The first person point of view is a popular choice for writers who want to convey a strong voice or who like the intimacy that a first-person narrative conveys. But when deciding to write in the first person, it’s important to consider the use of tense and the effect this has on the story.
There are, I think, three main options:
- The present tense.
- The past tense.
- A mixture of past and present.
The Present Tense
A first-person narrative combined with the present tense is perfect for conveying immediacy. It’s a popular choice at the moment with young adult authors.
For example, here is the opening of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.
And here is the opening of Divergent by Veronica Roth:
There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.
Both Katniss (The Hunger Games) and Tris (Divergent) are telling us their stories as they happen. This is an important point. It means that neither protagonist knows the outcome of her story.
The Past Tense
When a writer combines the first person with the past tense then it’s as if the narrator of the story is in two places at once.
What I mean by that rather confusing statement is that the narrator is both the person in the story and the person narrating the story after the events have taken place.
One of the most famous first-person stories that uses the past tense is the classic To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Scout, the first-person narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird is telling the story years after the events have taken place, hence the use of the past tense. This brings an added dimension to the story because she is able to narrate the events with the benefit of hindsight. It also means that, knowing how the story is going to end, she is able to hint at things that are going to happen.
In the opening paragraph of To Kill A Mockingbird Scout tells us that her brother broke his arm when he was nearly thirteen. In the second paragraph she uses the benefit of hindsight to judge what led to her brother breaking his arm. She also hints at what’s to come:
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it started the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
Hinting at what’s to come is a good way of building suspense into a story, but this technique is only available if the first-person narrator is telling the story in the past, i.e. after they have lived to tell the tale.
A Mixture of Past and Present
Mixing past and present is possible if the narrator is writing about the immediate past and also about the present.
In The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Iris Chase is remembering her sister’s mysterious death. When she writes about her sister she uses the past tense:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign.
But when she writes about herself in the present moment she uses the present tense:
For whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture of myself reading it over at a later time, later time having become problematical.
So before embarking on a first-person narrative it’s important to consider the time perspective of the narrator.
If you want to write a story that feels very immediate and in which the narrator does not bring the benefit of hindsight to bear on the story, then use the present tense.
If you want your narrator to be able to hint that things to come and describe the events with some perspective, then use the past tense.
If your narrator is consciously writing about the past and the present, then you’ll need to use both tenses.