Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

When writing in first person, do I automatically have to use the main character as the narrator?

Most first person narratives are told from the main character’s perspective. This strategy, called “first person central,” lets the reader hear the main character’s account of the action through his own voice. In J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield shares his experiences wandering around New York City after he’s been expelled from Pencey Prep, a school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. He takes the train to New York City:

The first thing I did when I got off at Penn Station, I went into this phone booth. I felt like giving somebody a buzz. I left my bags right outside the booth so that I could watch them, but as soon as I was inside, I couldn’t think of anyone to call up. My brother D.B. was in Hollywood. My kid sister Phoebe goes to bed around nine o’clock—so I couldn’t call her up . . . So I ended up not calling anybody. I came out of the booth, after about twenty minutes or so, and got my bags and walked over to that tunnel where the cabs are and got a cab.
While most first person narratives are told from the perspective of the main character, this isn’t your only choice. In “first person peripheral” the narrator is another character in the story, one who witnesses the main character’s story and conveys it to the reader. The peripheral narrator may be a part of the action but he is not the focus. One of the most famous examples of this point of view strategy is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway narrates Gatsby’s story. Gatsby—and his wealth—remain a mystery to the community and rumors abound:
“He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.”
Nick is related to Daisy, Gatsby’s love, who is married to another man. The narrative focuses on Nick’s glimpses and interactions with Gatsby as Gatsby attempts to rekindle this relationship. Here, Nick has arranged a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby at his house:
Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.

With his hands still in his coat pockets he stalked by me into the hall, turned sharply as if he were on a wire and disappeared into the living room. It wasn’t a bit funny. Aware of the loud beating of my own heart I pulled the door to against the increasing rain.
As a peripheral narrator, Nick observes, participates in, and reacts to the action of which he is a part, but the major dramatic focus rests on Gatsby. While the peripheral narrator isn’t the focus of the action itself, he is the focus of the telling, and so his observations and interpretations play a significant role in the unfolding story.