Friday, August 2, 2013

The Secret to Writing a First Person POV

I recently did a little 3-week writing course. From this course, the biggest piece of writerly-information I received was about first person vs. third person: namely, what first person can accomplish which third person cannot.

A big part of this discussion boiled down to the fact that if changing your first person story to third person did not alter your story in any big way at all, it should have been told in third person in the first place. And the generic explanation does not work: “Oh, but it gives my character a better voice!”

Because if you’ve read Harry Potter, if you’ve read Alex Rider, if you’ve read Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz or Charles Dickens, you know that you can give characters incredible voice with the third person. In fact, it might even be a stronger voice because all first person books tend to mesh together over time. (Sorry guys.)

Don’t hurt me but I feel that “The Hunger Games” (I loved that series) could have been amazing as third person because first person didn’t really contribute much to it at all, and with the third person, one can truly distance oneself from the main character and love them in that way. Their personality’ll shine through and you’ll love them in the same way you love your best friend: from the outside looking in. Cris Mazza, a Creative Writing professor (but not mine), sparked this thought in me and our class as a whole.

Because, really, why are so many stories being told in first person for no reason at all? Good examples of first person are “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Lolita,” epistolary novels (all told in letter-form), etc, where changing the story to third person would essentially render the entire story obsolete and uninteresting.

The secret to making a first person POV REALLY work is by really, really, REALLY getting into your main character’s head. And I mean really. Basically, become the main character.

For example, in my work-in-progress, my main character is sort of cynical in the beginning and his wife is more optimistic. So when they have to move to a dirtier part of the city due to financial problems, they both look at the apartment complex. My main character sees all the dirty laundry hanging around, the torn up bricks, etc. Then his wife pipes up, “Look, flowers.” And indeed, there are flowers in the windowsill. The reader doesn't even know there are flowers there because, well, "I" never cared to notice.

Why did the main character not notice them in the first place? Because he wouldn’t. She (the wife) would.

That’s why blanket descriptions (spending one paragraph to describe location) don’t work well in first person because people rarely ever stop and stare and think about the whole place. Usually they’re moving, walking, driving, and they see maybe a beautiful building, the street lamp, people walking—not the names of every sign, not which building is next to which, not every street name.

To add on, in first person, there should be almost NO adverbs (even more so than in the usual ‘no adverbs’ rule). Because in real life, you don’t see someone open the door ‘slyly.’ You see the corners of their mouths twitch upwards. You don’t see someone running ‘fast.’ You see them running and if they are really fast, you react, “Woah, that’s crazy!” This is hyperrealism. If you are writing with a first person voice, embrace this. Because first person does not let you write general descriptions. Third person—observing from a distance—allows you more freedom than first person. In first person, you’re literally stuck in only one person’s world.

That means you don't look in the mirror and think about every part of your body. That means you don't say "I walked around the stairs, trying not to breathe hard." It's, "I walked." Because when you see something surprising, you don't think about your breathing at all! It is INCREDIBLE difficult because you must think of every word you write down, whether it is truly what a person would do. It's mind-numbing.

Hyperrealism and first person are buddies. For first person to truly work, hyperrealism must be present. What’s fun is the unreliable narrator: having the first-person voice basically trick himself/herself because they are in denial, want to cover something up, etc. VERY interesting things can happen with the first person, one just has to utilize them all.

Because, at least for me, many first person characters/books tend to blend together over time. Third person characters rarely ever do. The best first person characters are unforgettable: Holden Caulfield, anyone? And that’s because JD Salinger utilized the gifts of first person very, very well.

So think about it. I’m writing a first person novel and I’m trying to use hyperrealism in my novel and really make my main character’s voice stand out. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a lot to think about, and I know many of you might be writing first person as well. So this is something for you guys as well.

Thank you so much, Cris Mazza, for sparking these thoughts! And hopefully they sparked some thoughts in you too; maybe uncomfortable, but real thoughts, when you really thinks about what first person entails. It was an eye-opening (and slightly painful when I thought of revisions!) experience for me.

What do you think? Can first person really be elevated to something grander by utilizing its true potential? (This has been a rather less ranty post than my previous ones! Thought you guys would like a break :D (I also don’t have much else to rant about….))


  1. Good point about no adverbs.
    I've always written in third person because I don't want to get into my character's head that much.

  2. I agree. First person voices tend to become a mish-mash of characters in my memory. What stands out was the plot or the big gimmick of the story, maybe the setting if the character took time to really get to know it. It's why YA stories are starting to get old for me. I feel like I'm jumping back into the same person's head, even if the name, looks, and situation are different. But that's just me.

  3. I think even in third person, you have to watch out for those annoying adverbs.

    I started out writing in third person but now I write in first. I have no trouble getting into my characters head. Which sounds kind of weird when you think about it.

  4. I seem to write naturally in the first person. And I *think* I do it well. Because, as you say, I get in that character's head by making myself that person...when I see the scene, I see me in it.

    Having said that, I had not thought of the no adverb / hyper-realism angle. But it's good advice.

  5. I had a series of short stories I wrote in first person, but I think I'd like to make them a third person novel. Otherwise, I might develop a disorder. lol

  6. This was a great post!

    My first manuscript was in the first person (journal-style) and I spent a veeeery long time losing myself in the MC's head to capture voice. The hyperrealism is absolutely essential, as you pointed out--my teenage character has exaggerated expressions that I was initially wary of including. They have to be included, though; otherwise the character wouldn't be believable.

    One of my favorite reasons for writing in the first person is that I can hide information until it's necessary. The reader can learn a lot from what my MC is afraid to admit.

    Thanks for the post!

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