Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Importance of Motivation – What drives your characters? Part 1


Motivation is such an important element to fiction writing. Without it, there would be no story to tell. That’s how vital it is.
Everything we do in life has a reason behind it, even the mundane things. This is basic human nature.  And sometimes, if we don’t do something, there may well be consequences.
The thing about motivation is that is it controlled by behaviour – so psychology plays an important part. Characters, like real people, behave according to the things that go on around them and to them.
Writing is all about the need to know why.  Why do people do what they do? What makes them react in a certain way? What lies beneath? It’s basic psychology; the need to not just know, but to understand the root of human behaviour.
Every one of us has a backstory.  So do your characters.  Our backstories tell people who we are, where we’re from, who our parents are, what we do in life, our hopes and dreams and fears, and who we share that life with. We all have a childhood; we all have good and bad experiences – our childhood and environment shapes us as adults. That means sometimes we take on the traits of our mothers and fathers – good, bad or indifferent – which forms the way we behave. That’s why we all react differently to different things. All these ‘things’ form the basis of motivation.
Character backstories form the main staple of the story. What drives them? Well, all the ‘things’ that have happened to the characters, and often it is usually one event, one incident, one moment or feeling that drives them.
The common denominator with motivation is emotion. Emotion is closely related to motivation, from the word mouvre. Emotions fuel us, they affect our behaviour and they can often overwhelm us. Emotions provide a huge amount of motivation where your characters are concerned.
The most common emotional catalysts found in fiction - which are all interconnected – are as follows:
Resentment
Bitterness is an all too common trait. There are all sorts of reasons why we resent, and it drives us to sometimes act impulsively or stupidly. Some people can take control of it deal with it, while others are consumed by it and cannot forgive or forget – it really is a driving force. They hang onto that negative emotion, and it’s the negative side of that emotion that drives their behaviour.
Characters that resent someone or something - such as a situation- may be bitter and stark until the reason for such hatred is resolved, so their ultimate goal would be to find a way of dealing with the person or the situation or by forgiving the person they believe is the cause of such bitterness.
Revenge
Most stories have this as the main theme, and it’s not surprising because humans harbour the primitive need to seek justice for all manner of things, by whatever means. Characters that are out for revenge will do things that are often out of character, such is the strength of this emotion. And of course, with revenge comes consequences.
Hatred
Another driving force, hatred is an all-consuming emotion that turns normally likeable nice people into raging animals. It overrides our sense of morality and logic, so characters driven my hatred will be deeply flawed and less likable, but engaging nonetheless because there will always be a reason behind why they are behave the way they do.
The negative emotion is what motivates them, and will continue to do so until the emotion is quashed, usually by taking revenge.
Love
In much the same way that hatred can consume us, love does, too. The things we do for love are not always logical, but can be endearing. We’d go to the ends of the Earth for our loved ones, and your characters will be no different. Love is a powerful emotion – especially if the love is unrequited, and so it provides plenty of motivation for characters.
Fear
Fear is not necessarily the jump-scare kind, but rather the inner fears we all have. The emotion of fear is also a driving force and motivates characters - fear of loss of a loved one, fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted, or fear of losing something invaluable. These are all valid fears that cause all sorts of different behaviours. It can motivate characters in the most unusual ways.
Survival
There is no stronger emotion than this. The survival instinct is something we all have, and when our backs are against the wall, we fight tooth and nail to get out of danger. This is more than enough motivation for your characters.
Other motivation facilitators are created by events and incidents in the past. Our childhood is a huge sponge full of stuff that shapes who we become as adults, and often these develop our behaviours, in the belief we’re doing the right thing, in order to justify our actions, be them right or wrong.
In part 2 we’ll look at other catalysts that lead to character motivations and the behavioural markers that lead to actions and reactions common place within novels.

Next week: The Importance of Motivation – What drives your characters? Part 2

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Art of Writing Scenes - Part 2


Part 1 looked at the importance of effective scenes and how they work to enhance elements such as characterisation, plot, moving the story forward and imparting important information to the reader.
But with all those elements in place, how do you start a new scene that seems natural and not forced? How can it appear to be a cohesive part of the story without it stuttering?
There are many ways to begin scenes, and they will largely depend on what has happened in the previous scenes – remember that the story flow must be chronological, so proceeding scenes will follow in a logical way.
Begin With Simple Exposition
Writers sometimes start their scenes with a few narrative lines to get the reader into the next part of the story without A) too much info-dumping or B) jolting the reader, for example:-
He slept better on a full stomach and in the morning he checked himself in the mirror and saw that his complexion had changed completely. He no longer looked like the pale grey creature that stalked the streets at night.
In this example the narrative is primed for the reader; it eases them into the next scene without overdoing it or without the need to spend half a page describing the event.
Begin with Action
Writers love to jump straight into action scenes, especially when the preceding scene hints of the action to come. These scenes have to follow logically from previous scenes for them to work. You can’t jump from a quiet, reflective scene to explosions and mayhem in the next scene without making the reader aware of why or how, otherwise it will just come off as disjointed.
Writers use the cliffhanger device – in the preceding scene they hint as what might happen by leaving the hero in some kind of predicament, then a new scene or chapter begins, for example:
The flash of light rasped across his vision and he instantly grabbed Amy and threw her to the ground to avoid the blast, while debris fell all about him in a thunderous roar...
This example jumps into action and allows the reader to fully immerse in the scene.
Begin With Flashback
You can start a scene with a flashback, if it’s important to the current plot developments. Just remember to hint to the reader so that when you do use the flash back (identified by the past-pluperfect tense), the reader will comprehend. If you don’t, the reader will easily become confused, for example:
Feelings welled within him, and those sensations gave rise to half hidden memories. He remembered the time, back in 1976, when, as a seven year old boy, he had first met the man who would bring terror to his family...
Here the example hints to the reader there is a flashback scene, by introducing the notion through the character’s personal feelings and thoughts. The tense correctly changes from past tense to past-pluperfect, to denote the flashback.
Begin With Dialogue
Scenes that open with dialogue are very common, as a run on from the last scene, or an introduction to other characters in a new scene. These kinds of scene starters are compelling, because the reader hasn’t been given any description or narrative to introduce it; so it makes them want to find out more.
Begin With a Setting Description
Some scenes can start with setting of the scene, especially if the action moves to another place or involves other characters elsewhere in the story. It doesn’t have to be long or lusciously described. A few sentences are more than enough to satisfy the reader, for example:
The light flickered in the distance as John approached the house through the snowdrift. The forest remained eerily quiet, bathed in a full moon...
The simple description sets the scene and creates some intrigue and mood to start the scene. These kinds of scenes don’t need to be overdone; sometimes less is more.
The art of writing scenes is to try to open them at an interesting moment, or to create some atmosphere or tension, or to make it compelling enough to pique the reader’s interest, while moving the story onward.
Most scenes contain a hint of conflict, even if it’s only implied. And that could mean internal and external conflicts that help with the plot. Remember, conflict doesn’t have to take place between two or more people. Conflicts come in many guises.
Do your scenes achieve what you want it to show or say? So they give the reader information and hints, do they push the story forward, bolster the mood or atmosphere, or perhaps slow it down for a more gentle approach? Do your scenes follow on from each other? In other words, are they in logical order? If they’re not, there’s a problem; it means you’ve scene-skipped. This will confuse and frustrate the reader; it will be hard for them to understand what’s going on. It’s like watching a movie that’s been edited in the wrong order.
In essence, scenes rely on a whole host of sensory elements to help the reader visualise.
Summary of what scenes achieve:

  • Provides motivation, conflict and emotion
  • Allows character revelation through dialogue
  • Gives sensory detail – makes the reader visualise
  • Provides important background information
  • Leads the reader and moves the story forward
  • Descriptions set the tone, mood and atmosphere
  • Allows the writer to exercise flourishes to enhance the experience – metaphors, symbolism, foreshadowing, assonance etc

Each scene is a stepping stone to the next, and so on. They must make sense, they must flow, but ultimately, they must tell the story.
Next week: Motivation – What drives your characters?

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Art of Writing Scenes – Part 1


There is no escaping it – every book needs great scenes in order to convey the story in such a way that the reader becomes fully immersed in the book and is unable to put it down.
But is there a specific way writers should approach writing scenes? How do they know what to put into a scene and what to leave out?
Every book is constructed in such a way that they rely on pivotal scenes that propel the story forward. It’s important that all scenes keep some kind of momentum and don’t allow the pace to grind to a halt. This is why many writers find constructing scenes a little overwhelming, especially when they’re not always sure what kind of scenes they need.
We use scenes in various ways:
  • To show the reader what’s going on
  • To move the story forward
  • To show characterisation
  • To impart important or relevant information
  • To help the plot
Writing scenes might sound very straightforward, but there are a few things to think about when considering the elements that are required, and the first thing to consider is the reason the scene needs to be there in the first place. What does it need to say? Who is involved? What is the point you want to make?
Scenes need to have purpose because they show the reader what is happening in a logical order. If they don’t have a point to make, they are not really helping to tell the story.
Another other thing to think about is, what do you want the scene achieve? What should happen to facilitate this and does it move the story forward?
Writers have to know when and where scenes will start. Often it’s better to start in the middle of something, for dramatic effect, rather than spending a page and a half setting up the scene and boring the reader in the process. Avoid info dumping and waffle and just get right to the heart of the scene.
Elements for Writing Scenes
As already mentioned, scenes need to have a point, they need to have a reason to be there in the first place, so whether it’s introductory scene (where the main character(s) are introduced), an action scene, a revelatory scene, a reflective scene, an emotional scene, a light-hearted scene or a dread-filled, atmospheric scene – these scenes need to lead the reader and the story.
Scenes also need to get to the point, so a scene between the protagonist and another character might lead to a revelation, so it’s best to start the scene with the immediate lead up to that revelation, or open right in the middle of it. Don’t make the mistake of writing half a page about the weather or what’s in the background as the main character goes for a walk to meet the other character.  Here’s an example, followed by the same scene that gets to the point – compare the two for effectiveness:
John walked the path next to the canal, his mind of the meeting ahead with Diane. It looked as though it might rain and he pulled his collar up as he rounded the corner and made his way across the street to the café.
‘This better be good, John. You made me come out in this weather and I’m soaking wet.’
‘I know, and I’m sorry for making you come out in the rain,’ he said. But here’s something I need to tell you.’
Now compare the long winded scene above – which doesn’t have much purpose or point – to one that doesn’t get bogged down with irrelevant description and instead gets right to the point.
John stood in the doorway, out of the rain.
Diane turned to face him. ‘This better be good, John.’
‘Save the anger. There’s something I need to tell you,’ John said.
This example gets right to the point. It doesn’t need all the extraneous waffle. With the average novel running from 80K – 95K words, writers can’t afford to have scenes that are full with irrelevant information. Don’t let scenes drag on. If they do, you’ll lose the reader’s interest.
It’s also no good having a thrilling action scene followed by a scene with the two main characters in a garden, talking about the flowers and the lovely weather, because it does nothing for the story. It doesn’t impart important information or clues and it doesn’t lead the reader or the story. It doesn’t show the reader anything; it doesn’t have a point to make and doesn’t move the story forward.
If you have these kinds of scenes, get rid of them.
Another element to scene writing is that writers have to provide information, hints or clues via narrative or dialogue to help readers visualise the story in their minds. That’s why scenes are an effective way of delivering such information.
Another thing to bear in mind is that you should always establish the POV character and stay in that POV through the scene or chapter. This makes it much easier for the reader to follow. Never change POV in the middle of a scene. This will confuse the reader and will weaken the entire story. Every time the POV needs to shift to another character, start a new scene or a new chapter.
Every good scene should establish the setting so that the reader knows where the action is taking place. If you have multiple POV characters within the same place, you won’t have to establish the setting every time you change scenes. But if the next scene moves from a ballroom, for instance, into the garden, then you need to point this out so that the reader can easily follow what is going on, otherwise they will think the action is still in the ballroom.
When establishing a scene, a few simple lines of description are all that is necessary without overloading the narrative with scene-setting info dumps and irrelevant exposition.
No story can be told without effective scenes. The story is a chronological order of scenes from start to finish.
Remember that scenes do more than tell the reader where the characters are or what they’re doing.

Next week: The Art of Writing Scenes – Part 2

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Perfecting Third Person POV – Part 2


Part 1 looked at the different types of third person POV available and the advantages this viewpoint gives the writer. Now we’ll look at the possible drawbacks to using 3rd person POV and ways to work efficiently with this commonly used POV.
Disadvantages
Thankfully there are not too many negative aspects to working with third person, but there are a few things for writers to be aware of.
One of the main problems of third person POV is that with a cast of many characters, and trying to accommodate all of them, it can lead to something called ‘head hopping’. This is when the writer flits from character to character in the same scene, meaning the POV is all over the place. This means that any attempt to create emotion, tension, conflict or atmosphere, is lost. Here’s an example:
John looked around the café and saw Diane at a table along the far wall, a book in her hands and her expression drawn in concentration. Despite her frown, she still looked beautiful. He approached with a reserved smile. He didn’t want to look too overbearing. ‘Hope I’m not interrupting...’
Diane peered up at John. ‘You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you’re following me.’ Not that it bothered her; she had secretly hoped he would follow her back from the train station, since she had spent the best part of four hours talking with him on the journey.
The mistake here is that the POV is not cemented with either character. It’s hard to tell who the main character is. This is a common error made by new writers. This is a typical head hopping scene. But the focus of any scene should always be from the character’s viewpoint you choose. So for this example, let’s make it John’s character: 
John looked around the café and saw Diane at a table along the far wall, a book in her hands and her expression drawn in concentration. Despite her frown, she still looked beautiful. He approached with a reserved smile. He didn’t want to look too overbearing. ‘Hope I’m not interrupting...’
Diane peered up at John. ‘You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you’re following me.’
He offered a warm expression. ‘Well, we have just spent the best part of four hours talking on the train, but it’s not as dramatic as you think’. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small photograph, the one she had shown him soon after boarding in London. ‘You left this on your seat...’
This time the POV exclusively belongs to John. It’s all about him and it’s from his perspective. Diane’s involvement is deliberately limited to allow John to come forward in the scene.  If I wanted to change to Diane’s perspective, I would need to start a new scene or chapter.
The other disadvantage is that it doesn’t create the amount of immediacy that first person POV does. This is because the writer has many character viewpoints at his or her disposal, and the more characters he or she has to juggle, the less opportunity there is for the writer to connect with the reader. A single character – first person POV - is ideal for relating with the reader, but a handful of characters will make that connection challenging.
The way to overcome this is to build more emotion and empathy into your characterisations and key scenes. Emotions are part of a universal language – we all share the same emotions, therefore in third person POV, the writer should engage the reader with those emotions – make the reader feel everything the characters – and the main character in particular – are going through; make them feel pain, hurt, joy, fear, love...whatever the character feels, make the reader feel it, too.
The other thing to consider is that when there are multiple characters, there is going to be a lot of pronoun use, since they will either be ‘he’ or ‘she’ a lot of the time, as opposed to ‘I’ in first person.
To avoid too much use of he/she when there are scenes with a number of characters, especially if there is more than two male or more than two female characters at any one time, writers have to ensure they construct sentences carefully so that it’s clear who is doing the talking, for example:
John sat down next to Diane and sipped his drink.
She offered a shy smile.
Jenny eased into the chair to next to Diane and nudged her shoulder. She lowered her voice. ‘He seems really nice...’
‘He’s amazing,’ she said.
John looked up at the two women and grinned.
This kind of construction avoids overuse of pronouns, which can end up being quite confusing for the reader if there are multiple characters in a scene, unless it’s controlled.  Here it is clear who is doing the action and the talking, without reverting to too much he/she constructions.  
The great thing about third person is that it’s the most versatile POV for first time writers and gives them a chance to explore and experiment with their writing and expand their skills without becoming bogged down with the technical difficulties associated with first person POV.
And the best way to perfect POV – whether first person or third person – is to practice, practice, practice.

Next week: The Art of Constructing Scenes

Monday, 29 August 2016

Perfecting Third Person POV – Part 1



The most common viewpoint for most writers is third person. That’s because it’s easy to work with, it’s easy for the reader to become involved with the story on many different levels and it is the best POV to use while learning the process of creative writing.
 
Third Person POV

Third person point of view is very adaptable and easy to work with. Why? Well, unlike first person POV, it’s not restrictive. The POV means you can explore different character’s viewpoints, emotions, actions and reactions, instead of being stuck with just one character. Third person gives a much deeper insight and perspective on both story and characters. A lot of writers like to work with third person because of this freedom. They can show much more for the reader.
 
There are two views with third person:  Third person past tense and third person present tense, for example:
 
Third person past tense: He stood on the doorstep and waited for her reaction to his intrusion.
 
Third person present tense: He stands on the doorstep and waits for her reaction.
 
Although not as complicated as working with tenses in first person, if writers are not careful they might slip tenses if trying to work with third person present, but that said, any tense errors really jar and stand out, and are much easier to spot than those in first person. For that reason, third person present is not very popular and so most writers avoid it and stick to third person past tense.
 
There are further sub-groups; third person multiple and third person limited. There is also third person omniscient. So what do these actually mean?
 
Third person multiple refers to the writer using many of the characters to tell the story. This is accomplished by switching character viewpoints at the beginning of new scenes or chapters in order for the reader to gain more information and perspective about the story, the kind of information not always privy to the main character. This is a useful way of adding deeper characterisation and allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story by wave of piecing together the hints and clues the writer gives them.
 
Third person limited differs because it is limited to the main character’s point of view only, and therefore other character’s perceptions and characterisations are not explored. The reader is only privy to what the main character thinks and feels, although it is not as limiting as first person POV.
 
Third person omniscient means that the narrator is all knowing or ‘God-like’ and can tell the reader what any character is feeling or thinking in any scene, for instance:
 
Who could have known that John would feel so betrayed by Diane’s actions? That she was attracted to him, but remained reluctant to tell? Who could say what his reaction might be...
 
Omniscient viewpoint is rare in modern writing, but was very popular in late 18th and early 19th century writing. To modern writing, it doesn’t seem as attractive and won’t engage the reader in the same way as third person multiple.
 
Advantages
 
The most advantageous thing about third person is that it’s very easy to work with and creates consistency, especially for first time writers. It allows the writer more freedom to explore the story because it allows full characterisation of not only the main character, but also the secondary characters.
 
Well written third person can also create immediacy – a connection between the main character and the reader - though not on the intimate level of first person, obviously.
 
Third person POV suits all manner of stories, whether flash fiction, short stories or novellas, but it’s best when used for full length novels because of how easy it is for the writer to work with multiple characters and explore all perspectives and emotions – a writer can show the reader more information through other characters and show incidents and events that occur outside the main character’s perception.  
 
It’s almost a 360o view of the world, which the reader can share, so it’s an excellent way of creating tension, atmosphere, mood and tone. The writer can show the shadow creeping up the stairs towards the hero, or through description, show the noises from dark corners in the old abandoned house. It allows the reader to share the emotions and reactions, to hear those noises and see those shadows and become immersed in the whole story.
 
The other advantage is that action scenes or intimate scenes can be explored on detailed level, without restrictions normally associated with first person POV.
 
By far the best reason to use third person is the way it allows the writer to show rather than tell, so that descriptions can build tone, mood, atmosphere, tension and emotion, and of course, that all important conflict.
 
In Part 2 we’ll look at the disadvantages of using third person and why a writer needs to be selective about which POV is the best for the story.
 
Next week: Perfecting Third Person POV – Part 2

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Perfecting First Person POV – Part 2


Part 1 looked at the advantages and disadvantages of First Person POV, and how point of view choice plays an important role, so in Part 2 we’ll look at more common problems and how to master this difficult POV.
Common Problems
One of the most common problems with first person point of view is that writers forget that the narrator cannot possibly know what cannot be seen. Unlike third person, where the narrator can describe lots of things within the scene to create tension and atmosphere, first person doesn’t allow for this. In other words, the hero can’t possibly know that the bad guy is creeping down the hallway towards him because he can’t see him. Nor can he possibly know what is happening outside, or in the next room etc.
The other problem is that first person POV is that the writer falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. This is because first person doesn’t allow other character perspectives or any depth to the descriptions, for example:
I saw the knife glint beneath the light and picked it up.  I heard movement outside the door and I knew I could use it to defend myself from the intruder.
This example resorts to telling the reader, rather than showing them. Writers do this because it’s easier, instead of thinking about how they can structure certain scenes to show rather than tell. Everything that happens in the story happens through one person’s eyes, so writers have to make the effort to show the reader, rather than tell them. Compare it with this example, which shows the reader:
The knife glinted beneath the light and caught my eye, as though to lure. The floorboard creaked, and then the sound of ruffling crept through the dimness; so close to me.
Because first person relies on the present tense, it means all the verb tenses have to be correct in order for the narrative to make sense. But that’s easier said than done – it can be difficult to master even for established writers. It’s so easy to slip tenses, for example:
I looked around, but I couldn’t see him. He has a knack of disappearing if he picks up a scent, and today it seemed he’d found one. I called out to him and heard his bark in response, so I knew he was close. I followed the sounds through the trees and saw him standing over a large bone and wagging his tail.
At first glance, the narrative looks fine, but on closer inspection, the tenses have actually become tangled. The first sentence is past tense, but the second sentence slips to present, then past again, within the same sentence. The third sentence remains past tense.
Tangled tenses are the most common error when writing first person POV and one of the reasons why a full length novel in first person is not recommended for new authors, simply because of the problems with tenses.
I look around, but I couldn’t see him. He has a knack of disappearing if he picks up a scent, and today it seemed he’d found one. I call out to him and hear his bark in response, so I knew he was close. I follow the sounds through the trees and see him standing over a large bone and he wagged his tail.
With this example, the tenses slide from present to past in the first sentence. The second sentence starts as present tense and slips to past. The last sentence slips from present to past.
Writers should take the time to practice with first person POV by writing short stories, which are perfect for first person POV. The more familiar they become with it, the better able they are to spot tense errors. Writers need to be confident that they can write competently in first person POV. If not, the result will be a failure.
If in doubt, avoid using it.
So how should it be done? This past-tense example shows the correct tense and verb positions.
I took the bus home, as usual. The evening had gathered across the sky and accompanied my walk from the main road – full with willows either side – where my house nestled on the right, but halfway down the street, the ochre street light cast shadows across the footpath; I saw three in total.
This has the correct tenses; it shows rather than tells the reader. It has the correct structure to avoid too much use of ‘I’ and it uses other means to employ tension and atmosphere. The tenses in this example remain in the past tense and therefore the narrative stays consistent, even though it’s limited by the first person.
Now here’s the same description, told as present tense.
I take the bus home, as usual. The evening gathers across the sky and accompanies my walk from the main road – full with willows either side – where my house nestles on the right, but halfway down the street, the ochre street light casts shadows across the footpath; I see three in total.
This present tense remains consistent, if a little unwieldy. This is hard to maintain over a full length novel and it’s not that popular among readers or publishers.  
The best way to tackle first person is to be very aware of tenses. Check to make sure that the tense you use remains consistent. Pay close attention to the following:-

  • Early in the first chapter, let the reader know who your main character – your narrator – is. Writers tend to forget to introduce their main character from the outset, leaving readers wondering who the main character is.
    The reader will spend the entire novel in your main character’s head, so it’s important to have a character that is likeable and has a compelling voice and personality to create immediacy.
  • Make use of your protagonist’s inner thoughts to offer the reader a different perspective, but don’t overdo it. Readers don’t need to know the main character’s every thought. Use those thoughts to explore what the other characters might be feeling – use their expressions and actions to show the reader.
  • Structure sentences carefully to avoid excessive use of ‘I’.
  • Use the correct tenses – make sure present tense stays present. If using past tense, ensure it stays past tense. Don’t slip from one to another.
  • Use other characters during dialogue to help establish what the narrator looks like. Alternatively, use the narrator’s direct thoughts.
  • Where possible in your descriptions, show the reader, don’t tell them.
Ask most writers and they’ll tell you how difficult it can be maintaining perfect tense when writing first person, so practice until you get it right.

Next week: Perfecting 3rd Person POV

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Perfecting First Person POV – Part 1


The point of view of your main character will depend on the kind of story you want to tell, and the style you want for it. It’s an important choice to make.

Most stories are told in first person or third person, the most commonly used types. There are other, lesser known types of POV, such as second person, but this one is unwieldy and not at all reader friendly.

Each type has its own merits and shortcomings; each one fits different styles and genres better than the other.  Each one may suit the writer better than the other. This is why choice of viewpoint is so important.

First person point of view is the viewpoint of the main character only; everything is seen through their eyes. It’s quite an intimate POV because everything is done as the main character, which is very different from a third person, which allows the writer to explore more than just the main character. But unlike third person POV, there is no skipping from character to character to gain more insight, perspective and emotions.

There is only one insight, one perspective and one lot of emotions in first person POV.

The main thing you notice with first person is the use of tenses. There are specific tenses associated with first person POV:

First person present tense – e.g. I stand in the doorway and look at John.

First person past tense – e.g. I stood in the doorway and looked at John.

There isn’t much between these two, but writers mix these up constantly, slipping from present to past or vice versa without even realising, so the first thing every writer should understand about first person POV is that it’s not easy to execute, especially by first time writers. Maintaining such a consistency throughout a full length novel is difficult, and even established writers make errors when working in first person.

Advantages

It’s a useful viewpoint if you want to create a sense of immediacy.  This allows the reader to easily connect with the main characters because the entire story is written from your main character’s viewpoint. It allows the reader to fully immerse in the main character’s world; it’s a unique and close viewpoint.

First person POV suits short stories and novellas better than full length novels, simply because of the difficulty in maintaining consistency with verb tenses over a full length novel.

I stand in the doorway and look at John. He saw me and nodded and I walk over to greet him.

See how easy it is to make this mistake? The above example skips tenses from first person present to first person past, then back to present again.

Disadvantages

The main drawback is that it’s very limiting. You are completely stuck in your character’s head for the entirety of the story, so you can’t explore other character’s personal thoughts, emotions or actions in the same way you could with third person POV. And because it’s not possible to explore other characters as deeply as you would third person, characterisations tend to be slightly different and restricted. You are limited to the first person’s actions, thoughts and emotions only.

The other disadvantage is that for full length novels, first person can be grating with the constant ‘I did this, I did that, I went there, I looked at this’ and so on. It’s very limiting structurally, emotionally and descriptively. Writers have to find different ways of structuring the narrative to avoid this constant use.

The reader knows who is narrating, so the need to say ‘I’ can be dispensed most of the time. And of course, descriptive narrative is another way to get around it, for instance, instead of saying ‘I saw the door open to the darkness’, you could write it as: ‘The door opened to the darkness...’

Another disadvantage is that it’s difficult for your narrator to describe him/herself to the reader, without resorting to the ‘character in front of the mirror’ cliché. There are other ways to let the reader imagine what your main character looks and sounds like. Writers do this by using dialogue other characters, with one of them perhaps mentioning the main character’s hair or stubble or scar under the left eye. Hints like this help the reader build up a picture, all without you having to place your character in front that obligatory mirror.

There are other problems, other than the limiting reach of characterisation. Unlike third person, where suspense and tension is an integral part of the narrative build up, it’s not really possible in first person because the reader will only be privy to narrator’s thoughts. They won’t know how character B or C is feeling in tense scene because they are not privy to them. Any tension and atmosphere will only come through your narrator’s eyes. It loses a lot of impact.

The limitations come thick and fast – emotions, tension, perspective and atmosphere are all limited, as is the ability to describe settings without the narrative sounding awkward, for instance:

‘I walked up the stone steps to the ornate ballroom, full with golden chandeliers dripping crystals and an exquisite marble floor that reflected all around it like a beautifully polished mirror...’

This is just ungainly because it’s just too much telling. And the narrator isn’t narrating a documentary. But this is a common problem with first person, yet writers still make this mistake.

Writers have to be smart about how they write, so they have to weave those hints into the narrative or in dialogue, for example:

‘I walked up the steps to the ornate ballroom and saw the golden chandeliers. I made my way across the marble floor. I remember how much it reflected like a beautifully polished mirror...’

There is more to consider in first person in order to get the structure right. Next week we'll look at how this is achieved and how to perfect this POV.


Next week: Perfecting First Person POV – Part 2.