How Is First Person POV Different?

First Person POV in Fiction

Image by Leszek Nowak

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

As we head into 2014, I’ll be continuing my series on point of view in fiction. If you missed the earlier parts in the series from 2013, you can find them here:

Are You Writing in the POV You Think You’re Writing In?

How to Successfully Write Omniscient POV

7 Ways to Develop Your Voice

What Is Head Hopping and How Can We Avoid It?

Today I’m launching into the first of three posts talking about first person POV. I want to talk about what exactly first person POV is and how it differs from the other points of view before we dive in to how to write successfully in first person POV and how to tackle some of the most common challenges that come along with writing in first person POV.

What Do We Mean by First Person POV?

Just like it sounds, in first person, the character is telling us the story directly.

I dug through my purse. No keys. They were here yesterday. I’d dropped them in when I came home from work, didn’t I? I tipped my purse’s contents out onto the table, and receipts, old gum wrappers, and pennies spilled everywhere.

One of the major strengths of first person POV is its intimacy. We’re being brought into the confidence of a character.

Most of the time, when you use first person POV, you’ll only use that single POV throughout the book (like in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or The Shifter by Janice Hardy). However, that’s not a rule. Authors have successfully used more than one first person POV in the same book or a combination of first and third.

You can use multiple first person points of view like in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I wouldn’t recommend using multiple first person points of view for new writers because it’s difficult to do well.

You can use a single first person point of view for most of the story and then switch to third person for scenes where the first person narrator isn’t present. The theory behind this is that the first person narrator is telling us the story, and the parts in third person are pieces he was told about later. A good example of this is Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs.

You can use first person for the villain’s scenes in an otherwise third person POV book. This is a way you can hide the identity of the villain. (After all, how many of us think of our names on a regular basis. I don’t.) Julie Garwood did this in her romance novel The Bride.

Or, if you just want to dip your toes into first person, you can use it as a bookend prologue and epilogue to an otherwise third person POV story like in Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning.

How Is First Person Fundamentally Different From the Other POVs?

Other than the obvious use of I rather than he/she, writing in first person comes with a big opportunity—and a big challenge—that isn’t involved when you’re writing in third person or omniscient POV.

By its very nature, first person point of view is more self-conscious than any of the other POVs. The POV character is telling their story to someone. You can see hints of this in the way many first person stories include a paragraph where the narrator introduces himself. Take a look at how Harry Dresden introduces himself in Jim Butcher’s Storm Front and how Abileen does it in The Help.

You, as the writer, need to know why your first person narrator is telling the story and who their intended audience is.

Why does this matter?

The purpose, intention, or goal of the first person POV character in telling the story is what should be driving your narrative. Everything you write should forward the goal the first person narrator has in telling their story. By knowing this, you give your story focus it won’t otherwise have.

You don’t have to directly reveal your first person narrator’s goal or their intended audience to the reader. In most cases, you shouldn’t directly reveal them. But they need to be clear in your head.

The self-conscious nature of the first person POV story means the reader can’t always be certain if the narrator is reliable or unreliable. Beyond this, the narrator can be either intentionally or unintentionally unreliable.

In third person POV, the point of view character can lie to themselves, lie to other characters, or have a false impression of reality, but they can’t lie to the reader because they’re not aware the reader exists. Large parts of the story will be “objective” because they’re “outside” the POV character.* This is the biggest difference between first and third. In first person POV, the character is talking to us in some sense. Because they’re speaking to us, they can also lie to us.

Which means we have to ask, “Are they lying to us?” Presenting themselves in a certain way even if it’s not entirely accurate because they want to be perceived in a particular way (e.g., they want the reader’s sympathy or respect)? Because they want to convince us of something? Are they unable to see reality, and so they’re giving us their perception but not the truth, making them unintentionally unreliable? Playing with these aspects is part of the fun of using a first person narrator and also part of the challenge.

If you’re writing an unreliable narrator, you’ll need to drop subtle hints for the reader. The reader wants to be able to figure out what’s really happening, and to do that, they need hints about whether they can trust the narrator or whether they might need to doubt their story as it’s being told.

Have you tried writing in first person POV? What did you like about it? What did you dislike about it?

* I placed “objective” and “outside” in quotation marks because if we’re writing third person POV properly everything is still filtered through the eyes of the character. However, it’s still filtering. We still see what happens in an objective sense. The driver in front of our POV character slams on their breaks and our POV character hits them because she was tailgating. That’s what objectively happened. How it’s described and what details we receive depend on the POV character. It’s like a coloring book where the POV character fills in the colors but the lines are already there. In first person, however, it’s not just filtered. It’s created. They might tell us that they accidentally slammed into the car in front of them, but it might not have been an accident at all. They might be interpreting events for us in such a way as to make us believe that they weren’t out to get their ex-husband’s new wife. It’s like having a blank page where the POV character first draws the picture and then colors it in.

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

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