Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, February 24, 2016 6 comments
Photo by Earl53 at morguefile.com
First person point-of-view is way of narrating as if you were looking through someone else's eyeballs, wearing her skin, moving about the world in her body. It offers tremendous access to another person's psyche.

But only if you remember to let your reader get that close.

A common problem in writing first person POV is what I call "filtering," that is, when the character first labels an experience before experiencing it. While filtering is a staple of third person limited POV, it weakens first person narration.

Here are some examples, (both past and present tense):

  1. I feel a chill prickle up the back of my neck.
  2. I see eleven elven princesses arrayed in silver sweep into the room.
  3. I hear the waves crash against the shore.
  4. I smell the pungent odor of old fish and gag.
  5. I wondered what my dad would do when he found out.
  6. I thought he had the style sense of a colorblind accountant.
  7. I turned my head and there to my right I noticed a patch of cheerful daffodils swaying in the breeze.

They don't sound like problem sentences at first blush, do they? But consider that we have access only to the sensations of the protagonist narrator. Is it really necessary to tell us first that he is feeling a sensation or thinking a thought? Of course not. Obviously only the protag/narrator could be having these sensations and opinions, since we are privy to no one else's inner world.

The filter clause further adds a redundant telling to something the rest of the sentence shows. And these filter clauses add a load more iterations of that pesky pronoun "I" that can make even the most selfless protagonist sound like a raging narcissist.

Now let's see those sentences "unfiltered":

  1. A chill prickles up the back of my neck.
  2. Eleven elven princesses arrayed in silver sweep into the room.
  3. Waves crash against the shore.
  4. The pungent odor of old fish makes me gag.
  5. What would my dad do when he found out?
  6. He had the style sense of a colorblind accountant.
  7. To my right, a patch of cheerful daffodils swayed in the breeze.

Note how much more immediate and punchy these are. As a reader, you feel as if you are experiencing sensations with the protagonist, rather than being told about them across a table. You're looking through her eyeballs, not sitting on her shoulder.

The thoughts and opinions sound more natural, the way thoughts form inside your own head. You don't think to yourself "I think I want cake." No, that desire will be in your head as "I want cake" or simply "Cake! Must have cake!" (For some, the "I think" filter is a way of expressing uncertainty, so the unfiltered version would be "Should I have cake?" or "Is it bad that I want cake?")

Most of these filters are easy to find and trim away.With "I wondered" some rearranging will likely be necessary, because wondering is a way of contemplating questions.

Example 7 is a way of filtering using excessive "stage business"--narrating movement that could be inferred from context. Obviously a character turns her head to see something to her right. Trust the reader to get it.

A few caveats


When your character is relaying a story to someone else, these filters would be perfectly appropriate. His or her storytelling will not be deep POV, but limited.

Another instance where filtering might be necessary is when the reader knows the protagonist's senses have been interfered with or limited in some way. For example, "Through the blindfold I could see only dark blotches against a field of orange."

What special challenges do you have with writing particular points of view?

6 comments:

  1. Great post! Can't say any more than that. It's so clear and concise and really helps pinpoint what makes a limited p.o.v. feel real and immediate.

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  2. YES, this. I'm ALWAYS pointing this out in critiques. It's all about engaging the reader.

    My issue with first person is that it's so personal, it's easy to incorporate character imperfections we all have that readers find distasteful. That's just me. With 3rd person you can distance those some, but in first, it's right in your face.

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    1. Third person lends itself to plot-driven stories, where readers don't have an expectation of going deep into someone's inner world. For character-driven stories, readers crave that access, warts and all.

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    2. It's true. It's also the most difficult to write. I think that's why it's safer to write in third--because there's more room for error, so to speak.

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  3. Great examples! I definitely find myself doing these things. For me, putting the book aside for a few days and then reading it aloud helps me catch these problems.

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