Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s talk about each viewpoint in more detail. If you missed the first post on the basics of Point of View, you can check it out here.
First Person POV is something many people either love or hate.. Writing in First — and, more importantly, doing it well — can be a bit tricky. Done poorly, it will draw your readers out of the story and, most likely, force them to put your book down before they even get to Chapter Two. But, when done well, using this POV can truly bring your story and your characters to life.
- It’s harder to show, not tell. (If you need help showing instead of telling, visit Showing vs. Telling: 10 Resources to Help you Show, Not Tell)
It’s easy to fall into the trap of walking your character through every step they take:
“I stood and went to the cupboard. Then I took out a mug and poured myself a cup of coffee.” This is telling. While some telling is necessary, an entire story like this would be pretty boring.
- It’s easy to let your own voice slip into the narration and take over your character’s voice.
- It locks you into one character’s perspective. (We’ll touch on head-hopping and using multiple first person’s POV later.)
- Your reader can only know what your character knows, sees, or experiences, making it a little more difficult to work in descriptions and setting. An additional downfall of this is that it can create a vacuum of filler words: I heard, I saw, I felt. This slips back into telling, not showing. These filler words distance your reader from the story.
This is not to say, however, this POV can’t be done. Below are three timeless works of fiction that are written in First — two of which are my absolute favorite books. Some examples of first person:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Now, for some strengths of writing in First:
- It’s intimate. Readers get a firsthand look into the mind of your character and experience the story on a much closer level, as if they’re watching the story unfold through their eyes. This can really evoke the reader’s senses and pull them into the story.
- Great for unique voices. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example, with its story told through the eyes of a child — Scout.
- Readers can get a feel for your character’s history, or even the setting, such as using a Southern U.S. dialect.
- An unreliable narrator in First can create amazing plot twists and intrigue in a good thriller or mystery, such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Fight Club by Chuck Palanhiuk is an amazing example of an unreliable narrator.
Some tips for writing in First:
Utilize the five senses. The bubbling champagne tingled on my tongue. His cheeks were rough against my fingertips, giving a stark contrast from the softness of his lips. The deafening discord around me — from the cheering fans to the screaming guitar blaring from the amps — drowned out even my own thoughts.
Give your narrator a unique voice. While your narrator doesn’t have to have a strong accent to the point of marring the narration itself (think Lennie from Of Mice and Men), they shouldn’t sound stiff and robotic, unless, of course, your narrator is a robot. Make them sound human.
An interesting read is Flowers for Algernon, a story about a learning-disabled man who goes through an experimental trial to raise intelligence. As readers, we see his intelligence grow through the language of his diary entries.
Know your character. Keep in mind their history and back story. Where did they grow up? What sort of education did they have? What is their personality like? Are they abrasive and rough around the edges? Or gentle and kind?
Other things to keep in mind.
Head hopping. While some more popular books or series head hop, know that it can be jarring for readers. Yes, it’s a way to get around the limitations of what your character knows, but some might consider a bit of a cop-out. (I recently read Me Before You, which involved several instances of chapters narrated by different characters. I found those chapters boring or irritating — I found myself wanting to get back to Lou’s chapters.) Personally, I’m not a fan of it. The one book that I’ve personally read that did two different first-person POVs was Gone Girl; the first half of the book was told by one character, the second half by the other.
Your narrator doesn’t have to be your protagonist — peripheral narration. Think Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby. He’s a first-person narrator who isn’t in the midst of the action.
Don’t be afraid to play around with different points of view and narration types. If one doesn’t work out, consider it good practice!