Monday, March 21, 2011

The Pros and Cons of First-Person Viewpoint

Most novels are written in third-person past tense: “He raced through the dark alley, the footsteps getting louder behind him.” First-person is another option: “As I put down the phone, I heard the doorbell ring.”

Some new fiction writers opt to write their novel in first-person, as they think this will be easier. But writing a novel effectively and compellingly in first-person is a lot more difficult than it first appears.

Some of the advantages to writing your novel in first-person are:

1. More like real life – we experience life around us only from our own point of view.
2. A direct connection from the narrator to the reader, so can create an immediate sense of intimacy and believability.
3. The narrator-character’s voice comes through more clearly, as it is expressed directly.
4. Can portray the POV character’s personality and world-view more easily.

Some of the disadvantages of using first-person point of view and narration are:

1. Difficulty dramatizing scenes where the POV character is not present.
2. Too many sentences begin with “I”. Can start to be annoying to the reader.
3. The reader may tire of the same voice and point of view predominating throughout the novel. Not enough variation in style and personality.
4. We may also get too much of the first-person narrator-character’s opinions on people and events around him, and long for a little variety. How do the other characters see things?
5. There’s a danger of too much introspection and interior monologue. Be sure to balance this with plenty of action and dialogue, which help the pacing and move the story forward more easily.
6. The viewpoint character has to be really interesting, with a distinctive, compelling voice, as we’re “in his head” for the whole novel.
7. With all those “I”s and “me”s, there’s a danger of the writer putting too much of herself into the novel.

First-person narration can work in the hands of a skilled writer, but is more difficult for a first-time writer to pull off successfully, especially for a whole novel. To work, your narrator-character needs to have a unique voice and personality, with lots of attitude. As James Scott Bell says, “There must be something about the voice of the narrator that makes her worth listening to—a worldview, a slant, something more than just a plain vanilla rendition of the facts.” On the other hand, don’t make your narrator-character too weird, as that could get tiring or annoying after awhile, too.

One can also choose to use first-person POV for different characters, giving each character their own chapters, told directly by them, from their viewpoint. In this case, it’s important to make sure that each character speaks with a unique, distinctive voice, with plenty of attitude of their own.

If you’ve written or started a book in first-person, try rewriting a chapter or two in third-person. Leave it for a few days, then reread the third-person attempt and see if you like the added freedom and variety of voice and point of view a little better. Or give both versions to a trusted friend or critique group and see which approach they prefer.

Resources: How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, by James N. Frey; “Look Who’s Talking: Mastering POV and Tense,” presentation by Susan Lyons, Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, February 2011
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Guest Blogger, Jodie Renner
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32 comments :

  1. I've never written in first person, but it's something I hope to try. My fear is getting too sucked into the character and not being able to separate the character's feelings from my own. Challenging.

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  2. I think third person POV can be just as intimate as first person POV, and easier to write. And just as compelling.

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  3. Yes, first-person POV is more challenging to write convincingly and effectively than a lot of first-time fiction writers realize, LJ. And you write very successfully in third person!

    I agree with you, Helen--and without some of the pitfalls of first person!

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  4. I am very wary when I start reading a book written in first person. The technique is very common in YA, and I've never read one that didn't make the YA character far too adult. Kids just aren't as perceptive of situations due to their lack of experience.

    I've written 1st person stories, but don't think I'd write a whole novel in 1st.

    It's too jarring to switch POVs for a scene or two. How do we (the reader) get to know things the MC doesn't?

    I agree with Helen. Using close third is a good alternative.

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  5. My detective demanded 1st person for a couple of short stories. However, I think the mystery (not suspense) genre lends itself to 1st person, because Ideally, the reader shouldn't know anything the protagonist doesn't know. They're supposed to be following along to solve the puzzle.

    What grates for me is 1st person present tense, but that's tense, not POV.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  6. Actually, I've been more successful writing in first person, although I continue to work on the craft of it. One editor asked for one book to be rewritten in third and when she read it said the first person was much better - lol! It does limit the market, tho, because not all genres or digital houses will accept first person, especially if it's a romance.

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  7. Interesting comments, everyone.

    Terry, I think you're right that mysteries do lend themselves more to first-person narration.

    I'm madly getting ready to go away tomorrow, so am just checking in here sporadically and briefly.

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  8. And Terry, I think you're right that the combination of first-person POV and present tense can be a bit grating or jarring for the reader, as it's pretty unusual. And not especially effective, in my opinion. Seems a bit too "artsy" to me. Maybe better for literary fiction...?

    What do the rest of you think?

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  9. I don't care for first person. It's something about 'being' the MC that doesn't sit well with me. I can't lose myself in a story if 'I' am the one doing these things. I'd rather be a fly on the wall.

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  10. Very helpful post and some great comments. I like what Darke said about being a fly on the wall. I don't hate first person, but I do enjoy third person narratives better.

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  11. Jodie, thank you for the thoroughness of your article.
    I've written a YA short story in first-person, and it's 'missing something'. Maybe it will fill-out better as a mystery/detective, as Terry suggests. Maybe it will settle better in third-person POV.
    Great ideas to play with.

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  12. Della,

    It seems to me that first-person point of view works a lot better for short stories, which are narrower in scope and more focused and generally only have one main character, anyway. But it wouldn't hurt to try rewriting at least part of your story in third person, and see which one you like best.

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  13. My first non-romance novel is multi-voiced - 2 in 1st POV and 1 in 3rd POV. I found 3rd POV more difficult to write, but beta readers have preferred those sections. I'm getting more confident in 3rd person POV.
    Judy (South Africa)

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  14. I have written a short story in first person and have a just -started romantic comedy also written in the same format. Usually I write in third person, so when these stories insisted being written in first, it was a bit of a surprise. It does take some juggling since you can only tell the story through one set of eyes and one voice, but I think, for these plots, it was the right choice to make.

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  15. Judy, I like your idea of a multi-voiced novel format. I assume you're starting a new chapter for each change in point of view? That would be best.

    Elspeth, good luck with your first-person venture for your romantic comedy. A lot of publishers of romances prefer (or insist on) close third-person POV, as the readers like to hear directly from the hero, about his feelings for the heroine and how hot he thinks she is, etc. LOL

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  16. Great blog. And great blog site, in general.
    I write short stories. Often I find first POV to be more direct and effective. After all short stories are usually a 'slice of life' viewed by the one, main character.
    I've started a novel in third person POV and it seems to fit well, so far.
    Thank you for the insights everyone. :)

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  17. Good points, Emily, about first-person POV suiting short stories better, as short stories usually zero in on a limited period of time of one person's life, so the first-person POV allows us to get to know that person more quickly and efficiently.

    Good luck with your novel!

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  18. I wrote my first story in first person, three different MC's all with only an asterisk and a name to divide them (yes, I was as green as a newly-felled tree).
    After many years of editing and re-editing, I finally bit the bullet and rewrote the whole thing in close third person, still splitting the MC's as I'd already done. Man, did it flow better and with less of a need for me to do those major edits (that's not to say I don't edit at all). I've never tried writing in anything else since. Guess my mind just works better in third person.

    Way to go for anyone who can write a good first person book. I've a few myself and I love them all.
    Hurrah for diversity!

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  19. I write in first person. It's difficult, but worth it when it comes out right. Check out Sol Stein's books on writing. He encourages first person with caveats--mainly POV. An incorrect POV switch can kill a scene or chapter.

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  20. Sometimes when a writer is having trouble developing a sympathetic, rounded character, I recommend writing a scene from first person, then changing it back to 3rd person. I have a friend who was struggling with her WIP in 3rd person, switched to first, and now it's flowing nicely.

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  21. Jodie, you are so right about the pitfalls of writing in first person.

    Personally, I prefer to read third person stories because first person is too limiting for my taste. Building tension can be a real challenge when the first person POV is the only one. This is not to say a great book can't be written in first person - but it takes an excellent writer to carry it off.

    Great post, Jodie!

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  22. Wow! I am so impressed with the diverse, insightful, interesting comments we're getting on this topic today! Thanks for your excellent input, everyone. As Aldrea say, "Hurrah for diversity!"

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  23. I usually write in first person. In my work in progress, I use a tightly focused third person perspective opposite of the first person to simulate a language barrier. There are lots of things one can do manage the quirks of first person perspective.

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  24. I think there is another problem with first-person viewpoint: we've become inundated with it. Blogs, personal websites, social networks - everyone is sharing what's on their mind and all from a first person perspective. As soon as I start reading a short story or flash piece in first person my mind instantly thinks "status update."

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  25. I don't understand why I feel comfortable with first person narration than the third person POV.
    I tried comparing Khalid Hosseini's The Kite Runner (written in first person) and A thousand Splendid Suns (written in third person) by the same author. I liked the former.

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  26. I've always been for first person narrative.

    When you're dealing with YA, the benefit you get is that the reader is more open to your book and ideas that the character presents. Due to their lack of life experience, they can sometimes be more open to new things. First person narrative is useful here because if your narrator feels a certain way and they vocalize it the reader will go along with it easier and they will often absorb the emotions you are trying to create as well.

    It can be difficult though. Especially when you can't say that the other characters feel a certains way, you can only describe their facial expressions and tone of voice.

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  27. Lots of interesting, insightful comments here! I'm on my way to a writers' conference, so only online sporadically.

    Monica, I can see how first-person POV might be useful for YA (or middle-grade) fiction - may help the reader get to know the protagonist more quickly.

    Mac - intersting observations! I hadn't thought of that! I love this commentforum for sparking thought and new ways of looking at things.

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  28. Scooter, I'm curious to know what you mean by using a third-person POV opposite your first-person. Do you mean alternating chapters in the point of view of the two characters, but one in third person?

    Lingchen, I really liked The Kite Runner, too, but couldn't have told you whether it was written in first or third person. I get so involved in the story and characters I don't think about the technique unless it's not working for some reason.

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  29. Larry, you write very successfully in first person, but I can't help wondering if the story would be just as compelling, if not more so, in third person? With more freedom? And you do throw in some chapters in third person in other people's viewpoints when necessary, which helps for situations where your protagonist, Jack Sloan, is not present. We get to see the bad guy's point of view that way, which is really useful!

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  30. I've always found it really difficult to write in first person and I much prefer third. It's the introspection I battle with; I just can't make it interesting.

    Elle
    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

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  31. Jodie,

    What I do is present an event in my main character's first person point of view. I embed small things that help the audience orient themselves when the perspective shifts, like when Ellie draws her gun.

    When I shift perspectives, sometimes between chapters, sometimes within, I start the new third person text with one of those small events. We then see my main character from the eyes of another who cannot communicate with her.

    In my book, Ellie cannot speak with anyone else. Because we know what my main character, Ellie, is thinking, feeling, and her rationale behind her actions through the first person text, we then get to see how her actions are either correctly or incorrectly interpreted by the others in third person.

    It's tricky at first, but it gets much easier to write. Several betas didn't even notice the switch.

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  32. Sounds fascinating, Scooter! Can't wait to read your book! (On my way to Santa Fe!)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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