Friday, January 14, 2011

Breaking the "rulz" of First Person POV

First person narration is necessarily artificial.

Imagine yourself writing a detailed report of a car accident for your insurance company. You probably wouldn't look for the most interesting way of phrasing things, and you would have trouble recounting every minute detail of the event and every single word that was said by the people present, much less taking time to describe how they said it, what they looked like, and what the scene looked like, smelled like, sounded like, etc. Also, a first person account implies that whatever happened, the character survives to tell the story. Most readrs are willing to accept these inherent contradictions for the sake of an intimate-feeling account. Some authors skirt the problem by writing in present tense... but this sets up another contradiction that bothers some readers; how can a character involved in a chase scene, for example, stop to write about what's happening? Yet if first person POV is handled well and there is nothing else to take readers out of the story (destroying suspension of disbelief), the technique can be more compelling and intimate than any other POV method. What this means, though, is that first person narration is not as easy to write as it may seem. There are limitations and challenges to consider... and ways to make them work.

Memoir accounts

Because first person is so intimate it doesn't lend itself easily to "epic" dramas spanning long years or multi-generations. In general, the story should follow a particular journey, trial, or quest.

Looking back on events, what Alisha Rasley calls "retrospective retelling," lessens the immediacy and intimacy and is not a good idea for young adult fiction, because the voice would then become that of an older, wiser, and possibly lecturing individual. (Think of your mother saying, "When I was your age..." Didn't it annoy you?) However, if the character is very young in the story (as in To Kill a Mockingbird), it may be necessary to narrate as an adult. Just avoid any narration that sounds like "If I knew then what I know now..." as this destroys the immediacy of the story. Once you have established, in the beginning of the narrative, that the character is looking back on things that happened in his past, delve into the events of the story with a close perspective. Don't write things like, "Looking back on it..." or "I was too young to understand..."

Staying Inside the Character's Head.

You're inside the head of your character, writing the story as she would write it. Thus, you, as the author, need to disappear! This means that anything your character wouldn't know or can't experience cannot be narrated as they happen. The character can't see her own facial expressions, for example. She's not going to stop to think about what color her hair is or what she's wearing while she's in the middle of an argument with her boyfriend. Avoid like the plague having your character look into a mirror just to get in physical description. This is horribly cliche and so easy that it's cheating.


(1) Bite the bullet. Recognize that it's going to reflect a kind of POV slip, make the description brief but interesting, and get on with the story.

(2) Have the character describe herself at a point in time when she would naturally be thinking about her appearance... but don't contrive an event to make it so (like getting into a detailed account of the character getting ready for school).

(3) Think out of the box. People do notice hair color and physique, such that those descriptions can be mundane. But if you come up with unique characteristics to introduce into the story (your character would know all her attributes and flaws and would have emotional reactions to each of them), then the reader will be more accepting of that break in the action.

The Introspective Narrator
Following the character's thoughts can lead to introspection, elaborate description, and more flowery language than would occur naturally in a person's thoughts. The character is telling his own story at his own pace. But lengthy exposition can slow the pace of the story, disrupting the immediacy of the events. Language that is too eloquent for normal thoughts can do the same. So how to approach this?


(1) Ignore it, accept that a part of the immediacy will be lost, and make the introspection worth reading.

(2) Accept that everything will be written as the character thinks and experiences at the time of the events, wholly reflecting the emotion and language skills the character would have at that time. (This is what works best in YA.)

(3) Leave out all exposition and just focus on actions and reactions. (This works too, but can give the work a minimalist feel.)

(4) Have character writing from a time removed from the events, such that he has time to ruminate upon them. (Not the best method for YA.)

(5) Frame the events in a journal style, as if the character is recounting them in a diary or a letter to a friend. This allows for more exposition and editorializing of the events, but sacrifices immediacy.

Keeping it real.
To maintain the sense of immediacy in the story, the narration should reflect the emotional state, education, understanding of the character at the time the events are taking place. If you were writing about something that happened to you as a child, you wouldn't feel the same tension as you felt when the event took place (another reason not to write as if the character is looking back). You would write with a certain calmness and introspection, which kills the tension of what might be an action-packed scene. Additionally, using educated or poetic verbiage from a character who is supposed to be uneducated feels false. Nancy Kress points out that the character's reaction to events in the story will affect how the narration should be written. If something happens that makes the narrator angry, for example, the narration will reflect that tension with narration and dialogue that matches what a person would naturally be thinking or saying in such moments.

One of the challenges of writing first person, therefore, is to find the balance of introspection, description, and action. Editorializing or explaining things in the middle of a scene can kill the forward motion of the narration. (This really applies to the other point-of-view methods as well.)


First person is all about following the main character's thoughts. Thus, it is restricted to that one character, only allowing you to narrate what that character knows or experiences. You can't jump into the mind of another character! So, if you've got stuff happening in the novel that your main character won't know about, events where she isn't present, you have to find ways to get that information into the story without breaking point of view.


(1) Think of how any person would find out information. Use dialogue, messages, news broadcasts, or covert investigation. However you do this, avoid coincidences that may seem too easy or dialogue that doesn't feel natural or follow the flow of the plot.

(2) Introduce other characters' POV with a clear transition, like a scene break or a chapter break. This is tricky if you're writing in first person. The reader can feel more jarred from the switch than if you were writing in third person and switched characters. And if the majority of your story is going to be told through first person narration and one character, jumping to another character's POV will feel like cheating. However, many authors have successfully switched POV and narrative style. I recently read a story by Steven James in which he used this method quite effectively, with his protagonist, profilist Dr. Patrick Bowers, taking the first person narrative, and all other characters (the criminals and some victims) written in third person. James' execution of the technique is masterful, as each character has his or her own story and voice, and the mystery elements are maintained right to the end of the book.

If you choose to do this, make sure the story is balanced between the various POV characters and that each POV character has a significant reason for taking over the narration--not just because the main character isn't present for a particular event. The character you switch to should have her own story that is compelling and serves to drive the whole plot forward. One potential problem with this technique, however, is that the reader can end up knowing more than the main character, which can remove some of the tension and mystery. The story can feel manic, the alternate POVs being a matter of author convenience rather than careful crafting.

Other Problems and Solutions

One possible pitfall I can see to first person POV is that if the narration is totally reflective of the character's mood or attitude, it can come across as arrogant or self-serving. Since there's no distance between the character and narration, the author needs to bring in character traits (especially voice) that counter that arrogance. Humor and self-deprecation can help. Incorporating some distance at the onset (i.e., the character recounting events that had an impact on his/her life, such that he/she can say at the onset that he was an arrogant twit who deserved... whatever happened) may be a way of "framing" the narration such that reader empathy is achieved at the start.

Unreliable witness

Throughout the story the reader is inside the character's head. This would seem to indicate that there can be no secrets. Indeed, when writing in close third person POV, intentionally withholding information from the reader is seen as author trickery, even cheating. However, it can be done in first person! After all, the character is telling his own story and has the choice of telling all or not, of being truthful or not. Having an untruthful narrator can lead to some interesting plot developments as the reader figures out that the character has been lying. (Kress states that there must be enough clues that the narrator is lying so that the reader does eventually figure it out.) Done well, this can lead to some fascinating plot twists. Done poorly, it can alienate the reader. Handle with care!

It don't come easy...

In her book, The Power of Point of View, Alicia Rasley says that if you don't have to work at all at crafting first person narration... you're probably not doing it right.

So, learn the rules before you try to break them, then break them with creative and masterful flare.

Until next week...