Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Power of First Person POV

Zoe's post on Head-Hopping got me thinking about POV. Haven't you heard? It's called Toggling Narrative Distance now.

First Person POV makes it impossible to head hop. It makes it impossible for you to tell the reader what other characters are thinking. It's often quoted as a weakness of first person.

I believe that weakness is its strength.

First person forces you to show, rather than tell, what the other characters are thinking.

Janet Evanovich is just about the sparest writer I know. She can show you what Ranger, or Morelli, or any of her cast are thinking with just one, small gesture. The impact of that gesture, that one sentence, becomes HUGE, even though it was just one sentence in a whole book.

Like, when Ranger tucked a strand of hair behind Stephanie's ear, I certainly didn't have to be told he was growing fond of her.

Like the open door in Erica's post today on small gestures and a wonderful man.

Another challenge of first person POV is that you can't slip into other characters' heads to make them more sympathetic to the reader. If one of them does something human, or acts less than sympathetically, the author can't justify their actions.

I like this limitation. I like letting characters be human. I like them real, not perfect, but it's a tight line to tread, because you don't want them to become unsympathetic. So you have to show, in small ways, that they mean well. They they're still good characters.

One of the greatest challenges of first person POV is the fact that the reader is seeing the world as the narrator sees it. What I find difficult, is communicating to the reader a contrasting perspective, particularly when the narrator is wrong.

In my last WIP, my girl believed one thing, but she was wrong. Everyone else didn't know what she was thinking, of course, so they couldn't out and out tell her she was wrong. So somehow, I had to communicate to the reader that my girl was misbelieving something, without making her look stupid.

It didn't work with one reader.

That's my latest quest in self-improvement. In The Liar's Diary, we had an unreliable narrator, pretty well done. There was a jarring moment, but it worked for me.

So do you have any examples of first person unreliable narrator done well? Or just first person handled expertly? Where sometimes the reader knows the narrator is misbelieving something, but at the same time, the narrator doesn't look stupid?

Do you write in first person? Have you ever? Have you ever taken a chapter and worked it up both ways?

25 bonus scribbles:

Michelle 3/13/2008 02:37:00 PM  

I'm hoping Blogger accepts this comment, LOL. I tried to comment on your blog yesterday and it wouldn't let me in to the comment section.

I love well done First Person POV. A fantastic example of first person unreliable is Lisa Cody's Eva Wylie series (Bucket Nut, Muscle Bound and one other, can't remember the title off hand.) Superb, but maybe hard to get hold of now.

Mark Terry 3/13/2008 03:12:00 PM  

You know, 1st person doesn't have to be as limiting as a lot of writing instructors make it out to be. Lawrence Block did some amazing things in 1st person, so does Robert Crais (and mixes povs) and plenty of other writers.

spyscribbler 3/13/2008 03:23:00 PM  

I'm sorry Blogger's giving you trouble, Michelle! I wrote her name down. It really bothers me when a good writer disappears from the shelves.

If I can't find her, I'll try the library!

spyscribbler 3/13/2008 03:26:00 PM  

Mark, both of those names are authors I've always meant to read, and just haven't gotten around to. For no good reason.

When I first started writing, I wrote in first. Then, after my first novella because a disaster, I started reading some writing books. They all told me that beginning writers shouldn't write in first person.

I'm not one to presume, so I didn't touch first person for several years. (DH can only wish I'd be that obedient!) I'm not sure they were wrong ... I did learn a lot.

Liz Wolfe 3/13/2008 04:29:00 PM  

POV fascinates me. I write my mysteries in 1st person. I think it works for mysteries because then the reader only knows what the MC knows and can try to figure out whodunit as the story unfolds. Also a lot of cozy mysteries are very much about the characters and 1st person works well for really getting to know a character.
But, my thrillers are all third person. I think they need the perspective of several characters in order to keep the tension high. James Patterson writes his Alex Cross series in both first person (from Alex) and third (from the villain, and it works really well.
I'm working on a paranormal suspense/urban fantasy now and even though most of them are written in 1st person, I'm using 3rd. Maybe that's why it seems more paranormal suspense than urban fantasy.

Julia Smith 3/13/2008 07:38:00 PM  

Toggling Narrative Distance - now that's a good one!

I always write my fiction in third person, but generally follow two main characters, and give a scene to one, the next scene to the other, and so on.

I've recently started writing backstory poems in first person about some of my characters. I'm really enjoying that.

Edie 3/13/2008 08:55:00 PM  

I usually write in third person. Recently I tried writing in first person and it didn't work. But then I tried it in third person and found out it was the book that didn't work.

I recently read a YA written in first person, and I've been telling everyone how great it is. REPOSSESSED by A.M. Jenkins. Here's the first sentence: "First thing I did was, I stole a body."

Michele 3/13/2008 09:12:00 PM  

Morelli? Who's that? Wait. There are TWO guys in the series? I swear after reading your blog, you already have me biased towards Ranger! LOL

I probably should start reading the series, huh? :-)

And I agree with you that the limitations of being in first person is a strength...as is the limitations of third person limited. They force the writer to show, not tell. And they're so much more intimate and connect the reader to the character in a way that omniscient view doesn't--at least for me. :-)

Robert Crais is awesome, btw. David Morrell writes thrillers and I know some of his books are in first person. I've also read books, like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, that switch from 1st person to 3rd person, depending on the character, and I think that was done well. We studied that one in our novel writing class in college, even before the movie with Johnny Depp was released. ;-)

spyscribbler 3/13/2008 10:45:00 PM  

Liz, I think you're right, that certain genres sometimes lend themselves to certain POVs. Good point about a mystery!

I haven't read the Alex Cross series. I should try them, too!

Incidentally, I'm not sure if I've forgiven Lee Child for abandoning First Person. His voice flowed much better in first.

spyscribbler 3/13/2008 10:46:00 PM  

Julia, it's a really good article. I like to poke fun at the fancy-shmancy MFA terminology, but it's an excellent article. :-)

Backstory poetry? Wow. That sounds fascinating! I'd like to see that!

spyscribbler 3/13/2008 10:48:00 PM  

Edie, that's a fantastic line. And that's the second time you've recommended that book to me. I'm going to look it up tomorrow.

That line just shows that first person can make every word in the story about the character, just in the way they talk.

I can't wait to look up that book.

spyscribbler 3/13/2008 10:52:00 PM  

LOL, Michele. If my best friend hears you, she'll come tell you how much better Morelli is than Ranger.

I think she's WRONG! :-)

The series really takes off at High Five. It's at High Five where DH and I really started cracking up to tears in the car.

Chocolat is my all-time favorite movie! It's my comfort movie.

Unfortunately, I saw the movie first. I could never forgive the book for leaving out the happy ending, for leaving out JOHNNY DEPP!

But you came at it from the other way. I'd be interested to know if you liked the book better than the movie?

Bernita 3/14/2008 04:56:00 AM  

I'm fond of first person.
And I think you hit the nail on the head regarding strengths.

Erica Orloff 3/14/2008 08:17:00 AM  

Hi Spy:
I write in first person about 80% of the time. To me, it's a writing challenge to write in first as totally different characters each time, to find ways to observe th eother character's moments that "show." I love it, and usually have the most fun when writing in first.

Michele 3/14/2008 09:59:00 AM  

Hi Spy,
I enjoyed the book when I read it and thought the techniques Harris employed made it a fun read...But I LOVED the movie! I'm a sucker for a happy ending, too. And Johnny Depp. :-)

Travis Erwin 3/14/2008 12:00:00 PM  

My current WIP is first person. I don't think it would work any other way. The narrator is a naive good ol' boy from Oklahoma with a pirate fetish. Only he could tell the story in the tone I want. The other characters would be too cynical, jaded and realistic about life.

Nearing the end I have about decided writing in first person is much more natural for me. Sure it has it's limitations but like you said those same limitations can be used advantageously.

Edie 3/14/2008 01:26:00 PM  

Spy, I bet you'll love the book. :)

Melanie Avila 3/14/2008 03:06:00 PM  

I just read Patterson's Cross and before that a Morrel book. I have another on the shelf waiting to be read.

My first full-length MS was my memoir and my biggest concern is that I'm making my husband look like a jerk. I even have a beta watching out for that. Just like you said, because he can't share his thoughts his actions have to show his character. Because of our situation and my sometimes-temper, I make him look really insensitive at times. I think I've shown enough good things to make the reader understand why I'm with him, but it's a real concern.

I'm working on 3rd person fiction now and it's refreshing to be able to explain things a bit more.

mom2brie 3/14/2008 10:51:00 PM  

It's not so much that I think Morelli is better than Ranger, it's just that I can see Stephanie having an actual future with Morelli. Whereas with Ranger, I just don't see a future. Mind-blowing hot sex, yes. But a house, perhaps kids, and walking together holding hands in old age - NO WAY! That is just not Ranger, but it could be Morelli. Hence, I think Stephanie should choose Morelli - but that is my practical nature coming out. I understand that Evonovich won't let Stephanie actually pick one or the other because that would ruin the fun :)

And, of course I'll send you one of little one's masterpieces - how could I not after all of the nice things that you said!?! I mean, you even complemented her on her standing!!

spyscribbler 3/15/2008 09:49:00 AM  

Bernita, I love your first person. Well, I love your writing, period.

Erica, ditto what I said to Bernita! All the characters I've read of yours that were written in first person are definitely different. I need to aim for that more.

spyscribbler 3/15/2008 09:50:00 AM  

Michele, I was wondering if it would change, depending which one you read first. But they are very different things, aren't they?

And ... Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp. I mean, he was hot in the movie, and there was all that gorgeous chocolate swirling through the movie.

spyscribbler 3/15/2008 09:53:00 AM  

Oh, Travis! I remember you mentioning your story before, but I forgot. Both times, I've had a oh cool! moment. It sounds like a story that I would be delighted by.

spyscribbler 3/15/2008 09:58:00 AM  

Edie, it's not in stock. :-( I'm going to try the library. I hope it's there!

Melanie, I have never read a Patterson book, for some odd reason. No particular reason. I love the Alex Cross movies, so I should read the books.

I have such admiration for writers who can portray the reality of a person, and somehow make them likable, too.

You are brave to write a memoir! I don't think I could be that brave.

spyscribbler 3/15/2008 10:02:00 AM  

Now that's fascinating, mom2brie. It's interesting how we've known each other for so long, but sometimes there's just things I randomly don't know about you. Like ... when you decided on your husband, was it mostly passion or practicality?

I don't even know ... when did you know?

As far as Ranger, I'm so crazy about him, I can't even see Morelli, LOL. My crush is at unnatural levels. Particularly for a person who is not even REAL!

Zoe Winters 3/16/2008 08:00:00 AM  

The Liar's Diary is on my "to read" list. I'm fascinated with unreliable narrators (in fact if I haven't posted that blog post already it's in the queue lol.)

I really often prefer first person when I'm reading, it's just more intimate. But it feels semi-schizophrenic sometimes "writing" first person. If that makes sense.