example from “The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon: “[He] was misclad in a dun short, brown pants, and an inflammable-green tie. I was a cool-dressed city boy, all denim and T-shirts…”

In special cases, you can describe your first person narrator as part of a group. Russell gives this very detailed description of a pack of wild girls in “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”: “Our pack was hirsute and sinewy and mostly brunette. We had terrible posture. We went knuckling along the wooden floor on the callused pads of our fists…” Englander employs a similar technique in How We Avenged the Blums: “…Greenheath was like any other town, except for its concentration of girls in ankle-length denim skirts and white-canvas Keds, and boys in sloppy Oxford shirts, with their yarmulkes hanging down as if sewn to the side of their heads.”

I hope these ideas help you give your readers a picture of your narrator without dramatizing her getting dressed in the morning!

**Note: My very sharp copy editor/husband informs me that all of these examples are in past tense! I didn’t even notice this coincidence as I was writing the column. Perhaps it’s easier to write a first person story in past tense, to add a bit of narrative distance. Or perhaps the past tense lends itself more easily to descriptive moments like these. Or perhaps this is another column all together!

4 thoughts on “Describing Your First Person Narrator

  1. I am working on a story set in the past, first person narrative, and your post helped me quite a bit. My next question is how long can you wait before the description. It seems too awkward to put it right at the beginning in my novel. I just doesn’t flow. The opportunity for name, age and description appear more naturally in the second and seventh pages (double spaced) but I wonder if that’s waiting too long.
    Really appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Great post and very helpful. I do enjoy writing in present tense though, so if I notice some examples I’ll send them your way 🙂

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