Writing perils: first person POV

Readers had a pretty good reaction to "Sister Ophelia". In a number of ways, it's a bit different from many of the stories I write. I thought it would be useful to talk about that. This blog post was going to be about two key aspects of "Sister Ophelia" that people remarked on. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that each of these deserves separate treatment. So, today will be a discussion of first person POV, tomorrow will be on writing in dialect.

Also, this is in first person, which I rarely use. It's a POV that asks the reader to sink themselves into the narrator, which takes time to pull off. I did this and I did that... the reader has to become the narrator, or at least live in the narrator's head while the action unfolds. In a flash fiction piece, there is only minute timeslice of room in which to do that.

I've tried it before, both in flash fiction and in longer pieces, and it's damned tricky to pull off effectively. I have a great deal of respect for writers who can do it. In "Sister Ophelia" I used the authorial trick of having this narrative done in the quasi-epistolary form of an interview. That lets the reader off the hook, and allows the narrator to continue to be Other, even though it's first person POV. Neat, eh?

This approach also lets the reader fill in the blanks as to the questions and reactions of the interlocutor. I believe that this helps to suck a reader into the story, to get them engaged. It's a literary equivalent of the smell of fresh baked bread... just TRY to stay out of the kitchen.

I've also tried to write in what sounds like the second person POV, but is really first person that addresses the reader directly. That was a pretty weird story, actually. Technically difficult, excessively cumbersome as a narrative technique.

Have you written in first person POV? Have you seen examples of it used well? Used badly? Is there a greater immediacy with first person, or is that an outmoded concept?

Share your thoughts!

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. I find that some stories just demand to be told in First Person POV. And some of my favorite books/stories (Sherlock Holmes, Spenser, etc.) are written that way, so I guess I've always just seen it as a viable alternative.

  2. I feel more connected reading it and more as the character writing it, but you still have to appreciate a 3rd person done as well as a 1st in connecting with the reader

  3. I'm with Janet — some stories insist on 1st person. Yes, I've written a few stories that way, but not often. I seem to remember one or two I started in 1st person then rewrote to 3rd because it didn't work.

    I think the most challenging 1st person story I wrote was "Go Out With a Bang," because the narrator dies at the end. I guess it worked though, because in my informal "which story to submit to BOFF2" polls it ran a close second to the eventual winner.

  4. Janet: The story will dictate the POV, but it's a choice that puts some limits on what you can do with the narrator. Everything has to be immediately experienced - this leads to various tricks to get information into the narrator's hands. He watches a TV show, she gets a phone call, etc.

    K.D.: There's a deeper connection when using first person, as the narrator is in the thick of things.

    FAR: It can certainly be used effectively, but it's not as common as it used to be. As an exercise, I once wrote out the same scene from a variety of POV, switching it all back and forth. It forced me to consider what was really happening, what was important to tell and what could be skipped or minimized.

  5. Hi Tony

    I'm essentially a novelist, so don't do much by way of shorst and I've never tired 1st person in a short.

    I don't do many novels that way either, but Voices was an exception. As others have said, it demanded a 1st person POV. It also needed scenes from ana lternate POV, so at the end of every "part" I penned a single chapter in 3rd person.

    Frankly, it was a bloody nightmare.

  6. DQ96: I've always found first person to be difficult, not from the standpoint of voice, but from plotting logic. There's no skull-jumping when you're in first person, so plot has to unfold wherever the narrator is, or was. Anytime things happen elsewhere, you run into the necessity for an infodump by someone else, or an investigative session where the narrator pieces together what happened.

    Either way, it complicates the writing substantially. That's not to say it isn't worthwhile for some stories, but that limitation is real and needs to be understood when working in this POV.

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  8. I was actually very scared of first person POV and wrote exclusively in third, but I challenged myself one Friday and it worked much better than I imagined it would. Now first person is my POV of choice (meaning I just slip into in naturally), but I find myself reverting to third person for male MCs (normally) and for stories where I want to put some distance between the reader and the characters.

  9. I never wrote in first person until a couple of years ago. I'd tried, but failed miserably. Then a story I was writing needed some emotional power that "he did this" and "she said that" didn't bring. So, I switched it to first person and it worked wonderfully. I've written a few since then and it has gotten easier each time (though once I re-wrote in third person to make sure first person is what I wanted).

    For me the key thing to remember is keeping the first person POV true. "I" can't know what "you" are thinking or feeling. I can surmise it, I can guess at it, I can assume about it... but I can't "know" it. When I see 1st person POV fail, it is often due to this simple thing -- the narrator knows too much about things he or she didn't actually experience.

    I tend to choose first person when I need to feel like I'm connecting more directly with the reader, like I'm letting them into my inner sanctum. Even though it isn't "me" on the page, writing it in first person makes it feel more like it is and more emotionally connected. The trouble for me comes when my main character is dictating 1st person... and is female. Kind of out of my normal realm of emotional experience.

  10. Great conversation!
    I have to say that as a writer I'm most comfortable with first person perspective.
    As a reader I could give a rat's ass as long as the story's told well.

    I do agree with Tony and others, though, that the first-person perspective creates special problems in plotting.

  11. I generally let the story start flowing...if it ends up in 1st person POV, it ends up that way. It's however the MC wants it told, either through themselves or from the 3rd person. I've tried a few 2nd person & haven't been able to pull it off to my satisfaction yet.

    I've found that people tend to like my 1st person stories, so I guess that must mean I'm doing something right. Like you with "Sister Ophelia," I try to find different methods of relaying the 1st person POV, like with "ABC"S of the Apocalypse," through the MC's alphabet writing therapy.

    I'll be interested to see what you say tomorrow, since I recently wrote and submitted an all-dialogue piece between two British characters.

    On that note, cheers for an insightful post!

  12. Oh, and yes, the first person does present plotting difficulties since nothing can happen in the story without the MC being present. So it takes some maneuvering on the author's part to create action dependent on the MC.

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  14. I prefer third but I've done some exploration into first person. It can be more challenging to bring the reader in and I've had more than one story where the aggressive nature of my protagonist booted some readers out of his head.
    If you can ring the right chord with readers the payoff in close psychic distance is amazing.

    ...And yes I just posted a comment, deleted it, switched google accounts, and posted it again..

  15. Typically I prefer my stories in some degree of third person, but there are certainly ones that come more naturally through one perspective and voice. We're too far along in the English language to discount the form of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Alchemist. Much can be done with it, even if it isn't my preferred mode. The most recent first person work to strike me was Coen's Gates of Eden, which experiments widely in voice. Before that, Adiga's White Tiger took the Man Booker a couple years ago with first person epistolary, and probably deserved it.

  16. foregoreality: ... but I challenged myself one Friday and it worked much better than I imagined it would. That is fantastic! I'm a big fan of pushing boundaries and trying new things. I'm interested that first person is your POV of choice. Do you find that the plotting is more of a challenge?

    @thirteenthdimension: First person gives you an immediacy and immersion in the plot, much more so than third person. For me the key thing to remember is keeping the first person POV true. It's much easier to have an omniscience third person, where you can go skull hopping at will. This same limitation of not knowing what others are thinking is there when you do limited-view third person (only inside one skull) or objective third person (only sitting on the MC's shoulder, not in their head).

    shana: Heh, that's a hard part all the time, isn't it? Taking off the writer's hat?

    Maria: Thanks for the love - thanks for reading! I really liked the "ABC"S of the Apocalypse,", most especially because you did such a measured reveal of the MC's life as she went through the alphabet. It was an impressive piece of writing, and in first person no less.

    J.W.: You raise an important point. Where the narrator is distasteful, that raises the stakes immensely when working in first person, even more so than when the narrator is a conventional "unreliable".

    John: You are really intriguing me with the Gates of Eden. First person narrative used to be more common than it is now, at least it seems that way based on some of the history of literature courses I've taken. The epistolary form, too, used to be more common. I've been thinking of doing something with that form, with e.mails or text messages, but never followed up on it. Perhaps because so much of fiction is in third person, we've become habituated to seeing that as the norm, with other POVs as strange.

    Maybe like unhappy endings. 8-)

  17. As Janet said, some stories need to be told int he first person. I posted one recently called, "An Eighth of Copper" (http://d-paulangel.blogspot.com/2011/04/fridayflash-eighth-of-copper.html) that I tried many, many different times to tell in a 3rd Person POV. It just wasn't happening. I switched to 1st Person POV and it wrote itself in about 45 minutes.


    My natural voice lends itself to longer, more complex sentences. I don't tend to write in shorter, flatter sentences, but the narrator clearly did. I had to make pass after pass after pass breaking sentences up into smaller and smaller pieces. I did would I could to eradicate any and all, "and's", "commas", and other bridge words that allowed for longer sentences. The result was very good, IM(NS)HO, but it was difficult nevertheless.

    So in all honesty I don't see how "Sister Ophelia" could've been told in any way other than what you did as effectively. Which is only part of the battle, of course. Knowing what you need to do and actually doing it are two very different things. I have a story I've been trying to write for the better part of a month. it needs to be 3rd Person POV for sure, but I'm struggling to actually make it work.

    This is all part of the learning though, no? Perhaps what truly differentiates the "Professional" writer from the "Amateur" isn't so much that the paycheck as being being able to write anything and everything the story calls for?

  18. All three of my novels are in first person - however, most of my shorts are in third! I don't know why this is. This last novel will be a mix of first and third-which surprised me as I didn't mean for it to be that way at all.

    I love first person, but I love third as well -I just love it when a writer convinces me -that's all they have to do, convince me and make me want to follow that character(s) anywhere they go.

  19. Interesting post and even more interesting comments! Some stories do require 1st (or even 2nd) POVs. Most of my flashes read in these POVs -- 3rd scares me silly, especially those stories with multiple characters. Where 3rd fails to me -- SOOOOO many times -- is when the writer headhops and becomes omniscient. And few folks can pull that off.

    When I write first, the toughest thing to remember is to not say the senses are happening. That is, when writing in 1st you don't tell how you interact with the world so much as you how you sense it, especially if writing in 1st present. That is, write the way you think and talk and behave, as if you are not behind the camera but are the camera. Very difficult to pull off without letting the author intrude or slipping into third. Peace...

  20. I enjoy reading a story that is written well in first person, but I struggle with writing it myself. I only have one story that I was happy with that was written in first person. I have several scraps of first person stories that remain unfinished, though. I'm thinking I should try it some more because I agree that some stories gain an intimate edge when told in first person.


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