When writing first-person, also known as the subjective narrator, something people often struggle with is that nothing can happen on the page without the narrator being there to witness it. The narrator can hear a story from another character, they can tell a story second-hand or they imagine a story based on what they think happened but, unless we change narrators, we can’t jump between place, time or people unless the narrator is there and makes that jump too.
Before I carry on I should mention there is a type of first-person narrator who can act more like a third-person narrator, also known as the omniscient narrator of which there are different types (see here and here for associated articles). Usually this first-person narrator isn’t fully part of the story they’re narrating, they’re on the peripheries watching it unfold, The Great Gatsby would be a famous example of this. This narrator can violate the general rules of first-person narration because they are telling a story about they’ve built up almost like a journalist.
The more traditional first-person though is limited to what the character telling the story hears, feels and thinks. This can become difficult from a narrative perspective because we can have the supporting characters going off and doing things but we can’t follow them unless the narrator follows them. People can find this particularly frustrating if the supporting characters are going off and doing something plot relevant. For example, if we have a detective and their sidekick goes off to interview someone without them the narrator, the detective, would have to hear about this second-hand.
Then there are the supporting characters themselves who need to be characters independent of the narrator but at the same time we can’t see inside their heads or see what they do when the narrator isn’t around. For writers used to third-person narration this can be difficult without their internal monologues. Arguably because of internal monologues it can appear easier to define a character in an omniscient narration then it is in subjective narration. Here though is where ‘subjective’ becomes key because subjective means everything is told from the narrator’s perspective, therefore we can reveal the characters the same way we learn about people. Just because the narrator is telling the story it doesn’t mean they can be right, they can be mistaken, just as real people are mistaken about real people.
However, before we can start determining how we going to show reveal secondary characters we’ve got to look at how we can use first-person narration and figure out what our narrator’s perspective is.
Well, I did say it could be tricky.