My Thoughts on How I Wrote My First Person Novel with My Fingers on My Keyboard

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!

19 thoughts on “My Thoughts on How I Wrote My First Person Novel with My Fingers on My Keyboard

  1. lilycarmichael

    Nice post – you really cover a lot of the pitfalls of first person POV! I am mid-way through my own MS and recently abandoned a draft standing at 35,000 words (I was halfway there, goddamit!) because I decided FPPOV (oh dear, that’s a little wordy for an acronym!) wasn’t working for my plot.
    It amazed me the first time I realised how important POV can be to the way a story is told: how much the main character is aware of, how to convey information the MC doesn’t know to the reader, etc.

    • Russell Linton

      Glad you found it helpful and I completely approve of the acronym FPPOV if only because it implies I can use TPOPOV with confidence as well. Sounds like a Russian codename 🙂 The re-write sounds painful but oftentimes I find those are the best ones to do.

      • lilycarmichael

        Hmm. This is like a game. Is the ‘O’ omniscient?
        Yep, it’s long and tedious, but the first draft has been invaluable in terms of letting me hash out plot problems, so that now, as I’m doing the rewrite, it’s all falling together a lot easier. Oh, I do love it when a plan comes together…

  2. artfulhelix

    Grate post, and very helpful. While reading your post I realized I have made some of these mistakes, now I feel a little silly for not seeing it till now. I at one point even tried to switch to second person POV because I was told its easier to write, most of all when working on your first novel. I quickly came to the realization that Helix needed to be first person, it didn’t feel right any other way. Thanks so much for this post, I’m going to share it with my readers, I know they will get as much out of it as I did. 🙂

    Maria

    • Russell Linton

      Wow, find the person that told you second person was easier to write and slap them for me. Even if they did find it easier to write, it’s generally a tough sell to a publisher, an editor, an audience, anyone really. Thanks for the share and I hope others find something useful in my post as well!

      • artfulhelix

        They said for my first few novels second person would be better and I wouldn’t publish them any way. I’m out to prove that wrong, and from what I have been told by a few writer friends of mine Helix will sell. I agree too, I enjoy books more in first person then second. Thanks 🙂 and I think it has, I already had several people go from my blog to your blog. I look forward to more grate posts.
        Happy Writing

      • Glynis Jolly

        I had heard that writing the first draft in FPPOV made things easier and then write the second draft that way you think it really should be. I haven’t tried it yet. I go right for narrative because I can keep my ‘eye’ on the big picture of the story that way.

  3. LBurkhart

    At the Denton Lexicon Conference two weeks ago, one thing stood out for me. I’m not sure if it was a speaker or just in a conversation, but a lady told us that if you write in the first person POV, to always make it PRESENT tense. That it draws the reader into the story more. Well, I went back to some of my favorite books and sure enough – first person present (Sorry, HG was one, but I do agree she whined too much).

    So, since my first novel was first person past tense and I know how much you and the group loved that one, I went back on my current WWII one and I’m slowly changing it to first person present. And it’s working so much better. My character is in the middle of the action, not just telling the reader about it. So yes like you said above, I am trying to vary up the me, mys and I say, I turn, I look….but I think it’s going to be a better book. So was your Spencer story told in past or present? I don’t remember.

    (Oh and I have to tell you this, only a few will know what I’m talking about. After more research I found out my MC doesn’t walk the outside fence line at the camp, they did it on horseback. Big error on history if I missed that point.)

    Keep writing!

    • Russell Linton

      Yeah, I wrote CD in present tense. It’s actually tricky to write (IMO) and there is the whole thing with drawing readers into the story more. Though I find it is a very frantic pace for a piece with a lot of action, so I broke it up with third person scenes from the antagonist’s POV. Glad to hear you’re working on the WW2 story, very interested in seeing how that one develops!

  4. jlmartindesigns

    I have only ever written two short pieces in first person, and I have only been happy with one of them…I applaud you for writing a whole novel in first person. That might actually drive me mad.

    • Russell Linton

      More than the POV it was the present tense thing that hiked up the insanity! But thanks, enjoyed your blog and noticed you were an Eagle Scout. Hoping to lead a group of boys in that direction at the moment 🙂

  5. sknicholls

    This was really helpful. I am struggling with a work in progress. It is the first book in a murder mystery/detective series. I am about 30K into it and I am thinking that the series might work best in third person because of the time that will evolve over the series. I am also feeling like I can’t get into the heads of the other characters that I want to if I stay in the first person, but FPPOV is what I prefer writing in. I am even considering multiple points of view for this reason. What do you think of MPOV? My published book was a lot easier because it was based on a true story because I could show and tell it as it was.

    • Russell Linton

      I think multiple points of view is tricky to pull off for newer writers (like myself.) It’s too tempting to start head hopping mid-scene or end up losing your reader. The thing you have to do for it to work is to have -really- strong characters that can share a space without trampling each other. You have to be pretty skilled at developing unique, interesting individuals that your reader enjoys spending time with and that stand out from all the other characters. True, you need strong characters for any work of fiction, but in FPPOV, you end up filtering all the external characters through the single FP view (not that you couldn’t write a FPPOV with multiple POV characters…). So in FP it’s IMO a bit easier to have the reader relate and easier to keep momentum in the plot without getting sidetracked by other characters. If you have a crit group or some writing friends, I’d suggest re-writing a chapter in TPPOV and taking it along with the original FPPOV. The feedback might help you make your decision!

      • sknicholls

        Great idea! I meet with a group a week from now. I loved new author, Sarah Cradit’s use of MPOV in St. Charles at Dusk, but she did a very good thing to denote at the beginning of each chapter which person it was referring. She also used analepsis very well, but denoted the year and the ages of the characters. It works very well for her series, but the writing/reading style is not for everyone.

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