Nana posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
What is your no.1 rule for writing fiction in first-person POV? Thanks in advance.
Randy sez: One of the nice things about writing in first person is that it’s really hard to hop heads and it’s really obvious when you do. First person is a nice intimate point of view and it makes it easy to get the reader to identify with the POV character.
As for rules on writing in first person, I have plenty of thoughts on that, but I don’t know how to choose which is most important. Here are a few of them:
- Once you’ve established that the scene is written in first person POV, you can often skip using the word “I” in places where it’s obvious. For example, if a tiger comes running into the room, you don’t need to say, “I saw a tiger dash into the room.” Instead, you can just say, “A tiger dashed into the room.” The reader knows that the narrator is the person who sees the tiger. (This same principle applies in third person.)
- By the same token, if the narrator of the story can’t see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, or know something, then don’t tell it. It makes sense to say, “Sally didn’t see the mugger coming up behind her. I tried to shout a warning, but my voice caught in my throat.” However, it doesn’t make sense to say the converse: “I didn’t see the mugger coming up behind me. Sally tried to shout a warning, but her voice caught in her throat.” If you didn’t see it, then you can’t be telling about it. And you can’t know what Sally tries to do unless she actually does it. (Again, a similar rule applies when you’re writing in third person.)
- Let’s emphasize that point for knowledge. It usually doesn’t make sense to write a sentence like this: “I didn’t realize that on the other side of the country, my poodle was quietly investing all my savings in dog biscuit stocks.” If you don’t know it, then your reader can’t know it either. There is one exception, when you’re writing in retrospective past tense. In that case, you’re narrating the story from the vantage point of the future. So it’s possible that you learned information later than the point of narration and it might make sense to say, “I didn’t learn until six months later that my poodle was quietly investing all my savings in dog biscuit stocks.”
Some writers find the first person POV constraining because they want to show action in different locations at the same time. If you’ve only got one POV character (which is normal when writing in first person) then your character can’t be in two places at once, and you’re stuck. One solution is to use multiple first person POV characters, or else switch from first-person to third-person. These are legal, although they may disorient the reader unless you do a good job tipping her off. That’s one reason I always start a scene with a header that tells who the POV character is. I learned this from Irwin Shaw, and it’s always made a lot of sense to me.
I’m curious if my Loyal Blog Readers have any particular other issues with first person POV that I should talk about. If you do, go ahead and post a comment here with your question and I’ll answer the question right inside the comments section.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.