Wednesday, September 17, 2014

First-person POV: Advantages and Disadvantages

This is the first in a series of posts on point of view.

Point of view is one of the writer's greatest tools, yet it is also one of the most abused. I can't count the number of times sloppy point of view has hindered my enjoyment of an otherwise good book. Now you're probably saying, "Come on. I know what point of view is. I learned all about first and third person in school."

Unfortunately, school doesn't prepare you for the realities of fiction writing. There's so much more to point of view than first and third person, and it's not something you just pick randomly. Every type of point of view has its advantages and disadvantages.

Let's take a deeper look.


On the surface, first-person is simple. You're writing it as if you're the character. This allows you to place the reader firmly in the head of that character. It also keeps you from engaging in one of the worst writing sins: headhopping.

However, first-person has its drawbacks. While you can write multiple first-person narrators in one book, it is not the most common of techniques, and it is very easy to get wrong. Those of you who've read Veronica Roth's Allegiant know what I mean. In the third book of the series, Roth moved from an effective one-narrator story to a two-narrator story. Unfortunately, I found that I had trouble telling the narrator's voices apart (even though they were of different genders). This detracted from the book.

This can be done well. For another YA example, you have The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Here, you have two separate first-person narrators, but it works. I had no trouble telling them apart.

So what's the moral here? Character voice is everything in first-person (whether you're doing one narrator or multiple).

In the case of one narrator, you want to make that narrator come to life through the way s/he narrates the story. The narrative itself is a huge part of characterization.

As an example of this, look at Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Part of the appeal of those stories is Harry Dresden as the narrator. You get a sense of him as a character through the way he relates the story. If Butcher had written the series in third person, I'm not sure it would have found the success it has. People like the occasional sarcastic remark from Dresden.

For a similar style of narration, but with some differences, you might look at Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Chronicles. He has a character and story that, in many ways, remind you of Dresden. However, when I read each series, I find the narration is different enough that I get a sense of distinct characters telling their story in the way they know best.

Now, character voice does play a role in third-person POV, especially in deep third (which I'll get to in another post). But it's not the same as first-person at least for me. There's a closeness in first that you just don't get in third (in most cases). This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Let's take a look at some secondary-world fantasy examples:

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. In this, I found the first-person narration was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I really didn't want to be in Jorg's head. It's a scary place. On the other, getting into his head and hearing the words in his voice helps many readers identify with a character they would normally find despicable. Jorg also has a bit of an intellectual side, so he occasionally gets into some poetic language. It seems fitting, though.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The majority of this story is in first-person POV from Kvothe's perspective. It's also a very different voice from Jorg's above. Kvothe is a much kinder, gentler narrator. While I loved the story, I never quite felt like it was really Kvothe telling it. It felt more like Rothfuss writing it from Kvothe's point of view. Maybe that's Kvothe's voice. It's just not a voice that really stood out to me.

And that's okay.

Too many people think the narrator's voice has to be intrusive, especially in first person. But an understated voice can be just as effective. The key is making sure it's the right voice for your character and the story you want to tell.

In short, first-person POV has a number of advantages. It helps keep you disciplined as a writer, sticking to one POV per scene.. It also allows for the narration itself to further characterization.

However, it can be difficult to get the narrator's voice right, especially if you're writing multiple narrators. And since I usually write with multiple POV characters, I prefer to stick with third person. If I ever come up with a story with just one narrator, though, don't be surprised if I choose first person. As I've said, there are distinct advantages.

Here's some other first-person secondary-world fantasy you might check out (not an exhaustive list):

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
The Black Company by Glen Cook
Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover (it's partially in first, partially in third)

As you can probably gather from this list, first-person POV is not all that common in secondary-world fantasy. This is due, in part, to the epic nature of many secondary-world fantasies. The authors saw the potential pitfalls of multiple first-person narrators and chose the safer option of third person. That's not saying you can't write more POV characters in first person. It's just a risk as an author, and that's a choice you ultimately have to make.

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