Creating Narrative Distance in First-Person Stories

Sunday, April 12, 2015
Have you ever had a work of fiction mistaken for autobiography?

This happened to me all the time in my early writing days because I often used a first-person narrator to write realistic, literary fiction, so my stories tended to sound like autobiography to my audience.

Is this a positive or a negative?

On the one hand, maybe I’m writing realistically enough to convince my audience to believe in the character and the story. They believe it so much that they believe it is fact, not fiction.

On the other hand, maybe I’m not making a clear enough separation from myself and the narrator, so my fiction comes across as sounding like loosely-veiled or straight autobiography.

The Writers Studio explains that creating distance between the writer and narrator “allows the writer to play and create. [...] Fiction is more interested in artistry and drama, and there is no artistry or drama if there is no freedom or distance to be irreverent, take chances with language or change the facts to create the most engaging story.”

So how can you create narrative distance using first-person narrative?

Using First-Person Narratives

Authors use first-person narration to build characters and create emotional closeness, but others believe it is too limiting. Therefore, the narrator’s perspective will depend on the characters and the story the author wants to tell.

As I have matured as a writer, I have learned that fiction writers should use first-person only sparingly, and perhaps this is to ensure narrative distance. Jonathan Franzen has suggested that writers use third person unless “a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.”

Some of the best first-person fictional narratives are stories that are NOT entirely about the narrator. A first-person narrator should tell someone else’s story. Think Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, the story’s told in her voice from her point of view, but the novel is not about Scout. It’s about Tom Robinson. It’s about race and class relations in the south.

Or think about detective novels written in first person. They’re told from the detective’s point-of-view, but they’re not about the detective – they’re about the crime and the criminals.

Using first-person narrative to tell someone else’s story or using it to give alternative points of view of an event or issue are ways to create that narrative distance when using first-person narrative.

Now I have to revisit my short story collection to see if my narration should have been in third person rather than first!

How do you create narrative distance in your first-person stories?

Written by Anne Greenawalt, writer and writing instructor


Sioux Roslawski said...


It's interesting that you wrote this post, as I had a similar problem (or perhaps an opposite problem) not long ago. I was writing fiction, yet I had real-life friends in the story. To protect the innocent (or hide the guilty, depending on the friend/family member), I changed their characteristics, the country their family came from, their looks, their ages, their hobbies. Hopefully, now, if someone read it, they can't say, "Oh, that character is _____" because they're all made-up and mixed up.

Thanks for this post, Anne.

Margo Dill said...

This is an interesting post. I've never written a novel with narrative distance. I do write a lot in 1st person but it usually is my main character's story. This would be an interesting thing to experiment with if you had a story that just wasn't working! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! Now to put it into practice!

Angela Mackintosh said...

We've had several people enter our contest who thought it was open to memoir because after reading our winners' stories--many of which are written in first person--thought they were autobiographical pieces.

I have done this experiment in my own work. I've written a novel in first person then re-written it in third person. I found it extremely helpful if you have a problem of "telling"--the third person cuts down on that immediately by creating narrative distance. Great post, Anne!

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