First Person POV


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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.

Just Write the Doggoned Draft!

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Everything I am about to say can be boiled down to the title of this post. Just write the doggoned draft! But I can’t post that all by itself, right? I need to expound a little bit.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of handwringing online and in various places about “Am I writing this the right way?” Questions like these:

  • How long should my chapters be?
  • Can I write a prologue if I want one, even if literary agents say they don’t like them?
  • What should I name my characters? Is such-and-such a good name for a hero/heroine?
  • What point of view should I write this in? What if my editor likes first person and I hate it?
  • Do I have to write the first draft in order or can I write chapters or scenes out of order as I think of them?
  • How about tense? Should I write in present or past tense?
  • Do I have to wait till the very end to edit or can I edit after every page?

My philosophy when it comes to first drafts is to write however you need to write to finish the darned thing. You can revise even the worst spaghetti-like scramble of prose, but you cannot revise something you never wrote. 

If you write a whole novel and decide you don’t like the characters’ names? Change them. Easy. If you write a prologue and then decide you don’t need it, kill it. Add the bits you need to the body of the novel. If you want to keep it, keep it. (My own preference is not to write prologues. Just start where you need to start and call it chapter one. But that’s just me.) If you start writing in first person and find you don’t think it suits the story, change it – in the draft, and when you finish, go back and revise to bring the earlier part of the story into line with the latter part.  Same with tense. You can ALWAYS fix things.

As to editing after every page, in my opinion, you can do some. I edit as I go, cleaning up bits of grammar or finding a better word here and there. I do it every day when I start work, going back over yesterday’s work and tidying. I don’t do major revisions or go haring off down rabbit holes. That way lies the road to Never-Finishing-The-Doggoned-Draft-Land.  Other people work well by doing a first draft that is filled with bad grammar, clunky phrases, and notes of “Something Needs To Go Here When I Think Of It.” 

As a friend of mine, a very good writer, is wont to say, “There is no one true way to write.” I agree with her absolutely on this. What works for you might not work for me, and vice-versa. The trick is to write until you figure out what does work for you.


Then revise it as needed.

Then write another book.

Indie writers, I love ‘em, but sometimes . . .

I love indie (also known as self-published) writers. I really do. My Kindle (which I also love) is chock-full of outstanding indie fiction, indie memoir, and indie writing advice. I am in several indie writing communities.

But, I have to tell you that every time someone raises – usually under a flag of neutrality, but sometimes with his freak flag flying and daring you to tell him that some rule actually matters – *takes a breath* Where was I? Oh, yes. Sorry. Whenever someone raises the subject of rules and do we really have to follow them, I just want to reach right through the internet and knock some sense into people.

I could end this now. YES, rules matter. They are there for a reason. DO NOT break them until you are quite sure you completely understand them. Grammar rules. Punctuation rules. Sentence structure rules. Point of View rules. Plotting rules. Sure, most of these can be bent and some can be broken if you’ve got good enough a reason. But if you go breaking them without knowing right down to your bones what you’re doing, you will write a mess.

Point of View is one of those tricky little beasts. I’m not going to write a whole book about point of view. There are are excellent books on that subject. Here are two just off the top of my head:

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

You can find others.

Let me just say now that skipping around merrily from one character to another giving the reader the thoughts of each of them all in the same scene on the same page will eventually wear out our patience. And, no, just because Johnny is kissing Sally at the same time Sally is kissing Johnny we still don’t need to be inside both their minds at the same time.

One last thing. NO! George R.R. Martin is not breaking the rules of POV characters when he uses ONE, count ‘em ONE, POV voice for each separate chapter of his epic Song of Fire and Ice books. Because, ladies and gentlemen, that is the rule: One POV per chapter. It’s been further sliced to one POV per scene but classically and traditionally One POV Per Chapter is totally correct.

Why in the name of all that’s writerly would someone use Martin as an example of someone who is breaking the rules?

My own preference – not always adhered to – is to write in first person. Yes, it’s limiting. I like that. I like showing the reader only what the narrator sees and hears and knows. Because, guess what, the narrator can be wrong. She can trust the wrong person. She can misinterpret what she sees. And she takes the reader right along with her. Then I write third-person chapters (NOT just paragraphs and not usually scenes, usually whole chapters) that take place away from the first-person narrator, showing events of which she has no knowledge.  After all, Joan Hess and Elisabeth Peters use this technique all the time. Not that I’m in their league, you understand. It’s just an effective technique.

I’ve said it before and will no doubt say it again.

Indie writers have got to be BETTER than traditionally published writers. We have to write cleaner, fresher, prose; we have to make fewer typographical errors; we have to create stronger plots and more lifelike characters. We have to be twice as good to be thought half as good.

As long as we settle for almost as good – heck, as long as we settle for the faint praise of “just as good” – we are doomed to live on the edges, kicked to the curb, and ignored.