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.

2 comments:

  1. One tip AJ is to include direct thoughts in italic. Those direct thoughts are in the present tense. Of course if the entire novel is written in the present tense, that's hard.

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  2. Hi Joan,

    I see what you mean. The general rule of thumb is that by virtue of the first person narrating, direct thoughts don't need italics, since we know who is doing the thinking. The thoughts can only be those of the narrator.

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