Writing 101: Point of View (part 1)

Posted on Updated on

There are various types of Point of View (POV) used in conventional writing. Over a series of blog posts we will be discussing the most frequently used mechanisms, their pros and their cons. We shall begin this series with First Person.

What is First Person POV?

First Person is when the story is told from the perspective of one character, the world as viewed through their eyes. It is characterised by use of the pronoun “I”. It puts the reader directly into the head of the protagonist; you can read their thoughts and see, hear, smell and feel via their senses. Thus it is a very intimate form of writing, creating a bond through the character and the reader.

It is currently very popular in Young Adult fiction: Vampire Academy, Twilight, Virals, and present, although less frequently, in Middle Grade:Bartimaeus series,Percy Jackson. It is often portrayed as though the reader were accounting their story to the reader, although sometimes it is written as a diary, letters or other correspondence. There seems to be some dichotomy amongst readers about whether or not they like it – I remember one customer avidly declared she would NEVER read anything written in First Person. I personally enjoy it, especially in stories with a strong, easily identifiable protagonist. The success of stories like Twilight can be, at least in part, attributed to the creation of a relatively flat, under-described character in which it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves.

Writing in First Person allows the writer to play with the reader. Ultimately, the tale will be biased in favour of the narrator, and as it is seen through their eyes, told through their voice, then the truth will be filtered through their own beliefs and thought-patterns. In, for example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the narrator is a teenage boy with Autism. He sees the world in black and white, and thus it takes him longer to figure out the shades-of-grey puzzles that the reader has already picked out. The narrator can also lie to the reader, allowing for unexpected twists. However, this should be done carefully, and the foreshadowing should offer some hints to what is really going on. One of my favourites along these lines is Joanne Harris’s Gentleman and Players. Everything should tie in neatly and the narrator should not be so much telling straight-out fibs but skipping around the truth and omitting relevant details.

One issue that I have with First Person narrative, is that I generally need to LIKE the character. If they have strong antisocial views – misogynistic, racist, sociopathic, etc – then it can make me very uncomfortable and I may wind up putting the book down. This is, I imagine, the intent of the author, such as in books like Perfume andLolita, which makes them a powerful read. However, I could not finish Catcher in the Rye because being in Holden’s head was making me emotionally irritated. Likewise, with Paulina Simon’s Tully, I really could not identify with the character and gave up on the book halfway through.

First Person does have some limitations, of course. It does not easily allow for split-narratives with multiple character leads. Some authors have remedied this by switching between two first person narrators – this can be very successful (one of my favourites is Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones) but must be done with care. Jumping between two first-person narrators can be very disorientating for the readers, especially those that practice a stop-start method of reading (snatching a page or two here and there) as it can be confusing to remember whose head you are in. This can be counteracted in several ways: changing font for each narrator, applying headers to the page, or – and this is the best – by having two very distinct characters with distinct voices. Whichever method chosen, the writer should select one narrator per chapter, and stick with them from beginning to end.

Another technique is to mix a first-person narrator with a fixed-third POV (more on these later). This allows more flexibility with events, but the main narrator should always be the one written in first-person.

Another limitation with First Person is that if the protagonist is not able to see, hear or otherwise experience an event, then it is almost as though it did not happen. A series I enjoy, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows, is written entirely through the POV of one character – Rachel Mariana Morgan (she is such a memorable character, that I can remember who entire name, something of a rarity) – however, in one of the books, one of the major supporting characters dies. But Rachel is not there to witness it and thus it all happens off-screen, and thus loses something of its impact (and keeps the reader wondering if it were true).

Some tips for writing in First Person:

  • Keep the writing style true to the character. Ie: if your main character is an impulsive teenager with ADHD, keep the plot fast, and the action plentiful.
  • Brainstorm your character first. Give them a name and traits – are they impulsive? Empathic? Quick to jump to the wrong conclusion? Once you have established this, make sure their behaviour is consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Your character must be the centre of all the action.
  • Don’t get too lost in their thoughts. Introspection can be boring. If it’s important to the plot, show it through their actions.
  • There are more senses than just vision and hearing.
  • Generally speaking, your First Person narrator will be most convincing if they are human.
  • Describing your character can be difficult. Do this carefully. Mirror scenes should be avoided at all costs, and characters mentally bemoaning their hair-colour/style are likewise something of a cliché. For the most part, the reader doesn’t really need to know exactly what the character looks like – a few hints here and there will help, but most readers will create their own mental image.

First Person is a powerful POV, allowing the reader to immerse themselves completely in the body and mind of a character. It is best suited to stories with a strong central character.

Second Person:

Second Person POV is rarely used in fiction. It generally only shows up in the occasional literary short story, such as when an author is being experimental or trying to be clever, in poetry, or in children’s literature in the format of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It is characterised by the use of the pronoun “you”.

In tales when you make choices – such as the case with the children’s books mentioned, it is very suitable, because you, the reader, are driving the tale. However, it can make readers feel uncomfortable: “But I wouldn’t do that!” “I don’t think that way!” I have only ever read one novel in which it was used – Iain Banks Song of Stone.

It is, perhaps, a little ironic that it is not a popular mechanic to use, yet the goal of most wish-fulfilment fiction (such as Twilight) is to make the reader feel like they ARE Bella.

Second Person is not an easy POV to write from. It would probably be best in the inspirational-type literature – stuff like Jonathan Livingstone-Seagull and The Alchemist. Although it should be noted, neither of these are in Second Person.

avatar-angAngela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer.

One thought on “Writing 101: Point of View (part 1)

    […] voice, to write in. If one character is the focus of your story, and appears in every scene, then first person is the best option for you: it allows the writing style to be more colloquial, and more personal, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s