First Person

As the creator of your fictional world, you have to decide not who your protagonist is and whose POV the story should be told in, but also what POV style you should choose.

There are three main pov choices.

Third Person Limited is the first, and the most popular. It’s the she/he pov and is usually told in past tense, with the author telling the story solely through the eyes of either the heroine, the hero or both. The focus generally does not shift from character to character within any given scene.

Third Person Multiple is next. This POV was popular in the past, particularly with fantasy writers, where a large cast of characters is used. The story is told through the eyes of a number of major characters, often shifting POV’s at each chapter or scene change.

Then there’s first Person, which is where one of the characters tells the story in the “I” voice.

First-person point of view ranks a close second in viewpoint popularity behind third-person limited.

First person puts you directly into the story, and you know only what the main character knows. It’s probably the most natural storytelling voice for fiction because it begs intimacy and immediately draws you in to the action, so you feel as if the author is right in your living room telling the story.

First person POV works best when you really want to get into a character’s head. It’s great for angsty stories, but it can be good for humor as well.

Since first-person POV characters are telling their stories, the first requirement is that the character is actually willing to tell their story. This may sound simple but if your character is extremely introverted, then a significant event will have to happen before they spill their life story. Otherwise, your story’s going to lose some of its credibility.

That’s not to say your character has to talk to someone in order to reveal titbit’s of information, or write in a journal or use a tape recorder. They can dive straight into the action. But always remember that you’re allowing readers to enter this character’s mind, and not only do those same readers have to trust the character, but they have to believe the character has a story to tell.

Also, the character’s voice has to be interesting enough to live with, and writer has to be able to create a distance between himself and first person narrator in order to create a real character on the page. The lazy way out is to use yourself, which is almost never successful, because that approach doesn’t create an interesting character on the page. You’re too close and not distinct enough. You can’t really see or feel the character; you can’t get the distance to bring the character to life to the reader.

One of the drawbacks about writing in first person pov, particularly in mystery fiction, is the fact that we expect the protagonist to survive (they’re writing the story after the event, remember…)

A second drawback is one of identification. The reader often related very closely to the story teller, often becoming the ‘I’ character. This can be uncomfortable, if, for example, your ‘I” character is a sleaze-bag or does nasty things to kittens and kids.

It’s also very easy to give into self-indulgence in first person, and give over to the habit of displaying oneself rather than sharing the whole experience. Take the following passage as an example:

After a long day of working in my stuffy office, I was relieved to be able to walk down to the river and enjoy the coolness of the evening air. The sun was setting, and the colors it reflected off the tall buildings around me reminded me of jeweled diamonds. I watched as a flock of seagulls swooped on food thrown by some passer by, and their scrabbling reminding me of the office I’d just escaped.

In this short piece, we’re forced to share the character’s reactions rather than being permitted to experience it on our own. In short, the author, or “I” character, is in the way, and the reader is forced to take a back seat. Take the I out as much as possible, and the reader becomes more involved. For example, here’s the same passage.:

After a long day of working in a stuffy office, it was a relief to walk down to the river and enjoy the freshness of the evening air. The sun was setting, and the light reflecting off the surrounding buildings resembled jeweled diamonds. A flock of seagulls swooped on food thrown by some passer by, their squabbling a reminder of the office I’d just escaped.

Note that rather than having 7 “I” or “me” references, I now only have two, and yet it somehow feels more intimate.

In first person, the author is charged with the responsibility of letting the reader see it, feel it, and experience it. As I noted before, don’t ‘tell’ readers. Give them a description and let them experience and judge it for themselves. Don’t say the river was rough, describe it, and let the reader get immersed in the ride. Don’t say the hero is a honey, describe him, and allow the reader to see and judge for themselves.

But what many authors forget to show is how the “I’ character is affected by their experiences, how they have grown and/or changed. The character at the end of the novel should never be exactly the same person he/she was at the beginning, and it is a journey you must let your readers experience right along with your character.

In first person writing, you need a character with a really strong voice, so distinctive that the reader will know you couldn’t tell the story any other way. Attitude is what first-person is all about. The first-person narrator can be sassy or angry or contemplative or ironic or even insane. But they can NEVER be boring. The narrative has to interesting and it has to reflect the narrator’s attitudes and personality.

Always remember that the reader can only know what that character learns through interaction with other characters, through overheard conversations or through deduction conducted via internal monologue. The author can not cheat in this POV and supply thoughts or feelings from other characters. (Unless, of course, your character is psychic)

References:
“Whose Point of View?” by Lee Masterson
“Point of View: First-Person” by Apryl Duncan
“Point of View from my Point of View” by Alex Keegan
“The Power of Point of View-the No-Rules Guide to Character Viewpoint” by Alicia Rasley
Article: “Making POV Work for You”
“When ‘First Person’ Is the Last Person You Need” by Moira Allen