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Debunking Myths: “First Person POV is the easiest to write.”

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I’m going to write my story in first person, because first-person point of view is the easiest to write.

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First-person POV may seem to be easier, but it’s actually just as hard to do as any other POV—sometimes harder.

When we tell someone a story about something that happened to us, we’re automatically crafting it in first person. So we should all be experts in this point of view and find it easy to write in, right? However, telling someone a five-minute-long story and writing a three hundred–page novel are two beasts entirely.

Just like a third-person viewpoint character, a first-person viewpoint character has to have something to reveal to the reader, a little at a time; have an interesting and dynamic character arc; and be able to build suspense by not revealing important information to the reader.

One of the best ways to keep a reader hooked into the story in a multiple-viewpoint book is by dropping a “bomb” or ending a chapter with a cliffhanger and then breaking away to another character’s viewpoint. In a true first person–viewpoint book (as in, there’s only one character who’s telling this story in first person), you can’t do this. Some authors have started getting around this by writing in more than one character’s first-person viewpoint—something that’s even harder to do and do well than just one first-person viewpoint.

In first person, it’s harder to keep important information from the reader until the end of the story without the reader feeling cheated.

First person does lend itself well to suspense/gothic romances—because the whole purpose of those is to keep the reader from knowing what’s going on in the heads of the characters surrounding the main character, to make the reader feel only what that one character is feeling.

One of the pitfalls of first-person POV is the tendency to “tell” too much of the story—and to reveal more to the reader than the POV character would actually know at that point in the story. This is something that can be done in Omniscient POV, but not first-person POV, unless you’re specifically writing the story with a retrospective tone—as if the character is reminiscing about this series of events long after they occurred.

It also seems that there’s a very natural inclination when writing in first-person to go on and on and on for paragraphs and pages of narrative—basically getting the character’s entire life story or thoughts about a particular matter as introspection—without any action or interaction with other characters. It’s also easier to lapse into passive language (I was going…, I had finished the meal…, I’m about to enter the building, I’ve picked up the kids…). It’s also a temptation to start every sentence, every paragraph with the same word: I.

Another pitfall to first person is when something happens “off stage” (to another character) which is important to the resolution of the story—and then someone has to tell your first-person character what happened. (Or you have to figure out some convoluted/coincidental way for your character to be there to experience it for him/herself.) Of course, then there’s always the “accidental eavesdrop” so that your first-person character hears something the reader needs to know which the main character either doesn’t need to know or shouldn’t know at that point in the story.

But probably the biggest danger/temptation with writing in first-person POV: The author hijacks the story from the character because the first-person character’s voice isn’t strong enough or well developed enough. Since first-person has been on the rise over the last decade or so, I’ve read (at least partially) a few books in which the author totally steals the narrative from the character to go off on a diatribe about a social or religious topic, to air some grievance about a past relationship, or to meander through her own metaphysical musings. Or because of writing with I’s and me’s, the author loses the character’s voice and writes only in her own. It’s much harder to hold on to a unique character voice when you’re writing in the viewpoint you use every single day in every single conversation you have. It’s also hard to keep one first-person character’s voice from sounding just like every other writer’s first-person character’s voice. So you have to make sure your first-person character is strong and unique and easily differentiated from everyone else’s characters. (Think of Jane Eyre’s voice or Stephanie Plum’s.)

Which do you prefer reading and/or writing: first or third person? Which do you find easier or more difficult?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, January 25, 2011 1:53 am

    I totally agree that first-person POV is just as difficult and to my mind THE most difficult approach, when telling a story. I feel that LTP is a much easier way of making the characters more rounded and interesting. I like the mix of being able to be inside the head of a character, but also having the ability to stand back and see them through another character’s eyes. Perhaps though that is a form of laziness and to grow as a writer I should at least try FPPOV!

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  2. Audry permalink
    Tuesday, January 25, 2011 8:14 am

    I used to think I hated first person POV, but over the past few years I’ve changed that opinion. I’ve read quite a few books written in first person that I couldn’t imagine written in third person (and some that were really terrible). I think a lot of it depends on the story. Some stories lend themselves really well to one or the other, and some could go either way. I don’t have a preference anymore as long as it’s well done 😀

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  3. Tuesday, January 25, 2011 10:17 am

    I’ve written some short things in first person, and it’s tough. So many things to watch out for, just like in any POV, but you are limited to just experiencing what the character is experiencing. As a reader, I’ve found it to be almost like a nice surprise. As a writer? I think it takes a lot of talent and ingenuity.

    In Lisa Wingate’s “Daily, Texas” series, she switched back and forth between two characters FPPOV, and in all three books it was the heroine and another character in the community, but not the hero. At first it was hard to get into, but the more I read, the more I looked forward to that “outsider” POV. I read Ray Blackston’s novels, written in the male FPPOV, and again, found it difficult at first, because it was different, but found myself loving it!

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  4. Tuesday, January 25, 2011 8:56 pm

    I am a third person reader and author. Rarely can I get into a 1st person novel, or at least it always takes longer to get into the story, and I tried to write in first person once and it just fell flat. First person is harder for me, but for someone who loves to read first person, third may be the hardest. Maybe it comes down to what you are used to.

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  5. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Thursday, October 13, 2016 2:53 pm

    I like reading 3rd person stories. I have to wonder too, how much of the actual writer is in the character despite the different character types?

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