A Conversation About Pushing the Envelope Of First Person
“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me—not forever, but periodically.”
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
“Got a walk-in client today. Named Fitch. Guess it’s what I get for being the only psychic detective agency in town.”
The Scargill Cove Case Files by Jayne Ann Krentz
Got your attention didn’t I?
“You talkin’ to me?”
Well, yes, as a matter or fact, I am. So let’s have a chat about one of the more technical aspects of our craft. We’ll review Point of View in general and the zero in on ways to stretch first person.
So let’s talk about first person.
“But it’s so limiting! The reader only sees what the narrator sees, knows what she knows. It’s stifling!”
Valid point. However, there are ways to stretch the boundaries of the first person Point Of View, aka, POV.
“I wouldn’t use first person if you held a gun to my head.”
Don’t quit reading! These examples will help articulate your thinking about POV.
“So, tell me, it’s been a while since I studied this stuff What exactly is point of view? Why is it important?
How many different kinds are there?
Okay, let’s start with a brief review of Point of View. This will help when we get to ways to stretch first person.
What Point of View Is
Simply put, Point Of View is the answer to who’s telling the tale, or, the narrator.
One way to identify the point of view is the pronouns used: in a first person story you will see “I,” in second person “You,” and in third “She/He.”
“Wait a minute. The author tells the story.”
Hmmm. Yes, but . . . The author puts on a mask before setting pen to paper. In third person it may be neutral, reciting events, but it’s there. Remember those pronouns.
Types of Point of View
Third person seems like it’s simple to describe— you (the writer) just tells the story. “Valerie opened the door, not knowing that it would lead to horror, narrow escapes, and the love of her life, though not in that order.”
Third person comes in two flavors: limited and omniscient.
Third Person Limited
The writer tells the story through the eyes and mind of one person. “Valerie thought, ‘Can this hunk really be Oswald Thorogill, class nerd? What a difference ten years can make!’” The tall dude just stood there smiling.
We can get inside Valerie’s head, but Oswald is only revealed through his actions. We don’t know why he’s smiling. This is important. The author is not allowed to get inside his head. If Oswald’s happy to see the head cheerleader at the reunion you have to show it. Maybe he says,“Valerie? I remember your pom poms.”
Third Person Omniscient
This POV is really powerful. You (the writer) can get inside anybody’s head. However, you need to watch out for head-hopping.
"Head hopping?’ Now you’re making up terms.”
Nope. In the above example if I’d said, “Valerie thought, ‘Can this hunk really be Oswald Thorogill, class nerd?’” and followed it with, “Oswald thought, ‘Perfect. I drag myself to this stupid reunion and the first person I see is that snotty cheerleader.’” That would be head-hopping, and following that with, “Across the room, Bethany thought, ‘That skank Valerie’s done it again. Who is that guy and why does she get to talk to him? And that skirt is totallyinappropriate.’” That would be major head-hopping. The problem is it can confuse the reader. Who are we supposed to care about?
For details about this writing sin, look at other essays on this site: Lisa Hall-Wilson's Writing Deep Point of View Like a Pro, or her How to Use Deep Point of View without Tying an Anchor to the Pace of Your Novel, or her Emotional Layers: The Gateway to Deep Point of View or Janice Hardy's How Filtering the Point of View Affects Show Don't Tell.
“You need to exercise caution when inserting the circuit card to avoid bending any of the pins.”
I’ve never used this for fiction and frankly don’t see how I could, but for nonfiction it turns up all the time, particularly in user manuals. Unless you are some kind of mutant genius you probably won’t use this.
Which brings us to . . .
“I still think it’s stifling and nothing you’ve said makes me think different.”
Stay tuned. That’s about to change.
First person is easy to understand — the narrator simply tells her story. In the first example, Stephanie tells the story.
When a story is written in first person POV the narrator is telling the story, not the writer.
In a first person story the reader is dropped into the mind of the narrator. (Notice I don’t say “Main character.” More on that later.)
With this POV, right off the bat you have an idea what the narrator is like. See the above examples. Those are two different women, aren’t they?
“I see that, but isn’t that voice?”
That’s different, though there’re both filters through which the reader experiences the story. Voice, if you’re lucky and do your job well, is delivered not only via the person you choose, but through everything in the story. Maybe another essay . . .
“Okay, I think I’ve got it. Third person limited, third person omniscient, second person, first person. But, first person, geez, the readers only see what the main character sees, only know what she knows.”
Good point. But there are ways to stretch that limitation.
Your protagonist can tell the story after it’s over.
“Wait, almost all stories are told in past tense. Doesn’t that mean it’s over?”
Ooh, now that’s a good one. Yes, but to the reader — if you’re doing your job right — it’s happening now. In straight first person Valerie doesn’t have time to reflect that she should have worn a more appropriate skirt, whereas if she’s telling the story to her grandchildren she does. Stephen King does this in Joyland, his Edgar-nominated thriller. The narrator talks about events that happened forty years in the past. This allows him to make observations that he could not when the events took place. First person, but expanded a little. This reflective tone colors the story. It’s about a lost love. (Don’t worry; that’s not a spoiler. King’s hero tells you that on page one.) It lifts the novel out of the realm of pulp,thrillers. Robert A. Heinlein does it in The Puppet Masters, though it’s less important to the story.
You can add in documents. In our text, tweet, email-driven world this is acceptable, but it’s nothing new. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is composed of diaries and recordings and is really epistolary but still with that first person narrator. For that matter, the Jayne Ann Krentz tale is first person, and was delivered via postings on her web site, sort of a diary. Definitely pushing the envelope.
You can make your narrator unreliable. You’re immediately thinking of “The Telltale Heart,” but I’ll give you Gone Girl and (Is it fact? Fiction? Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping?) Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I sure hope it’s fictionalized; the narrator isn’t unreliable — he’s drug-addled and proud of it.
Have a sidekick tell the story.
“Sure. Watson and Holmes.”
Right. One big advantage of this technique is the main character —think Holmes — can be less likeable than if he told the story.
“Sure I get it. I can hear Holmes saying, ‘Watson sees but doesn’t observe.’”
Here’s some writing trivia for your next cocktail party. The wonderful Travis McGee novels are all first-person, told by McGee. Rumors have floated around for years that there was one more story, called A Black Border for McGee where Travis dies and his sidekick Meyer tells the story. So far to my knowledge it has not surfaced.
“You reallythink I’ll tell that story at my next party?”
And, finally, you can just blow it off when it suits you. Yep, just chuck the whole thing. This one should probably be one with a warning label, but it can work. In King’s novel, Christine, the first third is first person, Dennis Guilder tells the story of the killer car, very straightforward, then the middle is third person with no transition or explanation and then Dennis comes back and narrates the last third. And it works. In Crimson Joy,Rhobert B. Parker‘s Spenser tells the story, except when the killer takes over at a few well-chosen intervals to tell his story. Use at your own risk; this writer assumes no responsibility for bad reviews.
“So after all this you’re telling me the rules, there ain’t no rules?”
No! Yes! I’m saying if you stretch your “Person” it needs to be deliberate. On purpose.
“So what now? I mean, you’ve talked about a lot of well, points of view, but what should I do next?“
Right. To review — third person limited, third person omniscient, second person, first person.
”Yeah, right, I needed that. But what do I do? What do I do now?”
You need to see which point of view you’re most comfortable with, internalize these different approaches, and then let all of that go so that when you write you just let it flow. Side note: if you’re new here, welcome, and — trust me on this — there’s no better feeling in the world than when the story takes over and starts to flow out of your fingertips as if you were merely a conduit for your muse.
Practice. Writing in many ways is like playing the piano. (That, along with voice, is the subject of another essay.) From experience I can attest that if you don’t practice, you don’t get better.
I suggest an exercise: write a paragraph in each of the four. For second-person I suggest skipping a story and writing the steps of a procedure. Making coffee, washing the cat (Step One: put on rhinoceros-hide gloves.), turning on your computer and navigating to your WIP. You get the idea.
Read. Thanks to the marvels of technology it’s easy. Use iBooks or Kindle, and download samples of some of the books we’ve talked about. Jayne Ann Krentz, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King. Remember in Christine he doesn’t switch to third person until a third of the way through, so I suggest Joyland for the wistful, reflective opening.
For more ways to stretch first-person, see “Out of Her Head” by James Scott Bell inWriter’s Digest, June 2004.
On the WITS Home page, search on first person or point of view.
And in the end . . .
The story you make is the story you take. Yeah, it’s yours, folks. And nobody else’s.
Thanks lot; I’ve enjoyed our chat and I hope to hear from you. Now get back to the keyboard. Type faster! Your readers are waiting.
“You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way . . . . ”
— Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit - Will Travel
Do you have questions about POV? Do you have answers? How has POV affected something you've written?
James Preston survived the Attack of the Alien Virus and went on to write the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
I believe (may be mis-remembering) that the novel "Bright Lights, Big City" by McInerney was written in that weird second person POV. Nice recap of the whole point of view issue.
Thanks! I'll check out "Bright Lights, Big City." It's good to see how writers handle that difficult POV. It would be challenging for fiction, that's for sure! Have you used it for fiction?
Love your examples here, and you're so right. When used correctly, first person pov really lets you play with the language in ways you can't do in third. Interesting post. I often find that, if I'm writing in the third person and it isn't working, switching to first person lets me go deeper into the character. I sometimes then rewrite the book AGAIN in third person after I've understood the character. It's interesting to try this to see what you really want to do with a narrative.
Whoa! Now that's a good idea, Holly. Struggling with understanding a character in third person, switch for a bit and have the character talk directly in first person. It won't be in the final ms, but it's a way to get inside the character's head. That's an idea I'm going to remember, and a good example of how the WITS community works together sharing ideas.
I write almost exclusively in Deep 3rd person POV, with the exception of a trio of short stories where the protagonist demanded first. I find very little difference between them, other than deep 3rd allows for easier multiple POV characters, which is "required" under the romance umbrella.
I have no problems with "you only know what the POV character does." In fact, that's what connects me to characters, and characters are why I keep reading. Anything "shallower" tends to pull me out of the story.
Thanks, Terry. It's interesting that you can make the limits of first person into virtues, and you're right. I also like that you used first person because the character demanded it. That's a great feeling, isn't it, when they start taking over? On the other hand -- I may be wrong -- I think Evanovich doesn't like that at all and says she clamps down on characters that start to talk to her. Anybody else remember that? Anybody? Anybody? What movie is that from?
Thank you so much for the quick primer on POV!
I completely agree that most novice writers should leave second person alone. It's so hard to do well. One instance I ran across where it was amazing was _The Reluctant Fundamentalist_ by Mohsin Hamid. The book essentially starts out with an invitation to the reader to sit down at a table for coffee and listen to the person telling the story. What unfolds from there is an incredible journey, and because the author exercises his craft with such mastery we feel like we're watching everything progress as we stand right next to him. I highly recommend it.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist? I have not read that, but I will check it out. I like that storytelling approach and I suspect one reason people respond to it is because it goes all the way back to our ancestors sitting around the fire after a mastodon hunt, and one of them starts saying. "Here's what happened to somebody I know." Maybe all the way back to the very beginnings of storytelling. This essay is turning up some excellent examples; just what I need -- more books I want to read. And I blame you, write edge. Thanks! (All kidding aside.)
I thought I was the only one old enough to remember the SNL Dessert topping skit!
I'm in a committed relationship with first person at the moment - Carly, the character in The Last True Cowboy just came to me that way, and now 3rd seems so distant.
But I know many don't like 1st person, and if it's not done well, it's just painful.
Thanks for this, James!
Oh, Laura, I'm certain you only know of that hilarious "floor wax dessert topping" skit because you have the DVD that you bought for a History of Television class. Wait, I've dated myself. I meant you streamed the show on Netflix or YouTube, or . . . I give up.
I really like the "committed relationship" description of the bond between writer and first-person character. Yep, that's how it is and I wouldn't trade my relationship with Mary Jane Bailey it for just about anything.
For those who might be new to the site, Laura's newest, The Last True Cowboy, was chosen by Amazon as one of the best books of December.
Thanks, Laura, and say hi to Carly for me.
Thanks for the shout-out, James, and yes, I remember because I saw it the first time it was on. I'm embracing oldness, lately. Except the aches...
Lauren Hutton -- 60's fashion model -- said to wear age like a badge of honor. I turned that up in research for my WIP and it's nice to have an opportunity to trot it out. Also, she turned down all offers to pose nude -- until she turned 60.
My kinda lady...
Great description, James. Really enjoyed it. One question, Many thrillers, yours truly's included, write in what I would call multi-PoV third person. I have a handful of key PoV characters. Each scene, or sometimes chapter, is strictly single PoV to avoid head hoping. Is this considered third person omniscient or something else?
Oooh, good question, Jack. At least one of the sources I consulted to write this essay said there is a degree of fuzziness about third person. I'd say if each chapter is third person, but one individual then it's third person limited with a twist. Anybody else care to weigh in with an opinion? I have a question. Do the points of view rotate in a set order, or is it variable?
BTW, Jack Bowie is the author of the excellent Adam Braxton thrillers. The most recent is called The Langley Profile.
Good question. My PoVs don't rotate in a fixed order, Scenes just follow the natural timeline of the story. The only rule I have is a "priority" of PoVs/characters, E.g., if characters John and Fred are in the same scene and John has a higher "priority", then John will always have the PoV. Seemed easier to understand, but would love to know if this is typical or just a result of my obsessive/compulsive personality.
Oh, no you don't. You're not getting me to weigh in on a personality quirk that I share. I will say that it seems like a conscious decision, and by that I mean you're in control of the writing. I can't think of other examples like that; maybe one of the WITS readers has an idea. Is the importance permanent or does it change with the situation? In other words, can it be John's POV in once scene and Fred's in another? I think that has the potential for confusing the reader.
The priority is definitely consistent (per book).The primary protagonist would be #1, the antagonist #2, #1's sidekick #3, the friendly cop #4, etc.
Ok, what I notice is that it's deliberate; you've got it under control. Good!
Very interesting. I haven't written a lot of first person, but deep 3rd feels much like it, because you get so into the character and her motivations and thoughts that you could almost go through your ms and change "she" to "I". I don't get the bit about head-hopping in omniscient, though. In that instance, you know what everyone is thinking. Why can't you express it? (Actually, the writer knows what everyone is thinking all the time, just has to decide how to show it in anything other than omniscient.)
Thanks, Virginia, I wanted to talk more about head-hopping and ran out of both space and time. Here's what I think. the omniscient POV allows you to look inside all your characters' heads. However, I think it's best to keep one head per scene. Actually, the only thing that matters is not confusing the reader, so if your beta readers and editors do not have a problem, I think it works. One source I consulted said the Harry Potter books are guilt of head-hopping. I've read them all and never noticed. Now I'm afraid to go back and look because I'm afraid it will bother me. You know, many audiences would find that odd, but all you WITS readers will understand.
Excellent POV discussion. Perhaps it is another essay, but I have a question. How about combining first and third person? I started a project with both first and third POV then was bombarded with “Pick a POV and stick with it” , “You’re going to confuse the reader”, or “It just isn’t done”. Any thoughts? I’ve certainly read enough to know it has been done.
You bet, Shelia, It has been done and successfully. Look at Stephen King's Christine, which uses both and succeeds. The key is not "Is just isn't done" (remember it's your book and nobody else's), the important issue is confusing the reader, and that is easy to do if you switch too often. I guess I'm saying if you get people saying, "I don't understand what's going on here," then it's time to reconsider and maybe not eliminate the switches, but reduce them. Hope that helps! Take a look at your ms and let me know if that might work.
Thanks for weighing in, and yes, you may well have identified another essay topic. How many is that? Is anybody counting?
Thanks for the break down on POVs. This will help guide my writing hand.
Hi, Darnell. I'm glad you liked the essay. It helps to be conscious of this aspect of our craft, and it's something so integral to a story that sometimes we forget that there's a lot to it under the hood. Thanks for weighing in,and may your writing hand be steady and swift!
Thank you ?
I like third person for my writing.
Hi, Denise. Thanks for checking in. I used third person for my historical novellas and found it worked well. What draws you to third, and do you use omniscient or limited?
I use omniscient for the most part. Though, I have used limited, too.
James, I love your articles! They always make me laugh, and I thank you for including sci fi references. In the past, I would not buy a book that was written in first person; I just didn't like them. But in the last few years I have tried some out, and I like them! I haven't tried writing a book in first person yet, but I may be ready in a year or two when I start a new series. Thanks for such a well-researched blog.
Always great to hear from another writer that the essay did it's job! When I write these things, I have the same goal that we all do: make the reader keep reading. Laughter, in my mind, is one of the best ways to do that. I'm glad you've tried reading first person, and I would suggest many of the Heinlein juvies (nowadays they'd be Young Adult).
If any of you have missed it, Fae's newest is P.R.I.S.M., a page-turning sf story. Rumor has it there's a new one in the works . . .
This comment is really an addendum to the essay. I have read that first person is unique to books; not so. If you are interested in a really good film, track down a Kurosawa work called "Rashomon." That's a POV masterpiece worth of study!
Late to this party, but just loved this piece. I am currently writing Limited Third Person (Deep). Previous book was Third Person Multiple - it was difficult and took many edits to be sure there was no inappropriate, nerve-wracking and confusing head-hopping. In that story I needed to show the experiences and events of many women. Through each of their points of view we come to understand the sociopath main character. His POV is never given, only his behavior.
Luna, welcome! Limited Third Person has a lot of advantages -- less chance of confusing the reader being a big one. I think revealing your sociopath only through behavior is a good way to go for a couple of reasons. First, who really knows what lurks in that kind of mind? I'm guessing not even the owner of the mind. Second, that's the way I deal with a sociopath (well, maybe that's what he is; Roger Winters doesn't fit any known categories) that I have as a continuing character in the Surf City Mysteries.
Thanks for contributing! Good luck with the WIP!
[…] the Myers-Briggs personality types to build character conflict, James R. Preston runs us through Points Of View, and Janice Hardy tackles the age-old question of how to show your character’s age […]