The 3 Most Common Problems with First Person POV and How to Fix Them

Image by Alfonso Romero

Image by Alfonso Romero

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my ongoing series on point of view in fiction writing. Today is the final installment for first person point of view.

So far we’ve talked about the nature of first person POV and how to write a successful first person POV story. Now it’s time to look at the three most common challenges in first person POV and potential ways of handling them.

Solving these problems is more about deciding on the best path for your story than it is about a right vs. wrong rule.

(1)   The Time Problem

If you’re writing in first person past tense, you always have a time issue. The POV character is telling the story from a distance position. It’s already happened. Some of the tension is removed because we know the first person narrator survives the story being told.

There are ways around this. You could write in first person present tense (which many readers still find jarring even after the success of books like The Hunger Games). You could have someone else read the account left by the first person narrator, so until we reach the end of the story, we don’t know how long they survive the tale they’re telling.

Another way to handle this is to put your character in non-death jeopardy or in jeopardy where death is only one of the possible outcomes. A character can survive while still emerging horribly scarred either mentally, emotionally, or physically (e.g., in Stephen King’s Misery). A character can survive while still risking the possibility of losing someone they love and would have gladly given their life to save.

(2)   The Withholding Information Problem

Because the first person POV narrator already knows what happens, we face the problem of why they don’t just tell us the ending right away. In most cases, as writers, we know that would kill our story by removing the tension.

You can withhold the ending as long as you play fair. In other words, you must have the first person narrator tell the reader everything they knew at that point in time where we are within the story. If you withhold it, you’re cheating the reader, and instead of feeling like we’re part of the story, we end up feeling the artificial constructs surrounding it.

In some genres, like cozy mysteries, you get one free pass. When the sleuth discovers the true identity of the murderer, you can (note I’m saying can, not should) withhold the identity of the murderer just long enough for the sleuth to set a trap for them (or bring them to justice in some way). There shouldn’t be a large gap between the sleuth discovering the identity of the killer and revealing it, though, or again, you risk the reader feeling like they’re being played with.

(3)   The Melodrama vs. Cold Fish Problem

At some point in most books, your POV character is going to experience a particularly emotional event. How are you going to handle narrating that event?

If you haven’t asked yourself that question and you want to write in first person, you need to think about it. Think back to the last traumatic experience in your life. How clear are your memories of it? How clearly were you thinking at the time it happened?

Now how do you translate that to the page in a way that it doesn’t either come across as confusing for the reader, melodramatic, or cold and clinical?

Because if you allow your character to present it in all its chaotic, messy, heart-rendingly emotional glory, you risk confusion or melodrama. If you have your character present it factually and clearly, you risk them coming across as cold or unrealistic.

Experience is the only real teacher for finding the balance to these scenes. You’ll want to specifically ask your critique group, beta reader, or editor about these scenes and how they come across. Then tweak, seek advice, and repeat. It’s a lot like learning to balance on a bike or on ice skates. Once you have the feel for it, you’ll be able to stay upright.

What’s your biggest pet peeve about first person POV books?

If you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on POV, I hope you’ll consider signing up for my How to Master Point of View webinar running this Saturday. (If you can’t make it, sign up anyway. All registrants will receive a recording of the session.) Cost is $45! Sign up here. Or you can sign up for the WANA2Fer where you can get my POV webinar and Lisa Hall-Wilson’s webinar on How to Write Effective Inner Dialogue for only $70. That’s a $20 savings. Sign up for the 2Fer here.

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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