Writing First Person POV

This post, by Joshua Palmatier, originally appeared on his blog on 3/13/09.

This was the last panel I was on at Boskone, and it’s one of the typical panels you see at lots of cons. I was also the moderator, so I took more notes on this one than the others. That still doesn’t mean I have good notes, just more (unreadable) scribbles than the others. *grin*

So, the idea was to discuss writing the first person POV in books. In particular, I wanted to discuss why you would want to use first person in the first place, or why you shouldn’t use it, and what advantages and disadvantages it has.

Pretty much all of that is tied together. I also wanted to discuss on the panel why some people have such a strong opinion about reading first person POVs. I’ve run into this quite a bit: a strong aversion to first person POV.

So, the mechanics first, I guess. First person POV, where you’re inside the head of one of the characters and ONLY in that person’s head for the duration of the book (or those scenes in the book), is a great way to pull the reader into the story, because the reader in essence "becomes" that first person character. They see everything through that person’s eyes, they get that person’s innermost thoughts, and it gives the reader a sense of immediacy, a sense of actually LIVING the novel. If it’s done right of course.

As you read, you feel like you are THERE, doing what the character is doing, feeling what the character feels, hating and crying and loving and laughing right along with that character. I think emotions are more raw in first person. Pain hurts more, grief is more shattering, love is more intense. Overall, EVERYTHING is more intense.

That’s why I chose to use first person for my books. I wanted the reader to be there, in the scene, experiencing everything first hand. Also, the magic that my main character uses is more personal than in most fantasy novels. There aren’t any streaks of lightning or fireballs in the first novel. Such things exist and some of the magic is visible in my world, but most of the REAL magic is happening on a different level, one that can’t be seen and is hard to describe UNLESS I use the first person.

I think the emotional impact of first person is the real reason I chose to use it thought, because the magic COULD have been done in third (it would have been harder but possible), but I wanted people to live Varis’ life along with her. Because the story really is about Varis, about HER, not the world. It’s a very character driven story, and character driven stories about a single character are often better done as first person.

So, some reasons to use first person: immediacy of action and emotion; pulls the reader deeper into the story; magic of the world (or some other part of the plot) dictates first person; a single character is the driving force behind the story; it’s a character-driven story.

That list isn’t complete of course, just some of the things that came up during the panel. And of course, it only works if the first person is done well.

When shouldn’t you use first person? Well, the general response is when the story involves more than one POV. If parts of the plot or action must be told when the main character (the potential first person POV character) isn’t around or isn’t involved, then the novel probably shouldn’t be told in first person.

Yes, you can get away with having other characters tell the first person POV character what happened second hand, and you can even manipulate the book enough to have that first person character "accidentally" overhear an important conversation that reveals incredibly important information . . . but you can only do that so many times in a novel before such techniques become trite and obvious and just plain stupid. (My general working theory is that you can only do such things ONCE in a novel and get away with it; the second time you do that, you’ve blown it . . . unless, of course, you have a magical throne that allows the main character to ransack a person’s memories. *grin*)

So, if the main characters isn’t there for a significant portion of the main action . . . first person is probably not going to work. Because with first person, you MUST restrict yourself to that one person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. You have to get across everyone else’s thoughts, actions, and feeling by using what that one character sees and hears and notices. And this is hard.

Another reason to NOT use first person is voice. If you’re going to use first person, that characters must have a very strong voice, and that voice must in some way be relatable. The reader has to be in sync with the character and has to understand that character and their motivations, and the reader has to be able to put themselves in that character’s place.

If they can’t get into that character’s head in a believable way, then the book isn’t going to work for them. They’ll be constantly kicked out of the story because they just can’t relate to what the main character is doing. So the character’s voice has to be strong, because it has to "overwhelm" the reader’s own character to some extent, so that the reader can set themselves aside and become this new person, so that they can live this new person’s life.

And again, this can only work if the first person is done well.

So how can first person be done horribly? Oh, there are so many ways. The first is just at a grammatical level. One of the biggest traps (I found) with first person is sentence structure. The tendency is to write things using the "I" all of the time. You end up saying things like: "I felt a pain in my back as I lifted the crate full of lead ingots."Or: "I saw the man cross the street and enter the darkness of the alley."

One of the biggest things I learned while writing that first first person book was that there’s no need for the additional I’s. In fact, I tried to eliminate as many I’s as possible while writing first person. We’re supposed to be inside this person’s head, so we don’t need them. The reader knows who’s speaking, who’s thinking, who’s feeling, who’s seeing, etc, so you can leave all of that "I" crap to the side as much as possible. Just say what’s happening! "A pain exploded in my back as I lifted the crate full of lead ingots." "The man slid across the street and entered the darkened alley." Much more immediate and much more succinct and engaging. So eliminate as many of the I’s as possible when writing first person.

Read the rest of the post on Joshua Palmatier’s blog, and also check out his follow-up post on the same subject.