Understanding Point of View: First Person

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penBy Cecilia Lewis

Previously, I’ve discussed the basics of POV and tips for using multiple POVs. Now, I’d like to take a look at each POV individually to discuss its advantages and disadvantages. Let’s start with the POV I see the most issues with: first person. What are the pros, cons, and pitfalls when using it? (If you’re not sure what first person is, you can refer back to my POV basics post.)

Pros

  1. A tight/close/deep perspective

You may have heard POV referred to as close, deep, or tight. All of these descriptions essentially mean the same thing: a limited POV that mimics the way we perceive things in real life, narrating only the POV character’s conscious thoughts. A deep POV can be used in third person as well; close POV doesn’t automatically equal first person. But a close perspective lends itself very naturally to the first person, which makes first person a great choice if you want a deeper perspective. Many writers struggle with maintaining narrative distance in third person but find it much easier in first. Let’s look at some examples:

Distant POV in 3rd: Jane heard the doorbell ring and wondered who was there.

Distant POV in 1st: I heard the doorbell ring and wondered who was there.

Close POV in 3rd: The doorbell rang, and Jane looked up. Who was it?

Close POV in 1st: The doorbell rang, and I looked up. Who was it?

Obviously these are pretty simplistic examples, but they demonstrate the difference. When working in third person, many writers use the two narrative distances inconsistently. If you’re struggling with narrative distance, consider trying first person.

  1. Voice

Many writers find it easier to capture a character’s distinctive voice while writing in first person. Although a great voice certainly can—and should!—be achieved in third person as well, the use of first person clearly signals to us that we’re writing from that specific character’s perspective, which makes it easier to develop their voice as they narrate the story themselves. In fact, I often recommend that writers who are having difficulty with voice in third person pretend they’re writing the scene in first person; many find that the voice flows much more smoothly as they think about the perspective differently.

  1. Internalization

Internalization refers to the POV character’s internal thoughts. In the example above, “Who was it?” is internalization. Including it can really help your readers identify and connect with your POV character. Again, this is something that should be done in third person as well as in first. But many writers find internalization much easier to write in the first person. If you’re struggling with conveying your POV character’s thoughts, motives, or emotions in third, you might try switching to first to see if it comes more naturally that way.

  1. In the moment

If you want to lend your story a sense of immediacy, of things happening right now in the present, then first person is a great way to do it. First person, and deep POV in general, tends to feel very immediate. For this reason, it’s more common to see present-tense verbs in first person than in third, as it generally reads more smoothly. If you’re writing in the present tense, I would almost always recommend using first person as well. And even if you’re not writing in present tense but still want to lend that sense of immediacy to the narrative, a first person POV might be a great option.

Cons and Common Problems

  1. Limitations

First person is obviously much narrower in scope than third person can be. In first person, the writer is limited to narrating only what the POV character consciously does, senses, or thinks. You won’t be able to show scenes that your POV character isn’t present for or to narrate things that they’re oblivious to. For stories with a broad scope or a large cast of characters, first person is often too limiting.

  1. Telling instead of showing

If you spend a lot of time studying writing craft, you’ve probably heard “show, don’t tell” numerous times. But this is especially important to remember when writing in first person—or any deep POV, really. Since deep POV is all about getting inside your character’s head and in the moment, you should avoid telling as much as you can. After all, a character isn’t going to stop and explain something to themselves in the middle of a scene. Lengthy exposition, backstory, or description can all feel awkward and misplaced when using the first person. Instead, try working all of that information in naturally through the POV character’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and dialogue.

  1. Overusing personal pronouns

When writing in first person, it can be difficult to avoid using “I,” “my,” and “mine” over and over again. Make sure to avoid excessive repetition as much as you can. Consider using alternate sentence structures or phrases whenever possible. A good rule of thumb for any kind of repetition is to avoid using any word more than once per paragraph (or several paragraphs, if they’re short).

  1. Too much internalization

Internal narration is a great thing, but it can often be overdone. Avoid long passages of inner narration, and remember that you don’t have to narrate every thought in a character’s head. When in doubt, try breaking up a chunk of narration with physical action or interaction with other characters.

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When used well, first person can be a great way to dive into a character’s thoughts and help the reader connect with them. If you want to write a story with a narrow focus on a character or are having difficulty with narrative distance, give first person a try and see how it works for you.

What do you think? Do you ever write in first person? Are there any pros or cons I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-Understanding Point of View: The Basics

-7 Tips for Writing Multiple Points of View

-4 Tips for Developing Your Voice

-Setting Basics: How to Deepen Your Worldbuilding

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