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


  1. I know that some readers (and a lot of editors, it seems!) don't like first person POV (or present tense---and 1st person present tense just makes their toes curl!), but I enjoy it as a refreshing change to the usual third person past tense. However, you're right that it can be difficult to get right. Past tense seems to be wired into our brains as the correct tense to write it, and authors can slip out of present tense *very* easily without even noticing it, as you showed. I really like your examples, though, on how to avoid continuous "I" statements. Thanks, AJ! :)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Susan. From a reader's standpoint, I'm not keen, but as a writer, I do like to use it in short stories. And I agree, third person is hard wired into us.

  3. Hi AJ. In the case of first person POV using past tense, how should I phrase something that is ongoing, say, the eye color of my main character. Obviously my character must be alive to narrate the story; should I use past tense to describe the eye color? I want to avoid the cliche of the main character describing her facial features so I am having my character using her sister's facial features in comparison to hers. Thank you so much!

  4. Hi Amanda,

    It's good that you want to avoid clichés while trying to describe the self - i.e. the main character of a first person POV. Writers have to use all sorts of ingenious ways to do so, and using the sister's features as a comparison is a good one.

    You can use the immediate past tense to do it, for example:

    It always amazed me how people mistook me for my sister. We shared the same dark hair and green eyes...

    The other way is to go with past pluperfect tense (usually denoted by the word HAD), and this denotes actions long in the past. It's used for introducing memories or flashbacks, for example:

    I had always been the favourite; my bright hazel eyes broke more than a few hearts. I had a naturally symmetrical, attractive face...

    Either one will work, whichever you choose, because much of the time, it's about carefully structuring sentences so that it makes sense to the reader.

    Hope that helped!


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