The ‘danger’ of writing in first person

Also posted on my author site.

When talking about point of view (POV) and writing in first person, inevitably someone will bring up that it’s OK, as long as ‘it’s done well’ and that ‘it’s not for beginning writers’. Invariably also people can’t quantify what is meant by these statements and the sentiment against writing in first person is merely described as ‘I don’t like it’. Well, that doesn’t help the writer very much, because if it can be ‘done well’, just what constitutes ‘well’ and what ‘not so well’.

After seeing a lot of published and unpublished first person stories, I have some thoughts about this. Feel free to comment.

First person tends to be very voice-y

How I got this injury, Doc? Well you’re not going to believe this but we were in the undercover car park and there was this dude, who, you know, didn’t like me parking in his spot and so he honks at me, and gets out of the car and starts swearing, like, you know, half the words I never heard before. So I got out. He was massive, man, massive, and I was just standing there, trying to back away, except my butt was already against the passenger side of my car and I had nowhere else to go. And then Josh, idiot that he is, decided to wind down the window, and so I fell with my butt through the fucking window and into his coffee.

Obviously this character needs a good kick up the behind. He suffers from over-use of certain words, and he’s hands-up-it-wasn’t-my-fault kind of whiny. Do I really want to spend a whole book with this guy? I fear it will get annoying very quickly.

First person can be very meandery-talky

I grew up in the country where we never had the opportunity to learn music, so when I first saw a French Horn I thought it looked like a demented trumpet. I was twenty-two at the time, and awkward, shy and very much like a country bumpkin. But my best friend played in this orchestra and asked me to join. At the time, I could barely tell one end of the trumpet from another, but he said that didn’t matter. I got lessons. My teacher Sophie was the craziest person I’ve ever met. Apart from the French Horn, she also played the piano and was an accomplished artist. She lived in an old house in the Inner West, shared with four other students. This is how I met Dave…

Yeah, yeah, blah, blah already. This life history continues for two pages into the story and nothing has happened except a meandering recount of some person’s life. I’ve lost interest.

First person can be distant

In the first example, because the story is narrated, rather than presented in real time, the author puts a filtering layer between story and reader, namely the opinions and interjections of the first person narrator. It’s not that you couldn’t do this in third person, but it’s more instinctive to do this in first person.

Basically, if you end up narrating instead of presenting a story in real time, you tend to over-describe and lose tension. Sometimes the gained flavour of the character’s voice is worth it, but I suspect that any character who sounds like a standard teenager or uneducated lout ends up annoying a lot of readers long before the end of the book. In similar fashion, a character who just waffles on about something while the story’s setting is devoid of action or setting in the here and now will bore a lot of readers.

What Point-of-view do you choose?

Point of View (POV) is one of the implements in the writer’s toolbox that can make a huge impression on the feel of your novel. Here are my thoughts about it.

First, some definitions:
First person: this will have an ‘I’ character. The viewpoint is necessarily constricted to the head of the main character, who will be somewhat of a narrator. It’s more or less implied that a book written in first person will have only one POV character, but that isn’t always true. More adventurous writers may choose a mix of first person narrators, or sometimes a combination between first person and third person.
Drawbacks: first person has a tendency of slipping into narrator/lecturing mode.

Second person: this will have a ‘you’ character. I’ve seen second person short stories. Some of them work, others less so.
Drawback: because it’s new and considered ‘literary’, some people find it very annoying. Some people even find first person annoying. To the writer, I think second person is a style that would be hard to maintain for novel-length fiction.

Third person limited: this will have a third person (he, she or it) character, and while that person has the POV, we will be privy to that person’s thought. This is the most common POV type in fiction. The convention is to stick to one character per scene, or sometimes per chapter. Sometimes there is only one POV character in the book.
Drawbacks: it is very tempting to introduce too many POV characters.

Third person omniscient: this type is fairly common in fairytales and epic fantasy. In true omniscient style, we are privy not just to one character’s thoughts, but either to all of them or none of them (cinematic view).
Drawbacks: this style creates a lot of distance between reader and character and can become quite clinical and unemotional. As for the cinematic view—the main advantage of a book over a movie is that we can be in the character’s head. Why throw away that advantage?

What POV would you choose for your work?
The convention is that most work is written in third person limited. It seems to be what readers expect. There is also a fair bit of first person fiction being published. Omniscient has fallen out of favour, and I’m yet to see a novel written in second person, although such novels probably exist.

POV tends to be highly dominated by current conventions within genre. If you write epic fantasy, you write in third person with multiple POV characters, or omniscient. If you write chicklit you write in trendy first person or limited third.

But there are drawbacks to following the mould. If you write with multiple POV characters or omniscient, the reader will lose connection with the character each time the narrative skips to another character. By doing this, the writer shifts the focus from the characters to the overall story. Besides in epic fantasy, this technique is also common to hard SF, where the author will switch characters purely for the sake of showing off another part of worldbuilding. Fine, but don’t expect the reader to identify with (or indeed remember) any of the characters. On the other side of the spectrum, there are several fantasy series I’ve found slow to read because each character has his or her own personal story, so each time the author switches character, another story starts. There are books I’ve flung aside because they have eight POV characters, and after eight chapters, each with a new character, we’re a third into the book, and the plot has made next to no progress.

POV is an excellent tool for artificially beefing up the word count. Novel too short? Just add another POV character, with his or her (often pointless, but mildly interesting) story. It slows the pace of the novel tremendously, but hey, you get a much fatter book.

I think before you decide what POV to use for a novel, it pays to consider what you want from your novel. Do you want a sweeping, epic feel, but with less emphasis on individual characters. Do you want a gritty, personal feel from a much more limited viewpoint? Do you want a fast pace or a slow pace? Could you possibly, within your chosen genre, do something that’s just a bit outside the current conventions?

To illustrate the difference, think of a battle scene in a fantasy novel. Think of how this would look on the page in omniscient POV, where the narrator would know what is happening, or in limited third POV, where a character fighting on the ground would have next to no idea of the overall picture.

I think part of the reason why Joe Abercrombie has been such a success is because he makes the story so personal for his characters, because he uses third person limited in an epic story. Consider how a book would be different if for example you used an omniscient POV for an urban fantasy, or first person in hard SF. The choice of POV would dictate the way you told the story. That, in itself, could bring a fresh perspective to your fiction.