Monday, February 15, 2010

Writing Basics #2 - Point of View, First Person

At my day job, point of view (pov) is the hardest thing for my authors to grasp. Many of them believe that "head-hopping" (going from one pov to another pov) is acceptable. I admit that there are a multitude of published books that do just this. Pick up any Nora Roberts book and you will see this in action for yourself. Her chapters will start out with, for example, the female character's pov, but a few paragraphs later, the male's pov takes over. She may even shift several more times within the same scene or chapter.

I believe that established writers can get away with this, but that new writers can not.

If you're just starting out, a refresher (or even a first time lesson) about point of view is a good thing to help with your craft.

There are several forms of point of view, but today I'll be concentrating on first person.

I love to write in first person point of view. I really feel like I get into my character's head and become them as the story enfolds. But, interestingly enough, writing experts say that newbie writers should not use first person point of view. It is too confusing, and writers are setting themselves up for failure due to the amount of mistakes that they make.

I say, write what you want - both content and point of view. BUT...make sure you understand pov before embarking on your writing journey. Pov slips happen, and a newbie writer can't allow too many slips, or the reader will know you're a newbie.

A Quick Refresher on First Person Point of View

First person point of view is written from the scene character's (usually the main character) point of view. Everything that is written is what the character sees, hears, says, and thinks. "I" is used primarily.


"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Mom!" I yelled. "Mom! Come here, quick!"
The sky turned almost black, and the clouds swirled like a storm was about to explode. A brisk breeze whipped around, causing my math homework sheet to take off like a bird. I wanted to sit up and catch it, but I was too afraid to move.
"What the heck is happening?" I whispered aloud. "This isn't right."

Okay, so with the above example (the first part of my story, Saving Redwind) you can see that the character's point of view is used. "I" and "my math homework" show that the writer is using first person point of view.

Here's the deal with first person pov that you MUST remember: the author can only write what the scene character sees, hears, says, or thinks. Unless the scene character is in the room with Uncle Willard, the scene character will not see or hear Uncle Willard scratch his head or burp. It just doesn't work. Also, unless the scene character sees themselves in some sort of reflection, truly the character is not going to realize they are smiling. Check yourself throughout the day; do you realize really when you are smiling? Most of the time you don't. Your character isn't going to notice that either unless they are leering at someone.

What about blushing? In first person, many writers describe the feeling of blushing to get around this, because once again, do we see ourselves blushing? No. We feel it, and that's what a writer needs to describe when having their first person pov character blush.

Like I said, I love writing in first person pov. But my first manuscript that I wrote was written in third person, not first person. We'll discuss third person next time I do writing basics.

What about you? Which pov do you write in? Which pov did you like to read?


SG Redling said...

This post couldn't have come at a better time - I'm trying 1st person POV for the first time. In some ways it's very liberating and loose, but there are pitfalls I never would have anticipated. And I never would have thought of the blushing thing! Dang it. Thanks for the good insight.

Anita Clenney said...

I've never written in first person. I don't like being locked inside one person's head, but I would like to try it. I think there is an intimacy you get with the character when it's written in first person.

As far as pov changes, I always start a new scene first. My stories are long and have big plots so I have several pov changes, and several pov characters. Even my villains. I love getting inside my villains' heads.

This is a great topic. I just finished a class on pov and another on breaking rules to break out, which addressed these issues. So this was a nice followup to those classes.

Unknown said...

Shelia, I agree that it is very liberating but there are problems like the character ALWAYS has to be there, or info needs to be told to them. Still, though, it's enormously fun to write in first pov.

Anita, Glad you found the post helpful. No matter which pov a writer uses, the writer needs to feel comfortable or the characters get lost. I try very hard to not head hop within a scene in my women's fiction. I, too, wait until a scene changes before I switch povs.

I probably could go on and on about first person pov, but since I want readers to not fall asleep, I tried to only hit the high points.

When writing middle-grade and higher, first person works very well. Picture books are a bit tough to sell the first person, in my opinion.

In my current middle-grade, the chapters change from character to character, and from first pov to third pov. I love the variety, and I think it helps the character's voices.

AC said...

I write in both first and third person. My preference is third because I like to be in every character's head at some point. And yes, I'm guilty of it, I head hop -- alot. I started out writing single title where head hopping was considered a part of my writing style, so the editors never changed it. Readers read it and followed along just fine. (Probably because I grew up reading Nora Roberts, lol). When I began writing series romance the guidelines were just a little more strict, so my head hopping is narrowed down to only one shift per scene, which I can handle. However, when I write first person, that's it. Just that one character's POV for the whole story. It was tough at first, but I got the hang of it and actually like it for YA books. Now if I could only remember to stay in the present tense as I'm writing my editor will love me!

Mary said...

Great Blog. I'm dabbling at first person POV in my current WIP and it's hard. I'm not used to it. This is very helpful!

I love Nora because I have to know what all the characters are thinking. But you're right she's about the only one who can really get away with it. Sometimes even I have to go back and read a part to make sure who's POV I'm in.

Thanks for the help!

Unknown said...

Oh, A.C., you bring up the dreaded writing in present vs. past. Ugh! I hate, hate, hate writing in present. I'm trained to write in past. I try to write the synopsis in present, but that is sooo hard for me.

Mary, I can't even write head hopping in the same scene - I get myself confused!

Past vs. present will be another blog topic for sure!

Liz Lipperman said...

Great blog, Kris. I am a third person POV girl myself for all the reasons everyone else listed. I love writing multiple POVs, and in my mysteries, I especially love writing villain POV. I get to be really nasty. I also love being in the hero's head. Men see things so differently, it's a real challenge.

Oh well, I guess you should write whatever makes you comfortable. My sale is a cozy mystery which are usually written in first person POV. I was concerned about it, so Christine asked the editor and she said it didn't matter to her. Big sigh of relief!!

Unknown said...


Oh, villain pov sounds like fun! I have a blast writing in first person as a ten-year-old --makes me not feel so old!

Tamara said...

Going back to Nora Roberts' POV, she's writing in omniscient and this "head hopping" is perfectly accepted in omniscient. For a long time, I thought she was a 3rd person head hopper, but a discussion on a writers' loop showed me I was wrong. She writes in omniscient, not 3rd, and what appears as head hopping is simply the omniscient POV "seeing" and "hearing" everything.

Unknown said...

I was confused by Nora Roberts as well. I knew she was writing in omniscient because she was head hopping, but the rest of the narrative reads like 3rd person limited. I know that sometimes good omniscient will read like 3rd limited, but if you know what you're doing you can tell the difference. Apparently, I don't know what I'm doing, because I can't tell the difference. Nora Roberts gets so close to her character's thoughts...usually it reads as if the narrator IS the character (rather than the omniscient all knowing). I didn't think you could do that when writing in omniscient. So other than the "head hopping", what really is the difference between 3rd limited and omniscient?

Unknown said...

Here are some definitions for you that I "borrowed" from Donna Levin -

Third Person Limited
The author describes the character(s) as "he," "she," or by their proper names. In the limited point of view, though, the author confines himself to telling us only what those characters know.

Although the author can't go beyond what the characters know or experience, he can use language that transcends their abilities. Thus the third person can give a compelling voice to an inarticulate character.

Third Person Omniscient
Here, too, the author describes the character(s) as "he," "she," or by name; however, the author also has the power to step back and tell us things that the character doesn't know.
Those were drinking days, and most men drank hard. So very great is the improvement Time has brought about in such habits, that a moderate statement of the quantity of wine and punch which one man would swallow in the course of a night, without any detriment to his reputation as a perfect gentleman, would seem, in these days, a ridiculous exaggeration.
--Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel, and in this passage, Dickens as author is commenting on changes in social morés that have come about between the time the novel is set (the late eighteenth century) and when the novel was written (1859). This is obviously information that the characters in the novel can't have.

The omniscient point of view gives the author the most mobility, but perhaps because the intrusion of the author's voice also tends to remind us that we're reading a book, it's also seen less frequently in modern novels.

For me, 3rd person omniscient is like the GOD pov - the narrator knows all, sees all, and can head hop as much as he/she likes. 3rd person limited is confined to just the narrator, no all-seeing, all-knowing qualities here at all.

Thanks for stopping by Tamara and Melissa. Be sure to head over to my new blog, .