Friday, October 26, 2012

Understanding Point of View: First Person Main Character

What is Point of View?

At it's simplest level point of view is a matter of grammar. We learn about it in grade school. Certain words designate a particular point of view. "I, me, we," and their variants represent first person. "You, yours, etc." designate second person. "He/she, him/her, they, them" are third person.

However, that simplicity covers a much deeper and more complex aspect of story telling. A simple way to think about point of view is to think about the perspective from which the story is told and who the narrator is.

In this particular lesson  we will look one of the most commonly used points of view: First Person Main Character.

First Person Main Character

Photo by Dhanira
 Usually, an author uses this approach to first person writing. It has obvious advantages. The story is about this character and his/her adventures. So, you don't have to invent ways that a secondary character might know something significant that happened to the character when his/her chronicler is not around.

However, it can have some drawbacks. First, you have to maintain that character's voice throughout the story. S/he can't start sounding like a neutral narrator. In Dark Side of the Moon, I created a main character who did not use contractions much. She rarely said "couldn't" or "can't." Instead, she said "could not" or "cannot." It was a reaction to growing up in a working class environment and making it through two PhD's and a Master's. She was afraid to go back to that little girl who wore patched clothes to school and talked "funny." However, I had to maintain that affectation throughout the book and not only in the dialog.

You also have to be careful about your character sounding too conceited when s/he does something extraordinarily well. It is one thing for Watson to say Holmes is brilliant. It is quite another for Holmes to say it about himself. The character needs to seem oblivious to his or her prowess, intelligence, beauty, ability or courage. If such characteristics are so pronounced they cannot be discounted by the person, you can make them embarrassed by them or counter them by giving the character significant deficits elsewhere, particularly in areas where most people excel. The classic is the brilliant scientist who is awkward at dinner parties or can't ask his lab assistant out on a date.

The second issue with following the main character, whether in main character first person or third person limited points of view, has to do with events that take place outside that person's presence. They will have to hear about those things in some normal way like reading about it in the paper, hearing it from a friend, seeing a surveillance tape or making a logical inference from the evidence available. Likewise, you can't say "Johnny was hurt by what I said." How do you know that? You need to establish a basis for knowing it. Better to say, "When I said that, Johnny's shoulders slumped and he looked at the ground. He began drawing with the toe of his shoe in the dirt. 'Johnny, I didn't mean to hurt you,' I said. 'I'm not hurt,' he mumbled. I wasn't convinced."

Tomorrow: First Person - Secondary Character


  1. Terri, Interesting post. Being consistent throughout the story is a must. Writing is a great balancing act. :)

  2. This is true, but many people become overly simplistic about point of view. They often assume that there can be only one POV in a novel. That is not true. I've read perfectly good novels where different chapters were written from different points of view - FailSafe, Bridge Over San Luis Rey are two famous examples. Within each, though, the different chapters had singluar points of view. And each was Third Person limited.

    However, many good novels are written from the Omniscient POV where we are privy to everyone's thoughts. Some, today, derisively call this "head hopping," but it can work. Certain parts of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy are written using this POV. The important thing is not which POV one uses, but that it is used in such a way as to not confuse the reader.

    I won't have time in this series to look at the nuances of the use of POV. I am working on a mini-guide to POV that will include that sort of thing. In this series, I'm just describing the different points of view and some considerations for each.