Me, Myself, and I – Part 2

July 14th, 2008

Matthew Milson wrote:

another obstacle that I found to be limiting with the first person perspective was the inability to give the reader information outside of the main character’s knowledge. I grew concerned that I would not be able to adequately hold the reader’s interest or create a sense of worry for the main character by breaking away from their storyline for short periods of time.

Certainly there are limitations to strict first person POV that one has to deal with. You mentioned a number of concerns here, some of which are related and some not.

1. giving the reader information outside the POV character’s knowledge

2. holding the reader’s interest

3. breaking away from that (POV) character’s story

4. creating a sense of worry in the reader

First off, #2 should not be dependent on #1 or #3. If you create an interesting character, and a strong vivid supporting cast, complex relationships, and interesting events surrounding that character, ie. a good story, you can hold the reader’s interest. Your POV character – no matter first or third – should be someone we want to spend time with. Someone with a complex personality, not perfect, with interests, attitudes, likes, dislikes, beliefs, superstitions, whatever makes a person human (or not, as the case may be.) Someone who learns and is capable of change. Sometimes the first person narrator is not the true protagonist, but only the person who is telling the story of the true hero or heroine. (I tried that with Transformation, and it ended up the narrator WAS the heart of the story, but those things can happen…) First person is certainly not appropriate for every story.

Skipping to #4, because it is so important: You’re concerned about creating a sense of worry in the reader. Rightly so. Dramatic tension is a critical part of storytelling. Rising tension grips readers and forces them to turn the next page, to stay up a little later because they can’t put the books down. It creates the drumbeats in the background, the spooky music.

Giving the reader information that the POV character doesn’t have is ONE device that can enhance dramatic tension. But you could rephrase the basic idea as: Lack of information creates tension. Tension is raised when a person in a dramatic situation lacks critical information and knows it. This is the key to many mysteries and suspense stories – things keep happening and the protagonist doesn’t know where the hammer will fall next. It is a sense of inevitable danger. It’s why amnesia has always been such a beloved storytelling device. (Note I am not touting amnesia as the key to dramatic tension, only suggesting why we love it!)

Example: if you’ve read (or seen) Touching the Void, the story of the two UK climbers in the Andes. One breaks his leg in a terrible storm and the other, to save his own life, is forced to cut the rope. He climbs down, assuming his partner is dead. The guy with the broken leg doesn’t die, and the book tells how he crawls out of a crevasse and all the way back to camp with a broken leg and no water. One of the greatest points of tension in this book is that the guy crawling doesn’t know whether or not his partner has broken camp and left the area. Switching out of his POV would actually KILL tension.

So what if you want the POV character to be “innocent,” unaware of her lack of information? Then you have to add the spooky music other ways. Warnings. Concerned friends or colleagues. Other events that the reader might be able to pick up on. The risk here is making your POV character seem stupid or incredibly naive – both turnoffs. But consider which is more dramatic…having a piano fall suddenly on your hero’s head or having him see the piano dangling and the rope fraying and knowing his foot is caught? Consider whether we really needed to know what dangers Frodo was to face or the entire history of the Ring before he set out on his journey? There was plenty of spooky music playing.

Back to #1: As to giving the reader information outside the POV character’s knowledge, consider what and why you need that to happen. Would it ruin the story for your character to know or learn this info? (Often learning is a more interesting process anyway!) Think about how you would handle this in a third-person story. Switch POVs? Well you can certainly do that in a first person novel, too. Multiple first person narrators can be quite as effective as multiple third person POVs, as long as you keep readers informed as to which head they’re in. Would you have switched to a temporary omniscient voice? Mmmm…valid, certainly, but not a technique that produces the same intimacy as a close third or first person POV. Again, consider carefully what the reader really needs to know, and whether the story tension depends on your protagonist being deprived of that knowledge.

As for # 3 – breaking away from the first person character’s story – you can certainly do that with multiple narrators as well. It can be a great story development technique to show an event from one character’s perspective, and then the same event from another’s perspective. Or to keep several parallel plotlines going and have them merge in a cataclysm. Again – just keep it clear whose head we’re in. One of my great writing challenges was when my first person narrator chose a course of action that changed his personality late in a book. All of a sudden I wanted nothing more than to see him from another viewpoint – but it was much too late in the day to introduce another POV. After I worked on it a while, I realized that everything I wanted to show could be reflected through another character’s dialogue and body language as observed by my changed hero. The POV does not have to understand what he is observing. Only react. It worked.

Some people move from a first person narrator back and forth to a third person story. I’m sure that can work, too, though I can’t cite examples that I particularly like.

In summary of this wandering post: To be successful with first person POV

– Pick your viewpoint character carefully; and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with tricky situations!

– Consider multiple first person narrators for a story that depends heavily on events outside a single character’s direct experience

– Create strong, vivid additional characters so that your narrator is not living wholly in his own head, but bumping up against and reacting to interesting personalities

– Consider all ways to create dramatic tension;

– Lack of information does create tension, but consider whether the reader actually needs to know the info before your POV character does;

Hope this all makes sense! I’m sure many of you have additional ideas.


20 Responses to “Me, Myself, and I – Part 2”

  1. Sherwoodon 14 Jul 2008 at 9:22 pm

    I think this is a fantastic post, and great advice. The only thing that made me blink was the suggestion to consider multiple first person narrators. Really? Isn’t that a whole lot tougher?

    What’s wrong with an omniscient narrator, if we need to get inside a lot of people’s heads in order to get that slant on characters through others’ eyes?

  2. duston 14 Jul 2008 at 10:27 pm

    My current project involves a first-person narrator for most of the book; the prologue and epilogue are told from a third-person POV.

    The prologue allows me to set up some foreshadowing and make some observations that the main narrator–the main body of the book is him telling a story to someone specific–can’t say openly to his audience.

    The epilogue allows me to pull off something tricky that I don’t want to write down elsewhere :)

    With those, I didn’t have too many problems limiting myself to the narrator’s POV. I think the narrator holds interest–he’s interesting. As for creating a sense of worry, one of the happiest accidents I’ve had was making the man a consummate storyteller–he can use the same writerly tricks I would, and hold back information, foreshadow, and skip over the boring bits, to make things more exciting for the person he’s telling the story to.

  3. betsy dornbuschon 14 Jul 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Interesting, Carol. Of course, you’re a master at first!

    In my editorial experience, it’s not the best POV for a “younger” writer to choose because they often become so entranced with voice at the expense of story. I feel it’s important to nail down the mechanics of storytelling before developing voice.

    I see problems with too much telling in first person stories (also related to being in love with a character’s voice). The distance of close 3rd seems to help newer writers learn the difference between showing and telling.

    Great post. Hope all is well and we get to catch up soon!

  4. Carol Bergon 15 Jul 2008 at 10:54 am

    The only thing that made me blink was the suggestion to consider multiple first person narrators. Really? Isn’t that a whole lot tougher?

    Not really, as long as one does it carefully. Keep in mind that the voices should be few and should be distinct, bringing unique perspectives to the story, and that readers must always know whose head they’re in. It should never be used as a substitute for careful thinking, any more than third-person headhopping.

    What’s wrong with an omniscient narrator, if we need to get inside a lot of people’s heads in order to get that slant on characters through others’ eyes?

    Not a thing wrong with an omniscient narrator, and it is often the perfect way to tell a story. However, some writers will be sitting comfortably in an intimate first or close third point of view, and will then jump out to omniscient narration to “give the reader information.” This can be quite jarring. Sometimes all that is required to avoid such a pop is to ask oneself a few questions and take a wider view. Maybe there are more interesting ways to convey the info. Maybe the reader doesn’t really need to know it all right then. If it is done to “create tension” sometimes other ways are more effective.

  5. Carol Bergon 15 Jul 2008 at 11:03 am

    As for creating a sense of worry, one of the happiest accidents I’ve had was making the man a consummate storyteller–he can use the same writerly tricks I would, and hold back information, foreshadow, and skip over the boring bits, to make things more exciting for the person he’s telling the story to.

    I think one of the joys of characterization is developing this kind of unique voice. Do be careful when it comes to withholding information. It can really wear on a reader and smack of blatant manipulation. Of course we all manipulate readers to some extent – but if I hear once more about “what grandfather did in the basement” without the POV character telling me what it was [snide reference to popular bestseller] I’ll throw the book across the room – and I did.

  6. Carol Bergon 15 Jul 2008 at 11:10 am

    Betsy wrote:

    In my editorial experience, it’s not the best POV for a “younger” writer to choose because they often become so entranced with voice at the expense of story. I feel it’s important to nail down the mechanics of storytelling before developing voice.

    That can certainly happen. But back when I was a “younger” writer, the switch to first person was the moment of revelation when it came to characterization. All of a sudden these became real people to me. All the steps are necessary, and I guess we are like babies in that some of us learn to walk before we talk and some are reciting the entire Mother Goose before we can climb stairs.

    I see problems with too much telling in first person stories (also related to being in love with a character’s voice).

    I agree absolutely. I fight this every day. It is a lesson that has to be learned no matter which POV one chooses.

  7. betsy dornbuschon 15 Jul 2008 at 11:44 am

    Agreed on the characterization. I often play with my characters in first person but generally end up writing them in third for drafting purposes. The ones I like to play with most in first are the secondary cast. I really get to know them better that way.

    I have such respect for first person done well because I struggle with it and see others struggle with it.

  8. Matthew R. Milsonon 15 Jul 2008 at 11:57 am

    This was another wonderful post. Thank you so much for addressing these points.

  9. Charleson 15 Jul 2008 at 1:15 pm

    The first time I encountered multiple 1st person POV characters in the same novel was (and, yes, I am sure I’ve brought this book up in the past 1st person POV discussions here) Andre Norton’s “The Crystal Gryphon” which is one of my favorites of hers.

    Personally, I am incapable of writing a novel in 1st person. I’m also not a short story writer. Naturally, I have a 1st Person POV short story that is knocking for some attention to be written. That should be quite the challenge to write. In addition to this my short story will also by my first semi-autobiographical attempt as well.

    So, while this may be the only time I ever attempt 1st Person POV, these posts have come in quite helpful.

  10. Vivian Francison 15 Jul 2008 at 6:24 pm

    I don’t cry very often during movies, but I was sobbing throughout the scene you described from Touching the Void. I’d never thought if it in terms of POV before — thanks for that insight! A lot of the tension in the movie was also the result of us knowing just how alone that climber was — there was no one else for him to rely on. He had to do everything for himself. The first-person POV strengthened that sense of being alone. I think it helped to isolate us, giving us a sense of what he was feeling.

    I want to go back now and see how they created a strong first-person POV. I remember a focus on sensations, like the sound of the water trickling under the ground that he couldn’t reach. I think they also did some unusual camera angles.

  11. Maryon 15 Jul 2008 at 6:43 pm

    On the point that 2 should not depend on 1 and 3 — actually, that kinda depends on the story. There are indeed stories where telling it in first person will make it hard for those very reasons.

    That’s why there are other POVs.

    If you have problems telling a story in first person, consider whether first-person is the best choice for it.

  12. Maryon 15 Jul 2008 at 8:30 pm

    On withholding information — your first-person narrator can only get away with it if

    1. the narrator is telling the story. Either actually writing the manuscript, or telling someone. Not the third-person POV with the pronouns replaced.

    2. you put about enough clues that the narrator is unreliable.

    3. and the process of trying to figure out what the narrator is up to and trying to hide from you is fun.

  13. Kate Elliotton 16 Jul 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Excellent post.

    The choice of whose eyes we see the story through is so crucial, and in which way, whether 1st, 3rd, or omniscient (or 2nd, although that is rare).

    I wonder if we can come up with any/many cases of writers who started a first draft from one point of view only to realize the story needed to be told by someone else. Which is not quite the same as adding additional 3rd person pov characters or switching from 3rd to 1st between drafts (or back the other way).

  14. glenda larkeon 17 Jul 2008 at 5:53 am

    Wonderful post. So much excellent advice and I so agree with you. And great stuff in the comments too.

    Four of my published books were written in the first person. But initially I had so many rejections, all saying something like, “Wonderful use of the first person PoV, but we feel that this point of view does not…” and then they would go on to make a generalization that really didn’t apply to my particular book.

    So be warned – if you are unpublished and looking for a publisher for a fantasy (unless it is modern urban fantasy which uses 1st person all the time), you will find it a difficult sell.

    Yesterday, quite by coincidence, I posted a 2000 rejection letter that dealt with just this issue…

  15. Deborah J. Rosson 20 Jul 2008 at 11:54 pm

    Great discussion, everyone!

    My second novel, NORTHLIGHT (as Deborah Wheeler), alternated fairly tight third person (young male scholar) and first person (female knife fighter). Early drafts were in third only, and the story just sat there on the pages, like a stunned jellyfish. I thrashed around until I realized that I myself didn’t get interested until the knife fighter came blazing into the story. So I cut the first 150 pages and began with her in first person. Sizzle!

    Carol, I’m 3/4 through FLESH AND SPIRIT, and immensely enjoying your viewpoint character, with all the shadings and complexities you discussed above. Well done!

  16. Carol Bergon 21 Jul 2008 at 9:46 am


    Yes, it is a revelation when one finds the right voice to tell the story. When writing Guardians of the Keep I kept waffling about which of my first person narrators was going to tell the story of the kidnapped 10-year-old child. I tried each and nothing worked. And then, I thought, why not the kid? One of the best choices I ever made.

    And thank you for the kind words. Glad you’re enjoying Valen. He was ornery and obstreperous, but eventually revealed himself. I’m having a hard time leaving him behind!


  17. Steveon 21 Jul 2008 at 10:00 am

    Long ago I used to love first person. It felt like acting, as if I was writing while wearing a mask — I could be the narrating character. Somewhere along the line I learned how to do it while writing in 3rd person. Now I’m convinced that anything you can do in first person, you can do in third.

    Although… there are glorious works in first person. Palahniuk’s Fight Club comes to mind.

    And if you want the ultimate tutorial for omniscient, try Herbert’s Dune.

    And as for making characters compelling, here we fiction writers must acknowledge the superior expertise of screenwriters. Blake Snyder, for example.

    — Steve

  18. Mark Sehestedton 28 Aug 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I know I’m being a fusty, persnickety snoot with this, but I absolutely loathe first person narrative.

    Show. Don’t Tell.

    If not the #1 rule for writers, it is definitely in the Top 10. But reading first person narrative, I can’t help but read it with the sense that I am being told-told-told everything.

    When I sit down to read a book, I want to enter into the world of the characters. In a sense, I become the characters, seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, feeling what they feel. First-person narrative destroys that. I can never become the character, because the character never stops talking. Everything is relayed in the voice of the character. Yap-yap-yap.

    I know I’m in the minority in this. But I stand unrepentant. :)

  19. Carol Bergon 28 Aug 2008 at 6:31 pm

    We all have preferences, of course. (As it happens, I am an unrepentant detester of present-tense narratives.) Vive la…and all that.

    But, of course, the show, don’t tell rule can be violated by a third-person narrative as well. Badly done is badly done.

    Your desire to become the characters, see through their eyes, hear through their ears is exactly what I LOVE about well done first person. That’s also exactly why it is important to eliminate the “I saw,” “I heard,” “I thought,” “I felt” phrasing when writing first. You can write “The rain pattered on the sidewalk like a pup’s toenails” (or some much finer descriptive phrase) in either first or third person. It’s when you start writing, “I heard the rain patter on the sidewalk” or “he heard the rain patter on the sidewalk” that you begin to distance the reader from the experience. (Well that’s one way!)

    The problem of being in only one person’s head and only living the story with that one person is another one entirely, especially if you don’t like that person. And a character that comments endlessly on every experience can certainly become tiresome. Again, badly done is badly done.

  20. Mark Sehestedton 29 Aug 2008 at 11:08 am

    I am an unrepentant detester of present-tense narratives.

    I’m totally with you on that one!

    I know my dislike of first-person narrative puts me in the extreme minority. BUt I can’t help it. I guess whatever gene or neuron allows others to enjoy first-person narratives somehow misfired in me. 😉

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply