Monday, November 26, 2012

New Challenges: First Person

by Annette

For the non-writers out there, one of the big decisions novelists have to make before beginning a work is what point of view the story will be told in. The most common points of view in modern fiction are first person and close third person.

Third person is when scenes are told as "he said" and "she did' and so forth. Close (or tight) third person is what modern readers are most accustomed to reading, when individual scenes get into the head of one character at a time. Some books have multiple point-of-view (POV) characters, such as a romance where the scenes switch between the hero's POV and the heroine's POV.

A great example of tight third is the Harry Potter series, which is told almost exclusively from Harry's POV. We get a few scenes here and there (usually at the beginning of books) from other points of view (the prime minister, of Voldemort himself), but most of it is Harry's.

What we don't see in those books is first person.

First person is when the character is narrating the book as if it happened them personally. "I went to the store," and "I fell down." A popular series written in first person is The Hunger Games trilogy.

An odd quirk exists with first person: For several reasons, which I won't get into here due to space, first person tends to be one of the hardest POVs to do well.

Ironically, first person tends to be the POV of choice for beginning writers, because it seems like it'll be easy.

I have to raise my hand here as one of the newbies who thought first person would be easy. One of my early manuscripts was first person, and I loved the immediacy it brought to the story. But there were pitfalls, many of them, and eventually, I realized that the story would be served better by third person. I rewrote the whole thing (which, by the way, is almost as time-intensive as writing a whole new book), and it was eventually published.

That book was originally drafted close to fifteen years ago. After rewriting the whole thing, I pretty much swore off first person, knowing that (1) it lacked certain tools I liked to use as a writers and (2) I didn't have the chops to pull it off.

Enter The Newport Ladies Book Club. 

I don't remember how the point of view discussion happened, but we agreed that each book would be in first person, from the title character's perspective.

Whoever had the idea first was right on the money: To show just how differently women see the world, and even the same situation, the books really did need first person.

So, after over a decade of swearing off the POV, I was faced with writing a book in first person. Yikes.

Turns out that writing and publishing a whole bunch of books and editing professionally for years helps hone a writer's skills. I'd learned a lot about the craft, and I didn't fall into the same pitfalls I had before.

For that matter, first person was fun while writing Paige. One of the best parts is that I didn't have to worry about how another character came across, which tends to be an issue with first person. The other characters had their own books to tell their stories! No, I had to worry about one character, and one character only: Paige.

Somehow I found myself diving into her mind and understanding her in a way I never expected. Early in the drafting process, I found myself slipping into third person here and there, but eventually, first person came naturally. The story flowed. I laughed with Paige. I cried with her. And when the end came, I was right there with her.

The only part that took a lot of work after that was the opening chapter, which I must have rewritten close to a dozen times before I felt it worked. But that's not a point-of-view issue. That's a me issue. Openings are my Achilles' Heel.

I had so much fun writing in first person, that my next work-in-progress adopted that POV without me giving it much thought. Then I wrote Ilana, also in first person, and also a great learning experience.

Alas, that other manuscript has fallen into the same pit at my initial first-person attempt: I've decided that it needs to be third person after all. I'm in the trenches of revision with it right now. While I'm sure I'll reach moments of wanting to bang my head against a wall in frustration, I know the end result will be worth it, and for now, as I write new scenes from a different POV (one that didn't exist originally), I'm having a ball, knowing that the story is coming to life in a way it hadn't before.

I don't know what points of view my writing future will hold, but for some reason, The Newport Ladies Book Club is where my first person efforts just work, and my other writing, at least, so far, does better in third.

Just one more example of how this whole project has taken on a life and certain magic of its own.


  1. Daisy was my first 'first person' as well and I didn't know that I could do it, but it was the perfect perspective for that story and a thrill to finish the book and realize how well it worked out. I think for this series first person was imperative. Made all the difference.

  2. I really enjoyed writing ATHENA in first person as well!

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