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First Person POV

 

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

 

I could write a whole book about first person point of view, but I won’t.  It’s a very common writing technique (hereafter abbreviated to POV). Some people hate to read it or write it. I love first person, though, and I’m going to write just a bit about it now.

First person POV in a nutshell is the one where the narration is “I” did this, “we did that.” It’s easy to spot. (Third person can be either close or distant, or omniscient. Those distinctions make knowing which sort of third person you’re reading more difficult than with first person. Also a few books and short stories have been written in second person: you did this or that.)

The strength of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. The weakness of first person is that the reader is firmly in the heart and mind of one character. That identification with one character is both the main strength and weakness of first person POV.

At first glance, first person seems to be easy to write. It isn’t. The character through whom the reader will experience the story must be worth spending time with.  That voice must be distinctive and interesting. Otherwise, the reader will check out.

When writing first person POV, you can show only what that character sees, hears, feels, knows. Therefore, a set of sentences like these will jar the reader. I followed Joey down the hall. His eyes were focused on the closed door, and he bit his lip nervously. If your narrator is following Joey, he has no idea what Joey is looking at or if he’s biting his lip. All your narrator can see is the back of Joey’s head. You’d think this sort of thing would be obvious, but I read these things all the time. As a writer, you must constantly think, “Can I really see this? Can I know this?” If the answer is no, you must rework the sentence until you can answer yes.

Or this. Bob sat at the bar, nursing a beer. I sat two stools down, pretending to drink a Bloody Mary. Bob sighed, worried about his job. Okay, granted that’s some less-than-stellar narration. The point is, the narrator couldn’t know what Bob was thinking, not unless he said something to her. I read these sentences even more often than the first example.

The strength of first person POV remains the ability to see things from one person’s perspective. To be inside that one person’s mind, heart, soul. The writer cannot scrimp on the emotional content. Just showing us what’s happening without letting us see what the POV character is thinking and feeling will leave us cold. If the writer does show us the POV character’s reactions and emotions, we will feel them, too. We will live the story right along with the POV character.

In the hands of a skillful writer, no other POV allows us such access to the depths of a single character’s mind.

6 Responses to “First Person POV”

  1. If the first person POV is present tense then you would be right about what the narrator does and doesn’t know. However, if the narrator is speaking in the past tense, thoughts and knowing motivations of other characters is possible and permissible.

    • Mary Ann says:

      I have never seen the tense as justification for the first person narrator being able to describe anything outside his/her own experience. If a narrator (in whatever person or tense) knows the motivations and thoughts of another character, the writer is using omniscient point of view. Omniscient point of view is always third person.

      First person point of view is limited in whatever tense to what the first person character/narrator knows at that moment. I have never read or seen a writing teacher or editor say anything other than that.

      • If something has happened in the past and the narrator is writing about it after the fact and knows about the thoughts and motivations of the characters described, then the narrator may want to include that information in the story s/he is telling. But it must be after the fact and therefore in the past and the past tense. To write about things that have yet to happen and describing the actions, thoughts, and motivations without foreknowledge, that would be an omniscient POV. It’s not really the tense, but the actual past and remembering and/or telling the story from the knowledge of having experienced and knowing what was going on.

        Case in point: the narrator of “American Beauty” who is telling the story from the POV of a year later and after his death. He has foreknowledge and uses that in delineating the events of the past in telling his story in order to set up his own death and the events that led up to that death.

        • Mary Ann says:

          I have never seen this advocated in any writing craft book I’ve ever read. That’s all I can say. I feel that if I saw that sort of construction in a first person perspective — no matter what tense (and you are making the tense important) — I would be thrown right out of the narrative, wondering how the character knew another’s motivation or how the character could see the expression on the face of a character whose back was turned. We will have to disagree on this, I suppose.

  2. If the narrator is telling the story after having lived the event and at the time of the story has more insight into the events, s/he’s telling the tale for a purpose and had already had time to figure out what was going on. As with any story, if the reader believes the narrator s/he goes along with the story.

    Tense is only important so far as what the narrator knows and tells the story from the past and makes it clear s/he is remembering the events and now sees them differently from the time the events happened.

    • Mary Ann says:

      We are never going to agree on this. I won’t change your mind, and you won’t change mine. I have never seen this idea proposed by anyone before. If you take it that the first person narrator (in past tense) is looking back in time, telling what he/she has already experienced, so he/she can know other characters’ motivations and facial expressions, etc., let me say two things. 1. You can *never* truly know another’s motivations. 2. Even if you’re looking back, you still cannot see in retrospect what you couldn’t see at the time.

      This idea that the narrator is just telling what he/she has already experienced would completely rob any suspense or terror from any story as well. A reader would always know that the narrator is just telling a story and everything will be fine. No fear, no suspense, nothing. Yet many horror novels and stories (including some of my own) feature first person narration that ends with the death of the narrator.

      Again, I have never seen your understanding of first person narration proposed by anyone else ever. I disagree with you and won’t change my mind. I’m quite sure you won’t change yours either. 🙂

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