Friday, August 28, 2015

Pitfalls of First-Person POV

by Chris Roerden

Whether you Twitter or talk, you’re communicating from your first-person point of view. So first-person is the most natural, easiest POV for writing fiction. But new writers underestimate its limitations. The “I” narrating your novel is not you, the author, and cannot know what’s in other characters’ heads.

Caution: slippery

Here’s a sentence I wrote to illustrate the error of a narrator’s presuming to know another’s intentions or feelings:

I tried to take my luggage, but she kept a firm grip, needing to keep her hands busy.

An “I” narrator knows her own thoughts and needs, no one else’s, and uses her five senses to perceive the signs revealed by others--their words, actions, body language. Based on behaviors shown, your narrator can speculate:

I tried to take my luggage, but she kept a firm grip, maybe needing to keep her hands busy.

Notice “maybe”--which is how June Shaw wrote this line in Killer Cousins, p. 26. It effectively maintains Cealie’s POV while she (1) observes the firm grip, then (2) interprets her cousin’s need. Shaw uses the technique again on p. 44:

Her hands swept around in jittery motions. . . . Probably now, after a meal, she wanted a cigarette.

More limitations

First-person POV means not withholding information from readers that the narrator discovers in the course of events. Nor can she see through walls, notice what’s behind her, or say A shadow crossed my face or The lines in my forehead deepened. Readers see only what the first-person narrator sees.

If you describe your protagonist-narrator, try to avoid the clichéd reflection-in-a-mirror device.

Moreover, the protagonist-narrator cannot experience scenes she’s not present for. That means she, and the reader, learn what happens from another character’s retelling of them, second-hand--a technique that steals a scene’s dramatic power and cancels the intimacy of a first-person POV.

First-person writing also tends to ramble, to rely on internal thoughts when dialogue could occur, and to rehash the same thoughts. In first-person more than any other POV, your main character should be so interesting, quirky, and insightful that readers will want to see the world through her eyes for an entire novel.

If your fiction reveals first-person weaknesses, fix them or select a more versatile POV--exemplified along with hundreds of solutions in Don't Murder Your Mystery (Agatha Award winner) and its all-genre version, Don't Sabotage Your Submission.

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