The 5 Keys to Writing Successfully in First Person Point of View

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Image by Sanja GjeneroBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last week we continued our series on point of view in fiction with an opening look at first person POV, including what it is, the different ways it’s being used in modern fiction, and some of the benefits and drawbacks that come with writing in first person POV.

Over the next two POV posts, I’m going to look at the five aspects you need to manage well if you want your first person POV book to work and the most common challenges you’ll run in to when writing in first person POV.

These five keys aren’t exclusive to writing in first person, but they are the core of writing successful first person POV and represent mistakes writers more often make when tackling this point of view for the first time compared to other POVs.

So here we go…

(1)   Create a unique character voice.

Many authors think they’re created a unique character voice if they give their character a catch phrase or a dialect quirk, but that’s not what unique character voice means.

When we talk about character voice, those things do come into play, but what we really mean is that character’s unique outlook and personality expressed in their thoughts and speech. Readers enjoy first person POV in part because of the intimate look at the way another person views the world. Fiction allows us to explore this new perspective in a way we never can in our daily lives.

Before you set out to write a first person POV story (or when you’re trying to revise your first draft), ask yourself these questions:

  • How do they view the world around them? (E.g., mostly evil, mostly good, fair, unfair, random, ordered by a bigger plan…)
  • How do they view themselves?
  • How do they feel about the big ticket items like love and faith?
  • How do they feel about the people closest to them?
  • Are they cynical or optimistic?

More might come to you as you answer these. Once you’ve answered all the questions you can think of, consider how this will affect the tone of what your character says and thinks, the things she comments on, and the little asides he makes to himself. That’s where a unique character voice grows.

First person is all about interpretation by the narrator. Or, in some cases, misinterpretation.

How and what the narrator interprets are important elements of characterization. Showing change in how and what they interpret is an important element of their character arc and growth throughout the book.

(2)   Show us not only what they’re doing but also why they’re doing it and how they feel about it.

Motivations and reactions are what give first person POV the intimate feel that’s one of its strengths.

Have your first person narrator respond in their head to something said aloud or to jump ahead and make assumptions about what they think the other person will say next. Let us know why they’ve decided to respond in a certain way. Afterward, show us how what they did is affecting them emotionally and mentally.  These chains are more important in first person POV than in any other.

(3)   Remember that you still need to write in scenes.

The temptation when writing first person POV is for it to almost become stream of consciousness, but you still need to write in scenes. We don’t need to see every detail of the POV character’s life. We still only need to see the things important to the story. Each scene should have a goal, you should enter as late as possible, and you should leave as early as possible.

(4)   Alternate internal with external so the story doesn’t feel claustrophobic.

More than any other POV, first person POV can feel claustrophobic because you’re usually trapped in one character’s head the whole time. (This is the negative flip side of the intimacy it gives.) And because that character is telling the story directly—in other words, there’s no distance at all—it’s easy to fall prey to the talking head syndrome.

Talking head syndrome is where your character narrates for paragraphs (or even pages) without any external stimuli. The reader starts to feel like the character is just a disembodied head floating in empty space because they don’t see, hear, feel, smell, taste, or touch anything happening around them.

Don’t put your first person POV character in a bubble. It’s important that you regularly alternate between internal (your character thinking/narrating/feeling) and external (the five senses/action/setting/dialogue).

When you alternate every paragraph or every other paragraph between internal and external, you keep the reader grounded both in the world around them and in the emotions and thoughts of your character.

(5)   Make sure your first person narrator doesn’t come across as stupid.

Throughout your book, your first person POV character will likely miss something important, misinterpret information, or otherwise overlook a clue you’ve planted.

If you don’t want your first person narrator to come across as stupid when they miss something, make sure you create events that could easily have two possible interpretations or a situation where it would be believable for them to have missed that clue.

Having a character who’s too stupid to live in third person POV is annoying. In first person POV, it can kill the book.

If you regularly write in first person POV, what other tips would you give for someone who’s trying it out for the first time? Or what other questions do you have about writing in first person POV?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including Strong Female Characters and How to Write Dialogue.

And remember, Frozen (my book of suspense short stories) is on sale for 99 cents only until tomorrow! Check it out here.

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