Michaeline: I Happen to Like First Person Point of View

A duchesse sitting in front of a mirror holding a book.

How does first person reflect on the writer? How does it draw in the reader? (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

I happen to like the first person point of view. Many of my schoolgirl scribblings were in first person, and so were my favorite novels.

But somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that first person wasn’t ideal. It was kid stuff, it was for amateurs, it was a bit narcissistic.

So, I started working with tight third person. I kidded myself that it was practically the same, and I got along OK with it, most of the time. Then I started thinking that a single third person POV was also too baby-ish. I wanted to try working with multiple POVs. And that’s where my muses went on strike. Oh, everybody inside my head agreed that multiple POVs, alternating every chapter or some other mystical and complicated schema, would be a grand idea. A rococo drawing room of an idea, full of interesting insights and various opinions.

But when it came time to turn the idea into words on paper, it was all so stiff and awkward.

It made me miserable. I knew it could be done; I thought it should be done. And a series of bad novels exacerbated by first person poorly done convinced me that I needed to do it.

Novels told in the first person POV can be very whiny. First person also severely limits what your readers can see – they are looking through “my” eyes, which means that events that don’t happen in front of “my” face theoretically aren’t available to the readers. The writer must work harder to be clear about the plot, and the reader must work harder to read between the lines – especially if “I” am a young, naive or otherwise unreliable narrator.

I spent quite a few years working with third person, and two or three years toying with multiple third person.

And then, this month, I read My Antonia  (link to Amazon for first pages) by Willa Cather, and was blown away. Cather writes a prologue in first person, introducing the narrator, Jim. The rest of the story is from Jim’s first person perspective. Cather broke a lot of rules good and hard in this story, but I was still entranced, for several reasons.

Jim acts as almost an omniscient narrator. He interacts in the story quite a bit with the heroine, Tony, but he’s also privy to the gossip of adults and the reflections of some of the characters after they grew up and moved away from Black Hawk, Nebraska. It’s a distant first-person, told by an adult looking back upon his childhood, so it’s both warm and nostalgic, but seasoned with a lot of cold logical hindsight.

Jim, our narrator, is an adult telling another person’s story, so there’s very little “oh woe, poor me” in this story. Jim is secure in his adulthood. He has a good job and a wide social circle. So, the hardships of childhood can be viewed not as “why is this happening to me?” but as “ah, well, it was all for the best, probably.”

A first person POV, or even a tight third person, from Antonia’s position in realtime would have been quite harrowing. It may have made fine literature, but it wouldn’t have made a good read, per se.

The Lovely Bones  (link to Amazon for first pages) by Alice Sebold also does this distancing trick. The story is told from the perspective of a girl who was killed and went to her own heaven. Susie Salmon has processed the experience, so we don’t have to be murdered along with the character. It’s an extremely difficult book, but it doesn’t jerk you around.

So, I’m giving in to myself, and giving first person a try again. So far, I’m getting some good words on the page. My subject matter isn’t as harrowing as Antonia’s or Susie’s experiences, so I’m doing it in realtime. The reader will be a lot closer to the events, which I hope will be thrilling, but not devastating. I’ll state my heroine’s hardships in simple facts, and let the readers add as much “oh, poor girl!” as they want to.

And we will see what we will see. Do you have any first person favorites? Have you written in first person? Did you like it?

7 thoughts on “Michaeline: I Happen to Like First Person Point of View

  1. I think first person is easy to do, hard to do well, for the reasons you give. The reader’s whole story experience happens through the filter of one character, so that character has to be fascinating. Mostly I don’t like it, because the constant I,I,I sounds like somebody annoying who never stops talking about themselves, but done right, I love it.

    I don’t really like it for romances, because I like balance in my love stories. I want to know what’s in the hero’s head as well as the heroine’s. SEP wrote one book (in third person) solely from the heroine’s POV, and I didn’t enjoy it at all, though usually I love her books. I think it works well in genres like urban fantasy, often because the heroine has much to discover and super-powers to unlock, other characters Know More, but the reader learns along with Our Girl. I bet it can be frustrating to write, though. Patricia Briggs cheats a little in her Mercy Thompson books by adding in some telepathy, so suddenly the heroine finds herself in the hero’s mind. She also cracked and gave the hero a POV in the last one I read, and that felt weird, though I loved the character. I like Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books because Kate is very outward focused, funny and not at all whiny.

    I’ve only ever used it for short stories, but if I decided to write fantasy or steampunk I *might* try it. If it feels right for you, I say go for it!

    • Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief may be my favorite first person book. I think it’s brilliantly written. Eugenides (the Thief) is a fascinating person, but even though the story is entirely from his POV, the reader does not know what Gen knows. The reader is more like the other characters in the book – gradually collecting nuggets and tidbits until we finally come to understand who Gen is and what he’s up to.

      Something I find interesting is that Megan Whalen Turner used first person for The Thief (first book in the series) to introduce Eugenides and to help the reader to understand him deeply. When she describes his further adventures in the second and third books, she doesn’t need to do that any more, so she moves to third person. From memory, I think the second book, The Queen of Attolia, is omniscient, or close to it. The third book, The King of Attolia, is in close third, told from the point of view of Costis, a soldier who becomes Gen (the King)’s personal guard. Each POV is perfectly suited to the story, even though all three are about the same character in the same world. I don’t think three books in the same POV would have been half so good.

    • Exactly what Jill said – 1st person is easy to do (and very common in British chick lit) but hard to do well. Perhaps now is the right time for you to move to 1st person.

      Btw, lots of New Adult is written in 1st person with alternating H/h viewpoints – i.e. they have a two 1st person narratives going on. I didn’t like it at first but am now really used to it. Try The Deal by Elle Kennedy, any Sarina Bowen, or, a cute best friends to lovers romance I just read this weekend, Blurred Lines by Lauren Layne, if you want to see it works.

      • That’s really interesting about the two first person viewpoints. I wonder how they signal the viewpoint switch . . . in tight third, it’s easy to just put the person’s name in. But in first . . . the voices would have to be really distinct I think. They should be distinct anyway. But I’d think you would need something obvious for the readers who don’t pick up on voices quite as easily. I may take a look. (-: I would like to write a best-friends-to-lovers book one day. I like the slow burn that eventually catches fire when they realize they love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together.

  2. It’s pretty common in women’s fiction to have the protagonist in first and one or more other chraracters depicted in close third. I tried that with Demons Don’t, but my first two beta readers gently convinced me it was a mistake. And I won’t try it again because swtiching out the first for third was a huge amount of work. Four edits later I was still finding random me’s and my’s.

    IMHO–If first is letting you write when close third isn’t, it’s where you need to be right now.

    • Yeah, I really think I’ve been too focused on doing it right, and not focused enough on doing it fun. If I’m still having trouble, I think I might go to journaling for a month or two, and see if that helps.

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