Vision: A Resource for Writers

Welcome to the archives.  Current Issue is here

 

The First Person Point of View

By Chris Howard
Copyright 2007 by Chris Howard, All Rights Reserved


I have this grand idea to teach my kids what I know about writing fiction, and I've decided that a good place to begin is with one of the structural elements of writing: point of view. 

It turns out that it doesn't really matter to my kids where you begin, as long as the whole writing thing has a cool name and the lessons are fun.  So, my daughter Chloe created the "Saturday Morning Writing Club," and I have done my best to keep it fun.

This lesson is about Point of View (POV), what it is, and how to use it.  We will focus on first person this time but first I will walk you through both first and third person, the two most widely used points of view.  We won't even look at second person (Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one example) because it's rarely used, and can be a bit awkward to write and read. 

What is a point of view? 

The POV defines the perspective of a particular character or characters on the action in a story.  The simplest way to determine a story's point of view is to look at the personal pronouns, words like, I, you, we, they, he, she.   In a first person story, I do something: I tell the story, I deliver the pizza, I overhear the bank robbers explaining their plan.  In a story told in third person, he or she does something: she told the story, he delivered pizza, and she overheard the bank robbers explaining their plan.

Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice (along with the others in the Farseer trilogy) is told in the first person by Fitz: "Hunger woke me shortly after midnight.  I lay awake, listening to my belly growl." (Emphasis mine.)

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (along with the others in the series) is told in third person: "Harry laughed, but he was one of the few who did." (Emphasis mine.)

First Person POV

In a story told from the first person POV, you will usually see the action from inside someone's head, and the form of the narration will look something like this: 

I look back now, and wonder what price Tulip paid for Christmas at the Palace.  More than the other guests, I'll bet.  I knew that even back then. 

These lines from The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine show us a common use of the first person point of view, that of telling someone else's story (Tulip's) from the perspective of a friend, a witness, or acquaintance.  In this example, the "I" is Natalie, and she is telling Tulip's story.  (Keep in mind that this is as much Natalie's story as it is Tulip's, but everything is Natalie-centered.  You -- the reader -- get Natalie's reaction to Tulip's action, and you never truly know what's going on inside Tulip's head.) Another example of this use of a witness telling someone else's story is Herman Melville's Moby Dick, in which Ishmael is our storyteller.

One of the advantages of first person POV is that an author can get away with more narrative than in third person.  The view point character is the narrator of the story, and this construct makes it difficult for the author to intrude. 

Most mainstream fiction must have a mix of action, narrative, and dialogue, but with a first person viewpoint, the narrative can be inner dialogue.  In the example from The Tulip Touch above, you're listening to Natalie's thoughts, her perceptions, her take on what comes in through her senses.  You see the world from her point of view.  There is no author, no way to get outside of Natalie's head.  There is nothing beyond the horizon of Natalie's world.

Let's get started.

Materials:

Paper and pen or pencil.

How long will this take?

            45 minutes to 1 hour.

Step 1 Walk around the house, down a city street, or through a forest, or take a ride in your car, and while you are doing one of these, write what you see, hear, smell, from a first person point of view.  Write at least a paragraph (4-5 sentences).

Step 2 Select one of the scenes from the list below and put yourself inside the character.  Tell us what happens, what you're thinking, and what you see, smell, taste, and  feel when you step through the scenario.  (Optional:  Make up your own scenario and step through it for a page or two.)

1.         I am the son of a sword-smith in a medieval setting (fantasy, Moorish Spain, Vikings, pick one).  My father has sent me to deliver a new sword to the lord of the fortress, but I am stopped at the gate by a guard who demands to see the sword before he will let me pass.  I don't trust him.

2.         I am the daughter of a minor lord in a medieval setting (fantasy, Moorish Spain, Vikings, pick one or make one up).  I am stopped at the fortress gate because one of the guards has decided to have some fun with the sword-smith's son.  The guard has taken a new blade from the boy and will not return it.  I have passed through this gate many times and I do not like the way that guard has looked at me.

3.         My stomach hurts.  I slouch in my seat on the bus.  David and Suzanne dared me to eat five June Bugs with ice cream as a prize, and you know how much I love ice-cream and a challenge.

4.         The door opens and three thousand feet of empty air stands between me and the earth.  I grab the frame, turn my head in time to see the skydiving instructor give me a thumbs up, and I throw my body into the sky.

Take your time, write down any ideas that come to you -- even if they're not in order, or even particularly good (There's always the chance that in combination with other ideas they will become good ones.)  Brainstorm.  Use several sheets of paper.  Write a draft, make corrections, draw stick figures or maps of the scene.  Writers approach writing in different ways, and no one writes complete, final, perfect sentences the first time through.

Have fun.

Other things to try:

Explore different tenses with the first person POV.  Can you ratchet up the tension with first person by shifting to present tense?  For example, when I tell the reader that I collect wood, arrange it in a neat stack, dump fuel over it, and light a fire, there is no notion of what happens in the next moment.  For all you know I'm about to stick my hand in the roaring flames.  When I tell the story in the past tense, I collected the wood, and I built the fire, there seems to be some loss of tension that comes along with the fact that all of this has already happened, and if I had burned myself, I would have told you -- and it obviously couldn't have been that severe since I'm still around to tell the tale.  Does this work?  Does this introduce a sense of unpredictability that may turn readers off?

I'll end with a couple questions: which POV do you prefer as a writer and which one do you prefer as a reader?