Writing Basics

Point of view basics: First person POV in fiction

I’m teaching a creative writing workshop this semester at my local community college, and I just had an epiphany as I was writing notes for our next class. I thought, “Hey, dummy! As long as you’re typing all of this writing stuff up, maybe you could use the content for a series of blog posts!” Of course, I’m a huge fan of re-purposing content, so I replied, “Okay, cool. Let’s do this.” So today, here’s blog post #1 of a series I have written to provide a brief overview of the basics of Point of View (POV) in fiction writing.

According to Self-editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, there are as many as 26 flavors of point of view. For the purpose of this series, we will focus on four basics: first, second, third, and omniscient. Today, let’s start with first person POV.

First person point of view is written from the perspective of an “I” voice and provides intimacy to your storytelling as you filter the story through the main character’s perspective. With first person POV, the narrator and the protagonist are typically one and the same. (Though sometimes, the narrator might be telling a story that he was only peripherally involved with, as Nick Carraway does in The Great Gatsby. This is one way to create narrative distance when writing in the first person, but that’s one of those 26 other flavors of POV I mentioned before, so we’re not going any farther in that direction today.)

While first person POV offers the opportunity for the reader to get right inside the story from the narrator’s perspective, it also has its drawbacks. For example, you can’t write about anything your main character wouldn’t know. So, while Carraway can discuss what he thinks Gatsby’s motivations are, he can never really tell the reader what is going on inside Gatsby’s head.

meme: Why do you think Fitzgerald chose to tell Gatsby's story from the perspective of a peripheral character?
Why do you think Fitzgerald chose to tell Gatsby’s story from the perspective of a peripheral character?

When writing in first person, you must also create a POV character the reader can stand to live with for the duration of the novel, as the reader literally lives inside the narrator’s head for the duration. While The Catcher in the Rye is considered a classic and is loved by many, it’s one of those books that I can’t get into for just that reason. The entire novel is filtered through the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, who is about as unreliable a narrator as they come. Personally, I don’t trust Caulfield from the very beginning of the story, and this makes it difficult for me to immerse myself in it.

First person point of view can be further filtered through your choice of verb tense. For example, if you want to put your reader in the middle of the action and keep him on the edge of his seat, you might decide to write in first person, present tense. However, you can create distance between the narrator now and who the narrator was in the past by writing in first person past tense.

Should you write your novel in first person point of view? That depends. How intimate do you want your story to be? Ask yourself how well your reader needs to get to know the narrator. Do you want the reader to almost become the protagonist, or does your story need a bit more distance? Does your story require the input of multiple perspectives? Are there extraneous details that you want your reader to know that you do not want the protagonist to know? If so, how will you get those details across in a believable manner?

Before you decide, stick around for the rest of my point of view blog series to learn about the pros and cons of second, third, and omniscient points of view.

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