First Person Point of View
When you tell a story through a viewpoint character using I or we, you are using first person point of view.
Example: The banging on my door reverberated within my skull like a giant church bell in an empty hall. I groaned and rolled onto my stomach, pulling the pillow over my head.
Every detail of your story must be filtered through the storyteller. This impacts your choice of narrator—it may be, and most often is, your main character. If your main character cannot see, hear, touch, smell, taste, think, know or feel it, you can’t include it. Therefore, if you want to introduce something outside the range of your main character, you have to use the words or observed actions of some other character who is in a position to see/know the events in order to convey the information you want the reader to have. Remember that the POV character cannot know the thoughts or unspoken feelings of another character.
First person point of view is the most reader friendly. It’s intimate. The reader feels like the character’s best friend. In fact, the viewpoint character will often confide in the reader things he wouldn’t tell his best friend.
This can be a comfortable point of view as it allows the writer to get right into the character’s head; however, beginners often find first person challenging because you really need to understand your character and his role. And you can’t use language that your character wouldn’t use or describe things that your character wouldn’t notice.
The most common problem when using first person POV is that it is difficult to resist the urge to tell the reader everything rather than show it. It can also be frustrating to be trapped in one character’s head for 50,000 + words. This forced closeness can breed boredom if not contempt, which is particularly problematic if your character is a thinly disguised version of yourself.
Even if you choose another point of view in the end, I always find it helpful to write a couple of scenes in first person as an exercise to really get into my main character’s head. Many authors suggest it is helpful to write your first chapter from several points of view before you settle on the POV which is most comfortable for you as a writer and also most effective for your story.
First person seems like the easiest viewpoint to write from, but there are limitations to be considered.
Genre can have an impact on the POV you choose. First person stories generally fall into one of following genre categories:
• Most young adult fiction (12 and up)-YA is a particularly amazing market for those who like push the boundaries and have a quick moving style of writing. Teens are receptive to something new and different.
• Short stories
• Literary fiction
• Mainstream (usually romance and chick-lit)
• The recently labeled Gothic genre
Of course you can use first person in any genre. Many editors are still reluctant to accept first person as a legitimate writing style–though it is more acceptable than it once was and I’ve seen a number of well-received books written this way.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
You need to maintain the POV character’s voice throughout. Remember, it is the character doing the narration, not the author. That means you cannot say things or notice things that the viewpoint character wouldn’t say or notice. For example, it might be out of character to have a macho biker gang member describing the daisies and buttercups by the roadside when you are setting the scene.
• The voice of the narration should be consistent with the character’s cultural, social, educational and regional background.
• The voice itself is important as well. There is a fine line between unique and annoying, not to mention the current obsession with political correctness. How easy would it be to read an entire novel written in heavy dialect-say valley girl speak? Or Newfoundland dialect?
• Word choice can reveal a lot about a character so this can be a great opportunity for the creative writer.
• Character is developed not only through dialogue, but also through narration. You need to be careful that the reactions and personality of the viewpoint character don’t disappear or lose consistency during emotional moments in the story. Don’t let your first person story turn into simple observation (Show, don’t tell!). The character needs to be involved–to react to events physically and verbally–not just describe the reactions of others.
So why would anyone choose first person point of view?
First person creates an intimate perspective. The reader’s vicarious experience is heightened by the tightly focused perspective created when everything is being filtered through the viewpoint character. This is particularly attractive to young readers who can easily see themselves ‘in’ the story.
It can open up some interesting plot possibilities as the narrow viewpoint can hint that things aren’t what they seem, allowing for plot twists later on.
It can be a lot of fun to write as the author gets to ‘live’ the story through another set of eyes.
Styles and Variations
So you still want to write in first person? You can have a lot of fun with it. There are many variations which can give your story a unique focus.
• Some novels (particularly detective novels) are first person for most of the narration but include scenes in third person, outside the narrator’s experience (from another character’s perspective). Use this technique with caution and be very attentive to smooth transition or it can be jarring for the reader.
• Rashamon Effect is the name given to a style of multiple first person. It is named after the Japanese film which shows an assault from four different perspectives. You need to make sure each perspective provides new information or expresses/observes something different from each of the other POVs, otherwise, the repetition can become boring. This is fun both for the reader and the writer as it shows how reality can change through different perspectives. A recent movie that uses this type of effect is The Red Violin.
• Sequential Multiple Viewpoint is a much more common style. You trade chapters between several characters more or less chronologically. This is a good choice for a story with lots of narrative drive. Faulkner uses this technique in “As I Lay Dying.” You have to be careful to make the voices distinctive, but not so different that the reader finds it jarring. For example: Faulkner’s characters are all southerners of the same social class. If they were from vastly different backgrounds it might be more difficult to read–more like a collection of stories.
• Separate Multiple Viewpoints. These are stories which seem to have no direct relation to each other, but reach the same conclusion or become part of the same bigger story. Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” is a good example of this technique.
After all is considered, do you still want to write in first person? Excellent.
Another creative bonus point is that first person POV gives you room to play with attitude. Your character can be neurotic, snarky, humorous, angry.–anything but boring. So, give your character an attitude, jump into his/her head, and have fun.