Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, March 30, 2006

CRAFT: First Person Point of View

I admit it, I love first person. That's a point of view, or POV, for those writers out there. It's where you write as if you are the narrator, telling the story... I did this and that and so on. A lot of chick lit books are written in first person, as well as mysteries. It's particularly good where you want to slowly unveil the story from the narrator's perspective.

Anyway, what I thought I would do, because I really do love first person, is give examples from books that use first person very effectively. It's a nice sampling and it shows how effective first person is, and how it's done. The major thing to remember is that the narrator is a character in the story so you have to "stay in character" when you're telling the tale. That's the challenge.

(The following is done by professionals--don't try this at home without proper supervision or a very large glass of wine. Preferrably red because it's better for the heart.)

From MOON-SPENDER by Jonathan Gash
This story begins where I'm making love to an ancient Chinese vase, on gangster's orders, watched by eleven point two million viewers.
But first, how to sell stolen hankies, from poverty, in the rain.

By evening the crowds of shoppers had thinned. The wet snuffed daylight off the Lion Walk spire, leaving me on the glistening square while women battled pushchairs in the rain. Those old Victorian lamps would have imbued the scene with a romantic opalescence. As it was, our town council now brittle us to death with a neon glare that hurts your eyes. Daft, like everything modern. I'm an antique dealer so should know.
"Genuine Irish linen hankies," I warbled. People hurtled past. "Hankies. Genuine Lancashire," I tried. Prams zoomed. Where has compassion gone? I hoestly wish people would reform. I'll even reform myself when I get a minute.

From THE KILLING DANCE by Laurell K. Hamilton
The most beautiful corpse I'd ever seen was sitting behind my desk. Jean-Claude's white shirt gleamed in the light from the desk lamp. A froth of lace spilled down the front, peeking from inside his black velvet jacket. I stood behind him, my back to the wall, arms crossed over my stomach, which put my right hand comfortably close to the Browning Hi-Power in its shoulder holster. I wasn't about to draw on Jean-Claude. It was the other vampire I was worried about.

From DATING CAN BE DEADLY by Wendy Roberts
I charged through Seattle's Memorial Cemetery with my arms pumping and heart pounding. My mouth wheezed in great mouthfuls of dreary afternoon drizzle while I ruined a perfectly good pair of black leather sling-backs. To top that off, the purse snatcher, who was at least double my twenty-six years and probably a heroin addict as well, had easily outrun me.

From "G" IS FOR GUMSHOE by Sue Grafton
Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me. Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:
1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.
2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.
3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty's hit list.

From A DYING LIGHT IN CORDUBA by Lindsey Davis
Nobody was poisoned at the dinner for the Society of Olive Oil Producers of Baetica--though in retrospect, that was quite a surprise.
Had I realized Anacrites the Chief Spy would be present, I would myself have taken a small vial of toad's blood concealed in my napkin and ready for use. Of course he must have made so many enemies, he probably swallowed antidotes daily in case some poor soul he had tried to get killed found a chance to slip essence of aconite into his wine. Me first, if possible. Rome owed me that.

From KEEPERS by Gary A. Braunbeck
"Hey, Gil--your air freshener's standing by the side of the road." Cheryl adjusted the focus on the new binoculars and then laughed.
"My whosee-whats--it is huh?"
"You'll see when we catch up to him in a minute."
Traffic in our lane wasn't moving nearly as fast as it was in the other two--in fact it was barely moving at all. We were coming back from the gran opening week of my second "novelties and collectibles" store, this one in Columbus, and had gotten into Cedar Hill just in time for rush hour--lucky us.

The first few examples above are pretty classic first person. They are all the first few paragraphs in the book. The last example from Braunbeck does some interesting things later on, and I'm going to show you right below. These passages are from later in the book (although still very close to the beginning).

I've never done well when it comes to ministering to sick or wounded animals. I guess it stems from an incident that occurred when I was a high-school sophomore, one of those "It Happens" incidents that you think you'll eventually get over but never really do, even though admitting to it some three decades later feels embarrassing...but the sight of this pathetic animal on my lawn caused this particular instance of "It Happens" to happen across my memory once again.
(See there, pal? You can remember things if you want to. If you'll just go a little further back...)
Go away, please.
After school I had a part-time evening job at Beckman's Market, a local neighborhood grocery store, one of those mom-and-pop operation that had been in the area for as long as anyone could remember...

That's it--did you see what happened there? You actually slipped inside his head for a few minutes and got to hear those little voices we all have in there. Writer things like this are incredibly exciting to me. I love this. This book, KEEPERS, is a horror novel so being able to get inside the head of Gil Stewart, the narrator, turns the screws to a nearly unbearable degree. You can feel that fear and tension in his head, and hear him trying to control and suppress it.

Okay, okay. So what was the point in my laboriously typing in all these introductory passages? Well, I wanted you to see the differences in the voices. Remember, the voices being used are the main characters' voices -- not the author's voice. And they are all different. Just because you write in first person, doesn't mean your book is going to sound like every other book written in first person--not if you do a good job. In addition, each book you write in first person that features a different narrator, will sound different. Or at least it should sound different, assuming you're doing a good job.

And, the last example should show you something else. Even within pure first person there are layers of techniques. You have to figure out how to express the narrator's emotions in a revealing way--you can't just say: I was mad as blazes. That's where it takes a little effort, that and trying to figure out a way to describe yourself (because you're the main character) without looking into mirrors or reflective windows all day long. Because I have to tell you, I was snooping on another group of writers and readers the other day and they were all complaining about authors who use the mirror/window thing to describe the narrator. They hated it and thought it was lazy writing. Let that be a lesson to you, if you're even thinking of doing that. Don't.

Surprisingly, many of them said they preferred the narrator not to be described at all, or just to get snippets like: the color of my jacket clashed with my blonde hair. Or something like that, but not as bad as that.

Anyway, I love first person point of view (POV). I hope this gives you a little taste of what can be done with it. And I'm wondering if others find first POV as fascinating or just think it's annoying...


Anonymous said...

I love first person POV, too. It allows the reader to get in bed with the main character, so to speak, and get intimate. I'm writing my second novel in first person. After having written most the novel, I suddenly wondered if I should change the whole book to third because some people say serious fiction should only be in third, but I'm since realized this isn't so. Many books are f POV. And besides, my main character wants her story to be told through her voice. lol.


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