Up close and personal: first person POV

This is the first in a short series on the different kinds of POV in writing, how they work and how you can use them to best effect.

I

First person POV uses I and me and voice is important.

In simple terms, first person POV uses I, and the story is seen entirely through one character’s eyes, ears and emotions.

So I might have a story about Jane, George and Phillip but I tell the story through George’s POV only, using I, and cannot go into Jane or Phillip’s heads.

E.g. I tipped my wine onto the white tablecloth. I was right. The red stain looked nothing like blood. Jane had already run to the kitchen for a cloth, but Phillip leaned back in his chair, a sneer on his face. “That wasn’t very clever of you, George,” he said.

I think you’re the idiot, actually. But I kept a polite smile on my face and helped Jane mop up the wine, wishing she would stop looking at me as if I were some kind of troublemaker.

First person has become more and more popular over the past 20 years, especially in young adult fiction. It’s been creeping into a lot of middle grade fiction, and literary writers seem to love first person/present tense.

Advantages – first person can create a sense of immediacy, of being very close to the action of the story and the central narrator. It can create a sense of intimacy with the narrator so the reader more easily identifies with him/her.

Disadvantages – this POV can limit the story. The only action that can be described is that experienced by the narrator. The writer can’t go into other characters’ heads and can only show their emotions and reactions as witnessed by the narrator.

One way of getting around this is to have two first person narrators, as long as they sound different, or sections of the story where things are told in third person (which can feel like cheating to the reader).

Challenges – voice! You have to create an engaging voice that the reader connects with. In YA fiction, a lot of readers hate a whiny narrator (Why me? My life sucks. I hate my mother. Etc.) A smartypants narrator can also be offputting, as can someone whose life is full of angst and comes off sounding melodramatic.

You also have to tread the line between a narrator that will offend no one and sound bland, and creating a character with such a strong voice that they will be unlikeable or distancing.

One step up in first person is the unreliable narrator. This is where the character might have mental problems and have a flawed view of events, or be a liar (deliberately misleading the reader) or perhaps be a child who doesn’t understand the full meaning of what they see and hear.

Why would you choose to use a first person POV?

You might have a really strong sense of the narrator’s voice right from the beginning, which feels and sounds right for the story. YA writer John Marsden says he can’t start a novel until he hears the narrator’s voice clearly in his head.

You might want to tell a story in which the confinement of one person’s POV suits the way it has to be told. Room by Emma O’Donoghue is a good example of this.

Or you might feel that the particular kind of story you want to convey needs a close, intimate POV to fully engage the reader.

Hint: you can always change to third person intimate if you change your mind.

Writing pointer: if you are having trouble with making a character come alive, do some free writing in first person from that character’s POV. Get them to tell you their life story and how they feel about where they are in your story. You might be surprised what they say!

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Comments

  1. ‘Liar’ by Justine Larbalestier is told in first person POV by an ‘unreliable narrator’ as you describe – a liar in fact! For me, this is what made the story engaging. Knowing that the narrator was unpredictable kept me guessing and added tension. A great post Sherryl, thanks. (And thanks for the board book!)

    • Yes, I’ve read that. It’s interesting, isn’t it? The narrator is kind of likeable, but you can’t trust her an inch. My disappointment with that book was the paranormal element (won’t say what as it’ll be a spoiler) – I’d like to see a novel like that which is about lying about something other than you are a …
      I think “Speak” does this really well – the narrator isn’t lying, she just isn’t telling!

  2. Brenda K. says

    Love this POV explaination. Have printed it out and filled it in my writers bits and pieces folder – how toos.
    Brenda.
    PS. I now have 14 x 7 word stories, thanks to your writers block section. (I didn’t start until the 20th of June.) If nothing else they’ve also given me ideas for more stories. After the 28 days I’m thinking about chosing one and making it longer by maybe, 200words a day for 28 days. Just to see what happens. If nothing else I’ll have a 5,600 word story!
    Thank you

    • Hope the next few POV posts will be as useful!
      Great to hear about the 7 word stories – I’m going to use that with a class in August again. I like your plan for a story too – you may find having the story on your mind for 28 days will turn it into a novel!

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