Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Trappings of First Person POV


That’s right, first person point of view is a goat-damn trap!

Because it’s a trap, I warn against writing in first person until a writer is absolutely sure and controlled in their writing.

It’s a fact that POV makes very little difference in whether fiction can be good and compelling. All the prescriptive “what this story needs is a change to first person to heighten tension or emotional connection” nonsense is nonsense. POV doesn’t dictate the quality or potential of a product. But—and there’s always a big butt when I’m around—it does make a difference in the writing, the crafting, of fiction. The main difference being that first person POV has many trappings that are hard for beginning writers to avoid. It has little to do with the fiction, though, and everything to do with writers. But isn’t that often the case, that writer are usually their own biggest barriers to finding success and/or greatness?

The main trapping is that first person often just seems so easy to write in. The writer thinks 'boy, this is easy, I just riff and put down the character's thoughts as if they were my own!' and simply squeezes out some stream of consciousness crap without much thought to what they're actually doing, or why. This is usually fun stuff to write, but not nearly as fun for others to read. And when first person is well crafted, and easy to read, it still seems so effortless. Hence it creating a trap.

The problem’s that it is easier to write in first person, in my opinion. But perhaps not easier to create something readable. The thing beginners don’t realize about first person narratives is many of the free-wheeling first person stories are actually painstakingly written, not simply spewed out. Sure, all well crafted stories have a hefty stake in the pain department, but I believe it takes a little extra heft to get a first person point of view tight and feeling controlled. Why? Because it does feels so effortless and creates the perception that what’s coming out is ‘natural’ and ‘good.’ If it’s easy, though, be dubious, because creating quality fiction isn’t supposed to be easy. The writing is easy in first person, but the crafting can too easily be forgotten, the product then sounding more like someone’s personal diary or blog instead of a ‘real’ story ‘actually’ happening.

Another trapping is the unintentional slip into a reminiscent narrator. There are stories that work well that are written with such a narrator—then there are the other 99% that employ that technique. The thing is, the writers of such stories that are successful are because they realize what they’re writing. Their narrator isn’t just reminiscent out of convenience or ignorance, but because that’s the story they’re consciously crafting. Often, though, we see the unintentional reminiscent narrator slip into a first person story—the future being predicted, commentary on the commentary that feels like it’s from an outside source, etc—simply because the writer has forgotten they’re writing a story, and instead the writer doesn’t limit themselves to what the character knows or doesn’t know, but only what they, the writer, know at any given moment in the story.

Which leads me to the worst trapping of a first person POV: the writer starts to think they, themselves, are interesting enough to be their own character. Even in the tightest of POV’s, and not much gets tighter than first person, the character shouldn’t be the writer. Sure, it has worked in stories before—then there are the other 99% of this style where it doesn’t. I believe what happens is writing with the almighty "I" sometimes makes a novice writer forget there even is a character. So what we get is essentially a writer jerking off, ranting self-indulgently, pushing personal beliefs, glorifying themselves and their own experiences. Basically, the writer does anything and everything they want, on their own time line, with no respect or acknowledgment to the character’s knowledge or needs.

When the writer becomes more important than the story or characters, it starts to feel like one of those “Omg, the other day…” sort of stories from our friends. But, we sometimes care about those stories (only sometimes!) because the friend is already someone we know and care about. If you’re just some writer-turned-character, why do we care? At best, this ‘style’ becomes someone we don’t know telling us a story while pushing a few action figures around to demonstrate the finer points. This is almost always not good, not compelling, not interesting… and unless you're Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson, nobody wants to pretend your character is actually you. We don’t care about you, so try to keep your stories about your characters, not about you.

I’m not saying don’t ever write in first person, or that it’s not as ‘good’ as third person. I just think when someone starts to recognize the trappings of the POV they’ll have more success if they do want to employ it. And when they do start to experiment with first person, and are sure and controlled in their writing, consciously knowing what story they want to craft, they’re realize first person is a disappointment in many ways. There’s a mystique around first person POV—that it creates more tensions, or a closer emotional tie, or lends itself more openly to use of direct thoughts, etc—but the truth is that it’s just another technique, another tool in King’s idiotic toolbox, and a somewhat minor one at that.

Maybe that’s the biggest trapping: that beginning writers think POV actually matters. Everything matters, of course, but not as much as a lot of writers seem to think (or hope, perhaps, that if they just switch to a new POV their story will be saved). No story in the history of ever has been magically turned from bad to good by a POV change. No flat, unemotional story has suddenly been made to sizzle on the page because it went from third to first person. If this has happened, it’s probably only because the writer was falling into the trappings of one POV, and able to avoid them in the other. Or, more likely, the writer was learning how to write well, no matter the POV employed.


  1. Just so you know: Yours was the only post on Bransford's rejection theme that approximated the real world. Thanks. The rest were all whiny junk, as usual. You also get props for knowing who Guy Clark is. :)

  2. Weird, never got a notification for this comment, and now I have no clue what 'rejection theme' you're talking about, kind commenter, but super-delayed thank you for the compliment!

    I got to see Guy Clark a few years ago when he came to Boise. I was so stoked I actually went by myself (something that normally terrifies me). It was amazing, though, and Ramblin Jack Eliot was in the crowd and did a couple songs.