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POV for Beginners, Part 2

Yesterday we began our discussion of POV with a look into Third Person (Limited & Omniscient) and Second Person.  Today I’d like to delve into the one that has been giving me fits as I attempt to master it – First Person.  I recommend you catch yesterday’s blog, but as a quick refresher, point of view is (Cambridge Dictionary):

  1. a person’s opinion or particular way of thinking about something:
  2. (in literature) the voice in which a story is told and its relationship to the events in the story.
  3. (in art) In a painting or photograph, the place where the artist chooses to stand and what this tells you about the subject.

And the primary types of POV are first person (“I wake up” or “I woke up.”), second person (“You woke up.”), and third person (“He woke up.”).  Yesterday we went over the most commonly used in romance (third limited), but today let’s dig into first:

First Person

First person POV is frequently employed in books or series that focus strongly on a single protagonist. 

Popularly it can be found in Young Adult (Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight), Urban Fantasy series or detective series with a single strong lead (Anita Blake, Harry Dresden, Stephanie Plum, Charley Davidson, etc.), Women’s Fiction (Gone Girl, Bridget Jones’ Diary), and erotic romance or erotica that focuses strongly on a single character’s experience or journey (e.g. Liliana Lee’s Obsession). 

The best first person delves deep into the characters experience and can make the reader root for the protagonist even more emphatically because they are our window into the world.

Alternating First Person, in which each chapter has a heading that lets you know whose POV you are reading and it will flip between different characters viewpoints, allows us to see multiple points of view in a first person context. Alternating first is frequently employed by YA Authors Katie McGarry & our own Julia Day, women’s fiction authors Kristan Higgins & Marisa De Los Santos, and has grown in popularity in contemporary romance, employed at various heat levels by our own Elizabeth Bemis, as well as RITA nominees Cecy Robson & Nikki Sloane.  

In alternating third we get the advantages of first person, while still being able to see two people’s stories and how they interweave – whether that interweaving is romance or another relationship.

One advantage of first person can be a sort of intimacy and immediacy.  When done well, it can feel like the character is speaking directly to you and drawing you into their world, like you are right there with them, beside them.

The other thing to consider when picking your point of view that tends to come into play more with first person is verb tense.  The majority of romance novels are written in past tense, but first person allows more fluidity.  As when you are telling a story verbally, sometimes different tenses will slip into the mix.  It can be a much more conversational style.

Here is an example from the opening of Liliana Lee’s Obsession series, in which the action is predominantly told in the past tense, but we are introduced to the character and lured into the story with conversational present tense and speculative future tense:

History will not remember me kindly, nor do I want it to. The book of our dynasty will say many things about me: that I was cruel, that I was decadent and depraved. They will claim that my pleasures were perverse in nature. Let me tell you that these things are all true… and not true…

#

It is hard for me to say exactly what I found so arousing about Yuan. From the very first moment I saw him, I wanted him in every way, more than any lover before or since. He was standing in a sea of bureaucrats and retainers assembled before the Emperor, though it was he alone who caught my eye.

Yuan was buried among the midlevel officials, yet he stood so tall and proud that it was impossible not to notice.

The Obsession, Liliana Lee

You can see how she begins conversationally and then begins to tell you the story via past tense?

The important thing to remember is which one will be your dominant tense.  Whether you are telling your story with the immediacy of present tense (a la Hunger Games or Cecy Robson)

It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.

“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!”

I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way immediately allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.

“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”

Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

 

…or the more narratives style of past tense (Kristan Higgins or Darynda Jones’s Charley Davidson)

I’d been having the same dream for the past month–the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to play doctor with me.  I was starting to wonder if repetitive exposure to nightly hallucinations resulting in earth-shattering climaxes could have any long-term side effects.  Death via extreme pleasure was a serious concern.  The prospect led to the following dilemma: Do I seek help or buy drinks all around?

This night was no exception. 

First Grave on the Right, Darynda Jones

 

…you need to have enough consistency that your reader can engage with the story and knows when things are happening, versus when you are editorializing.

Most importantly when it comes to first person, you are limited by what your character knows.  You can (sparingly) pepper in what they will know in the future if you want (“little did I know then”), but you can’t start jumping into other character’s thoughts unless your heroine is capable of reading minds.  

So, for my bad writing example of the day:

I walk up to the man who stole my puppy and punch him in the face.

What the heck is she doing? he thinks, his nose stinging as I wind up for another jab, my knuckles heating from the first hit. Doesn’t she know that I am the one who saved her puppy?

But I don’t know. All I know is he looks guilty as hell.

Don’t do that.  That’s head-hopping.

How does POV impact your story?

POV determines how you tell your story.  It’s not just what we know, it’s how we know it.  Which brings us back to the definitions above.  What is point of view?  Yes, it’s “the voice in which a story is told”, but it’s also how we reveal our character’s “partciluar way of thinking about something” and how we, as the artist, “choose where to stand” in the story and “what this tells” the reader “about the subject.”

Point of view is how we convey our voice.  It’s how we create our reader’s experience.  Basically, it’s huge.  Hunger Games would still be the same plot with a different POV, but would the reading experience be the same?  Look again…

It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.

“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!”

I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way immediately allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.

“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”

Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

And now try this…

It was that detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brought Katniss back to herself.

“Prim!” The strangled cry came out of her throat, and her muscles began to move again. “Prim!”

She didn’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids made way immediately allowing her a straight path to the stage. Katniss reach Prim just as she was about to mount the steps. With one sweep of her arm, she pushed her sister behind her.

“I volunteer!” she gasped. “I volunteer as tribute!”

It’s not bad, right?  I mean, Suzanne Collins is a genius composed of awesomesauce as far as I’m concerned, and the emotion, the characters, the tension, they’re all still there in the language, but it feels slightly different, doesn’t it?  It wakes up a different part of you.

POV doesn’t change everything, but it does make a difference, so consider your choice.

Final Thoughts

Consistency is PARAMOUNT.  Whichever one you pick, own it.  Your POV is in service to your story, to telling it in an effective way.  You can switch between different kinds of point-of-view, but never do it by accident. (And I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone starting out.)  Always be making a deliberate choice with your POV about what you are saying, not just to lazily convey information to your reader, but to manipulate their reading experience to tell the story you want to tell and create the emotional experience that will give your story the most impact.

If you want to look at more POVs, here is a blog with different examples so you can see how each one is employed.

And remember, in all things writing, it doesn’t matter which you choose, but how you execute.  Engage the senses, be deliberate in your choices, and good luck!

Any questions?  Tips on POV?  How do you choose which point of view to employ?


Lizzie Shane is the award-winning author of the Bouquet Catchers series.  Her upcoming release, Miracle on Mulholland, comes out November 13th!  She also writes paranormal romance as Vivi Andrews. Find more about Lizzie and her books at www.lizzieshane.com.

8 responses to “POV for Beginners, Part 2”

  1. Rita Henuber says:

    Vivi, I feel your POV posts are extremely helpful to newbies. Lack of knowledge and understanding of POV leads newbies to think writing 1st person is the way to go. As you point out using the correct POV impacts story telling.
    And O. My. Gosh do I ever agree with you about Suzanne Collins. Deconstructing her books is an education. 🙂

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    • Right?! I love the choices she makes in her work. Incredible.

      And yes, I think POV is something many very beginning writers sort of skim over, but it is one of the foundation blocks of our story and we need to make sure we’re looking at each of them. Thanks, Rita!

      1+
  2. Addison Fox says:

    Vivi, again, another day of amazing detail and learning. Your examples are so clear and concise – great post and great lessons here!!

    Addison

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  3. Kate Parker says:

    Terrific post on first person POV, Vivi. My all time favorite example is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Her use of first person in that book rocked the literary world in the 1920s. Don’t want to spoil it, but I highly recommend it.

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  4. I loved this post, Vivi. Headhopping was a struggle for me when I first started writing.

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  5. Great craft blog, Vivi! Learning to seamlessly switch POV mid-page shows real talent. I’ve read Nora doing it beautifully many times.

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