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Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 08, 2015 1:48 pm

POV—FIRST PERSON

A story (or poem, or novel) is written in the first person point of view (POV from now on) if it is narrated by a character using the pronoun I and its relatives me, my, and mine. Rarely, a first person story may also be narrated by us or we.

First person POV is used when a person is telling his own story, or occasionally, when a person is telling someone else’s story, but one in which she played a part. It may be nonfiction—an autobiography or a memoir—or fiction, which brings me to my first important point.

Two or three times since I’ve been at FaithWriters, people have started threads in the forums expressing their concerns about writing fiction in first person. Their concerns are 1) people are reading these stories, thinking that they actually happened to the writer, and leaving comments saying things like “I hope you’re feeling better now” or “I’m so glad you came through that trial”, or 2) since those things didn’t actually happen to them, they feel funny writing as if they did.

Here’s my take on that—if people read your first person story and become convinced that it’s autobiographical—great! You’ve done your job as a writer: you’ve written with an authentic voice, you’ve given your narrator genuine emotions, and you’ve created a plot that felt real to your reader. Congratulations! Writing first person fiction (or any other kind of fiction, for that matter) isn’t lying or deceiving. It’s writing, using your God-given gift of creativity.

For a while there was a “fiction” button you could click to indicate that your entry was fiction. I don’t think it’s there anymore, but I was never a big fan of that button. I think it’s jarring to read a story, to really get into the characters and their world, and then get a big old elbow in my ribs at the end: someone saying that wasn’t real, you know. This is one of the few areas where Deb Porter (the Writing Challenge coordinator) and I disagree, and if you really feel more comfortable telling your readers that what you wrote is fiction, go ahead and indicate that.

There are some advantages to writing in first person. If your story is really centered on one main character, using first person and having that character narrate his or her story allows you, the writer, to really get into that person’s soul. You can show your readers what your MC is thinking, feeling, observing, sensing…it creates an intimacy between the narrator and the reader.

A disadvantage of the first person POV is that your narrator (the “I” in the story) cannot know what other characters are thinking, feeling, sensing. The narrator can observe other characters, and make conclusions based on his or her observations. But as the writer, if you’ve chosen first person, you have to avoid this sort of trap:

I was sound asleep when I gradually became aware of a pounding on the door. Stumbling out of bed, I peeked outside and saw a bedraggled young woman on my front porch. I threw open the door.

Sally was so relieved. She thought no one would ever answer. “Is this your cat?” she said.

I looked at the kitten in her arms. “No!” I shouted, and slammed the door.

Sally stood there for a moment, stunned, then stomped home.


Do you see where I’ve flipped back and forth between the “I” character and Sally? “I” have no way of knowing that Sally’s relieved, or what she thought, and “I” certainly don’t know what Sally did once “I” slammed the door. So…don’t do that.

Similarly, in first person, the reader can only know what the narrator knows. That makes it ideal for mysteries and detective stories, when plot points are revealed a little bit at a time. The narrator and the reader discover important things at the same time.

I think first person works best for

1. stories with just a few characters
2. stories with a considerable emotional content
3. stories in which the MC is dynamic—that is, he or she changes significantly in the course of the story
4. stories in which the main character is able to express himself or herself with articulation—not a child, not mentally handicapped, not emotionally withdrawn (there are many exceptions to this “rule,” however. Just think through how you’re going to make it work if you attempt first person with one of these characters).
5. Obviously—stories that happened to YOU.

Like all the POVs, 1st person can be written in either present or past tense, and there are advantages and disadvantages for both of those. Here’s what each looks like:

1st person present tense:

I stand in my bedroom, confused. My glasses are not on the nightstand, but a quart of milk, warm and beginning to clot, is neatly centered on the doily. I walk to the kitchen and open the refrigerator; there are my glasses, between the orange juice and the butter.

Advantages: I love this style for intimate, serious stories that take place in a very limited time span. It’s a literary style of writing that has become increasing popular in the last couple of decades.
Disadvantages: It really doesn’t work for stories told in a child’s voice, or for pieces that take place over long periods of time. It’s not as natural to write in nor to read, so it appeals more to serious and sophisticated readers.


1st person past tense:

I stood in my bedroom, confused. My glasses were not on the nightstand, but a quart of milk, warm and beginning to clot, was neatly centered on the doily. I walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator; there were my glasses, between the orange juice and the butter.

Advantage—It’s a natural way to write, and it will be very familiar to your readers. It works well for romance, humor, and any story in which you want to relate not only events but feelings and reactions. Past tense gives your writing a sense of realism: this actually happened, and I'm telling you about it now.
Disadvantage—Some people have expressed hesitance to write in 1st person past tense, lest what is fiction be mistaken for memoir.


Homework: Answer one or more of the following questions.

1. Do you write in first person? Why, or why not?
2. Are there types of stories other than the ones I listed that you think 1st person works best for?
3. Do you prefer to read in first person or third person? Why?
4. Any other comments or questions about first person?


OR link to something you've written in first person, and tell why you chose that tense for that story.


POV - Part 2 - Second Person
POV - Part 3 - Third Person
POV - Part 4 - Choosing the POV Character
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby zacdfox » Sun Feb 08, 2015 3:47 pm

1) I do write in first person. I feel like it can give your work a measure of authenticity, especially when done well.

3) I enjoy reading both, but I think I prefer first person when it's done well. The challenge I find with first person narration, is that everything written is from the perspective of one character. You must have an intimate understanding not only of the story but the one telling the story. And then, while using and being true to the narrator's voice, you have to create multidimensional supporting characters.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 08, 2015 5:40 pm

zacdfox wrote:1) I do write in first person. I feel like it can give your work a measure of authenticity, especially when done well.

3) I enjoy reading both, but I think I prefer first person when it's done well. The challenge I find with first person narration, is that everything written is from the perspective of one character. You must have an intimate understanding not only of the story but the one telling the story. And then, while using and being true to the narrator's voice, you have to create multidimensional supporting characters.


I totally agree, Zac. Thanks for sharing!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby Sibermom65 » Sun Feb 08, 2015 6:06 pm

Sometimes I write in 1st person - I like the power it can convey in for emotional content. I also like it for devotional/inspirational pieces because it's easier to avoid being "preachy" when you talk about the impact of something you rather than what someone else should feel.
for the homework, I have a short passage from a story I started (never finished and probably won't because I discovered it has become dated, and I don't know how to change it.)
I don't know if I should cut and paste a piece of it here or post a chapter in the articles and link that way.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 08, 2015 6:11 pm

You can post a short passage here, if you like--maybe 100 - 200 words or so. I look forward to reading it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby dmbowman » Sun Feb 08, 2015 8:46 pm

I've found that I do like to write in first person. It's not something I had done much in the past but since beginning to write for the challenge, I have written a few entries in first person. It seemed to work well for both of the following and I think it's because they were intended to be emotionally charged pieces.

My goal, especially for The Captive's Redeemer, was to have the reader feel as though they were the main character.

And Blessings Overflowed

The Captive's Redeemer

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 08, 2015 8:55 pm

Diane, those are both beautiful pieces, and I think your phrase "emotionally charged" fits them well. If they were written in third person, almost all of the emotional content would be lost.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby Sibermom65 » Sun Feb 08, 2015 10:54 pm

This is a snippet from my story "I, Joshua", about a couple of teenagers and a suicide attempt.
I've found the 1st person POV lets me create emotionally charged passages. In this section the MC has found a suicide note dropped by a fellow classmate as the school day ended. He has informed the first teacher he found, but his concern was not taken seriously.

I stared at his retreating form in utter disbelief. How could he say something like that? How could he believe Joshua wasn't serious? I looked at the note in my hand again. It seemed alive with pain. I winced as I read again the words "It's the world that's crazy, not me."
"Man, you're crazy." I had heard those words flung at me often enough that perhaps it was my pain I saw, not his, but somehow I knew he was serious. Unless someone stopped him, Joshua Peterson was going to kill himself. I began to run again.
The sound of my feet pounding on the tiled floors bounced off the lockered walls and echoed in my head. Panic momentarily ruled. Coming to the door, I leaned against it, panting as I searched the street to no avail. Where could he have gone?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby Milly Born » Mon Feb 09, 2015 7:54 am

I must admit that I never even considered something like POV before joining FaithWriters. But now I do, and I can see how it has improved my writing--although every now and then a mistake slips in. Thanks for another great lesson, Jan.

A brief analysis of why I write in the first person...

    I'm a writer who wants to convey a message (well, which writer doesn't?). Messages are best received and remembered when delivered in stories.
    I want to draw readers into my stories to live the message.
    Stories written in the first person engage the readers most.

I joined FW in April last year and wrote several fiction articles for the Challenge (my first fiction since high-school :wink: ). I discovered that in fiction, it comes less natural to write in the first person, although I've done it a couple of times.

One of my "early" fiction articles, in the first person: http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=48642

My preferred writing genre is inspirational nonfiction (as I found out last FW season :D ); first person is in order here.

My latest non-fiction in first person: http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=50215
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 09, 2015 11:18 am

Sibermom65 wrote:This is a snippet from my story "I, Joshua", about a couple of teenagers and a suicide attempt.
I've found the 1st person POV lets me create emotionally charged passages. In this section the MC has found a suicide note dropped by a fellow classmate as the school day ended. He has informed the first teacher he found, but his concern was not taken seriously.

I stared at his retreating form in utter disbelief. How could he say something like that? How could he believe Joshua wasn't serious? I looked at the note in my hand again. It seemed alive with pain. I winced as I read again the words "It's the world that's crazy, not me."
"Man, you're crazy." I had heard those words flung at me often enough that perhaps it was my pain I saw, not his, but somehow I knew he was serious. Unless someone stopped him, Joshua Peterson was going to kill himself. I began to run again.
The sound of my feet pounding on the tiled floors bounced off the lockered walls and echoed in my head. Panic momentarily ruled. Coming to the door, I leaned against it, panting as I searched the street to no avail. Where could he have gone?


Hi, Sibermom--

Thanks for giving us this snippet. This is definitely a bit of writing where 1st person makes a lot of sense; we can vicariously feel this character's panic and distress.

Here's one thing I'd like you to consider. I taught high school for thirty years, and I'm pretty familiar with the voices of teenagers, so I wonder if your narrator's voice might be a bit too polished for a high school student. I might know better if I had the context of the whole piece. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is written in first person and narrated by the character of Scout, who is a 9-year-old girl throughout the events of the novel. But it's narrated by adult Scout, looking back on that eventful time in her life, so the narration is sophisticated, in an adult voice, not the voice of a 9-year-old. If that sort of thing is true of your piece, then it's fine--carry on.

But if your piece is written as if this teen is narrating it as a teen, then you may have to rough it up a bit.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 09, 2015 11:23 am

Milly Born wrote:I must admit that I never even considered something like POV before joining FaithWriters. But now I do, and I can see how it has improved my writing--although every now and then a mistake slips in. Thanks for another great lesson, Jan.

A brief analysis of why I write in the first person...

    I'm a writer who wants to convey a message (well, which writer doesn't?). Messages are best received and remembered when delivered in stories.
    I want to draw readers into my stories to live the message.
    Stories written in the first person engage the readers most.



Milly, what a wonderful, succinct summary of reasons for writing in first person!

I read both of the entries you linked to, and in both of them, first person absolutely works, for the reasons you listed above.

I'd also like to say that you've made astounding progress, very evident in these two pieces that are less than a year apart. The first one is very good--but the second one is superb. Well done!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby Milly Born » Mon Feb 09, 2015 12:23 pm

Thank you so much for the encouragement, Jan!

Feeling blessed,
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby Sibermom65 » Mon Feb 09, 2015 4:12 pm

I started writing this many years ago when my kids were in school. As their language was not "rough", I didn't have a good model for normal teen slang. (I'm pretty much convinced that I was never a teenager - certainly never typical.)
My writing was interrupted by my daughter's death and I didn't return to it for many years. Now I'm looking back at those early pieces and trying to decide if any are worth reworking. I love the power of this piece using that 1st person POV, but I realize it is dated by technology to where it may not be worth trying to salvage. I'm sure there are other problems, too, but right now I'm too green to recognize them.
The first three chapters that I wrote I posted in the articles section under fiction, if you want to look at it and give me some feedback.
http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... ?id=175183

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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 09, 2015 4:35 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I started writing this many years ago when my kids were in school. As their language was not "rough", I didn't have a good model for normal teen slang. (I'm pretty much convinced that I was never a teenager - certainly never typical.)
My writing was interrupted by my daughter's death and I didn't return to it for many years. Now I'm looking back at those early pieces and trying to decide if any are worth reworking. I love the power of this piece using that 1st person POV, but I realize it is dated by technology to where it may not be worth trying to salvage. I'm sure there are other problems, too, but right now I'm too green to recognize them.
The first three chapters that I wrote I posted in the articles section under fiction, if you want to look at it and give me some feedback.
http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... ?id=175183


Just to clarify--by "rough" I didn't mean profane or vulgar--just not as smooth and sophisticated as the narrator's voice in your piece.

I think that any piece of writing is worth salvaging. I'm not sure that I'll have time for a while to read your three chapters; I'm trying to finish up three editing jobs before I head to my daughter's house for a week. But I encourage you to look at ways to re-work the story, even if it means just holding on to the central idea and starting from scratch. I think you won't be sorry if you do.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--A TOUCH OF POV

Postby DustBSH » Mon Feb 09, 2015 4:59 pm

I don't usually write in the first person. Come to think of it, I never really do. It seems most of my stories have a good amount of dialogue, but are always narrated. I love to just write and let the story come to life while the characters and me are on a journey together. Writing in the first person doesn't seem to come very natural. However I can see how it can open new doors.
So, that's an interesting challenge to start writing some stories in the first person.
I do have occasional problems with my POV, and I need to carefully check my story in the end. It often happens while writing, I suddenly think of a golden thought for the person that is not the POV, and it just makes the story looks so cool...(I thought) Writing in the first person may help with that too.
Your lessons are much appreciated :thumbs

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