Alternately titled “Thoughts on Writing in First Person”
Having completed a novel that relies heavily on the first person point of view and having read quite a few novels that do the same, I’d like to share my experiences as a writer and a reader.
First person point of view has been quite popular lately. It’s got an immediacy that more omniscient POVs don’t have. I chose it for my novel for that exact reason. Pulling the reader into Spencer’s head also let me regulate the flow of information. It fit right in with the underlying theme that he’s been overprotected and not allowed to grow on his own. It also helped establish his character despite the fact that he’s alone for most of the first act.
The first trap of First Person POV is the quagmire that is the internal monologue. When you are in somebody’s head so intimately, it’s tempting for a writer to relay every thought that crosses that character’s mind. The biggest offender that comes to mind is Hunger Games. I’ve mentioned it before, but there was SO much time spent in Katniss’ head it was distracting to me. She’d lapse into paragraph after paragraph of self doubt, reflection, and self pity that killed the flow of things. It made the character seem less capable of the quick thinking and action she kept pulling off. While it was a style that seemed to work well for the audience it was targeted at, it didn’t do much to develop a believable character.
It also encourages lots of telling as the main character doesn’t engage with the world as much as they continually engage with themselves (and go blind.)
The Name of the Wind has similar issues. The whole first person POV in this book is established after the first act because we are listening to a guy, “real time”, tell his story to a scribe. A certain level of reminiscing is assumed, that’s true. But a constant running tally of, say, Qvothe’s pocket change is completely unnecessary. Even if this guy has an eidetic memory and even if it is an attempt to reinforce his hard climb out of poverty, it isn’t a detail the reader needs to be hounded with page after page.
Further, that book weighs in at 700 pages. I have the same problem with it as I have with 3 hour movies – you’d better have a REALLY good reason why. Lessons in accounting for your fantasy world isn’t a good reason. The irony is that the POV character is also claiming to be this fabulous story teller – he should know better.
The next trap is the assault of the first person pronouns. I, me, my, mine all get abused. You often see things like: “I grabbed the sword with my hand.” The ‘my hand’ part is only useful if the character in question has a prehensile tail or a foot that can grip swords or maybe a pseudopod. Simply saying “I grabbed the sword” makes plenty of sense.
‘I’ can get overused as well because the writer forgets we’re buried deep in one person’s POV and feels the need to ascribe an actor for every action. For example:
“While I spoke to the wizard, I watched George out of the corner of my eye as he stole a book from the shelves. Using my wits, I tried a subtle distraction.”
If the scene is set properly and the conversation with the wizard established, all we need is for the POV character to describe George stealing the book. I don’t need to know the POV character “sees” it. “I watched” or “I saw” is irrelevant, especially with “my eye.” What else the fu@# are you watching him with? Anything described should be something the character is capable of seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.
“So, how’s business?” I asked as George wandered among the shelves of the store.
Gandalf turned and with a dissatisfied grunt said, “Could be better. My supply of bat guano is late and Gilbert the Mad is in desperate need.”
Behind him, George slipped a book from the shelf into his bag. I nearly guanoed myself but recovered quick enough to grab Gandalf’s attention. “That’s a shame. A real shame. Any chance dragon dung would be a useful substitute?”
And yes, the “I nearly guanoed myself” was to make a silly point. It might work sometimes, it’s all about context.
Hope this helps any aspiring first person POVers out there!