Saturday, January 1, 2011

One Voice, One View

1st Person POV

Happy New Year everyone!

I'd like to start us off by extending a hand across the big pond with our December giveaway. Our winner is Vicki Stanton! Ms. Stanton writes children's books and edits a bi-monthly e-magazine, Buzz Words (, and she lives in Australia. Congratulations, Vicki!

Continuing our discussion of "da rulz..."

We were taught in school that 1st person point of view (or narration) uses the pronouns "I, me, my." This basic definition might be enough for a student to identify an author's viewpoint choice, but writing in 1st person requires a much deeper understanding. Noah Lukeman, in his book, The First Five Pages, provides this adamant statement about the importance of mastering POV: "Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break or inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant chord in the midst of a harmonious musical performance."

Breaking down the whats, whys, and hows will help us come to a deeper understanding of this narrative technique. Choosing to write in 1st person isn't merely a matter of following a genre convention.

YA for girls is often written in 1st person... but why did the authors choose to write that way? I think the primary reason is voice. 1st person narration with an authentic teen voice will create the illusion that the reader is reading the journal of a friend, someone with whom she can relate. This quality of narration is, unfortunately, something novice writers miss, or they unknowingly allow the narrative voice to slip into their own perspectives. A killing blow for YA fiction--unless masterfully and carefully handled--is for the narrative voice to read like an adult looking back on his/her life with a wiser understanding of the events. This comes across as preachy or parental, and often turns teenage readers right off. (Note: this is a "rule," but it can be broken... if the author really knows what he's doing! If not done well... rejection notices are probably on their way.)

Going beyond the definition of 1st person that we learned in school, a fundamental understanding of writing in 1st person is that we are creating an illusion that we, the authors, are not the ones telling the story, but the characters themselves. The author must become the character. The illusion must be well crafted such that the reader is carried along with the story despite the glaring contradiction: that the name on the front of the book is not the character's name.

Nancy Kress, in her book Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, begins a section on 1st person POV with this heading: VOICE: THE HEART OF FIRST PERSON. I really can't stress this enough when it comes to writing for young adults. Your story has to read like it was written by a teenager if you're writing in 1st person.

I'll get into the topic of voice later this week. For now, let's go a little deeper into the definition of 1st person POV.

In good 1st person narration, the author is invisible. The story is told completely through the perceptions, understandings, and experiences of the POV character. We are totally inside the character's head. This gives the reader a deeply intimate perspective on the story with the distinctive voice (language, worldview, emotional perspective, etc.) of the main character. One potential problem with this is that the perspective can be limiting, even claustrophobic. There can be no going outside the character's experiences to explore an event where he/she isn't present or explain things that he/she doesn't understand. This limitation means that your character will sometimes be an observer of other characters' actions, not directly interacting with them at every given moment. If this goes on for too long, the story can lose the feel of that intimate 1st person POV and slip into 3rd person without the benefit of omniscience (that is, the narrative cannot ever dip into the thoughts and senses of the other characters). It is as if the 1st person character has gone away and the narration becomes distant.

Over this next week I'll explore some of the pros and cons of 1st person narrative, talk about voice, and then analyze ways for an author to effectively break "the rules."

For now, here's a little exercise for you. If you're writing in 3rd person or omniscient POV, take a look at any scene in your book and think about how the writing would change if you were to switch to 1st person. Would the scene have a more intimate feel? Would the perspective on the scene change (that is, would the character see the event differently than the way you've portrayed it)? How would the language differ?

If you're already writing in 1st person, pick a scene in your book where two characters are interacting. How would the narrative change if you were writing it from the other character's POV? Would the voice be different? Would the tone of the scene change (for example, if one character is angry and the other is calm, they're going to have different perspectives on what is happening).

If you'd like, you can post a snippet of the scene (please, just a few paragraphs) and then rewrite it to reflect that different POV technique or character perspective.

Wishing you all a blessed new year!

References for this post:

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and exercises for crafting dynamic characters and effective viewpoints.

Alicia Rasley, The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life.