Writing Excuses 5.3: First Person Viewpoint

Bree Despain joins us for a discussion of writing the first-person viewpoint. We talk about “method writing” and get briefly creeped out by Dan. We discuss some key aspects of this particular POV, including the unreliable narrator, the over-the-shoulder vs. the memoir perspective, and the presence or absence of a framing story.

We cover a few pitfalls, including the clichéd “mirror scene,” and then offer advice to new writers who are looking for ways to get first person right the first time.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Beastly, by Alex Finn

Writing Prompt: The main character has a secret. Write from that character’s point of view, but keep the secret from the reader.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.
Visit http://AudiblePodcast.com/excuse for a free trial membership*.
*Note: From the Audible website, here are the terms of the free membership. Read the fine print, please!

Audible® Free Trial Details
Get your first 14 days of the AudibleListener® Gold membership plan free, which includes one audiobook credit. After your 14 day trial, your membership will renew each month for just $14.95 per month so you can continue to receive one audiobook credit per month plus members-only discounts on all audio purchases. A very small number of titles are more than one credit. Cancel your membership before your free trial period is up and you will not be charged. Thereafter, cancel anytime, effective the next billing cycle. Any unused audiobook credits will be lost at cancellation.


16 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.3: First Person Viewpoint”

  1. There are two complaints I have with First Person perspectives, both regarding the “looking back” version. There are spoilers for Treasure Island and Dracula in this post, but I think they’re a bit beyond the spoiler taboo stage.

    1: The Treasure Island spoiler – If you read through Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jim’s narrative routinely interjects during his interactions with Long John Silver everything short of “If only I had known Long John Silver was a pirate at the time….” Last time I read the book, I found it so prevalent that it was distracting from the story at large (it read more like a court transcript, in which Jim wished to avoid incriminating himself for piracy and mutiny by accepting the lesser crime of negligence). It could just be that I knew the story well enough to pick up on the cues, but they really didn’t seem anywhere near as subtle as they should have been.

    2: The viewpoint log spoiler – In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, each chapter is a journal entry by one of the characters written at the end of the day (or some such thing). There are 2 major problems with this, especially in a horror genre story.
    Firstly, if you read a segment written by, say, Dr. Seward, you know Dr. Seward is not going to die in the immediate future.
    Secondly, at least in my copy of the book, it starts with a table of contents using the writers of the various segments. As such, I knew that, despite the opening chapters in which Johnathan Harker is, long story short, essentially doomed, he did not die. He began several of the later chapters in the book, thus, according to the objective source of the table of contents, he cannot have died prior to those late chapters. By knowing the character has to survive long enough to write the journal entry you’re reading and any future entries that are indicated in the table of contents, the tension of any dangerous activities is broken.

    The solution to the table of contents in Dracula is very simple, and is exhibited in George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series: Do not use a table of contents. Thus, conspicuously absent or present viewpoints will not be a giveaway.

    On a related note, I am somewhat confused by Martin’s choice of viewpoint styles in his books. He uses third person limited, but, at least as far as I have read, he treats it as though it were first person excepting only the use of third person pronouns and conjugations rather than first person. It works very well, certainly, but I don’t understand his reasoning. Anyone with a possible explanation?

  2. This was a timely podcast, because I’m experimenting with 1st-person point of view right now.
    @Rashkavar – Regarding the complaints–I think that might be why many 1st-person stories nowadays avoid the whole “looking back twenty years later” style. The events happened in the past, but it’s more like they just barely happened, and the viewpoint character doesn’t know what will happen next chapter.
    Some books even use present tense, which keeps all the action even more immediate (Hunger Games being a well-known example right now).

  3. Adam Hall’s “Quiller” series — spy thrillers — used first person in a couple of interesting ways. In some cases it’s first person objective, when Quiller is observing the effects that extreme fear, tension, beatings, anticipation etc has on his own physiology and psychology. Hall also does interesting things with cliffhangers. Since it’s first person, you know that Quiller gets out of whatever dire situation he’s in at the end of a chapter — but sometimes you don’t find out how until midway through the next chapter, which picks up sometime later and dribbles the information out in flashbacks. Certainly keeps the reader turning pages.

  4. This yet another great podcast! And I totally agree with the “mirror” pitfall for describing what characters look like. I actually just read a book in first person that did this, and I’ve read third person narratives that do this too. I love it, cause it’s just so hilarious how I keep coming across the “mirror” scene :) It’s like inevitable, and sadly…so cliche.

  5. @ Rashkavar

    I haven’t read GRRM, but I personally find it very difficult to jump around various 1st-person viewpoints. It’s hard to keep track of who the “I” is (I will forever hate Faulker’s “As I Lay Dying”). If you wanted something like 1st-person multiples, it might be easier on the reader to have very, very close 3rd. Then you still get the occasional “Jane” or “Joe” or “Trogdor” thrown in. Readers are pretty use to changing who he/she/it refers to.

    On a similar note, there’s a great YA book by Jonathan Stroud called the Amulet of Samarkand. There are two viewpoints. One is 1st-person from a demon (and hilarious). The other is 3rd. This really worked for me, because I wasn’t ever confused about whose POV we were in.

  6. I waited for the explanation on how to effectively juggle more than one first person viewpoint, but it never came. Darn.
    What advice can you offer on this topic? Specifically for two characters where the POV switches in the same chapter–awkward.
    What about switching to third person for these chapters? Too jarring? Confusing? Tacky? Are line breaks enough to signify POV change?
    Much appreciated.

  7. Ooh, Ty had a good point – I think it would’ve been interesting if you guys expanded upon juggling multiple first person viewpoints in a novel. One book that comes at the top of my head that I read a while back was “A Kiss in Time” – which juggled two first person viewpoints, but those were traded between chapters. It was a modern retelling of Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose if I recall.

    I don’t think it’s an awkward thing to juggle mutiple first-person perspectives as long as you distinguish your character voices when you switch perspectives. If two of your characters have similar voices, obviously it’s not going to work very well, but if they’re very distinct.

    Now as far as juggling first person and third person perspectives on my own perspective – I’ve seen this done, and I’m not necessarily a fan of it personally because it can become too much to handle if there isn’t a cause for it Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” actually juggled first person and third person limited, but he had a purpose for switching between the voices with the shift from the modern day vampiric domination to the dystopic future. Sophie Hannah’s “Little Face” also juggled first person and third person limited as well, between switching to the perspective of the mother who lost her child (and she’s an unreliable narrator without saying much to spoil the book) and the detectives investigating the crime of the missing baby.

    It can work very well, but you have to be careful doing it.

    I loved this podcast and appreciated the feedback on first person. I’m still struggling with one of my projects whether or not it would be better to write it as first person or third. I started out with first person, but considering the cast of characters, I thought it might be better as third person. But then I realized one of the things it lacked was what Dan and Bree mentioned in the podcast -intimacy. I usually favor first person because it does have that connectivity to the reader and you can get inside the character’s head moreso than with third person, depending on the story that’s told.

    I’ll have to go back to the drawing board on my project now, but it’s likely I’ll end up reverting back to first person for it, based on what I’ve heard from here.

  8. One of my favorite authors for first person voices is Peter S. Beagle. He is best known for “The Last Unicorn” (third person – omniscient?), but much of his other work is done in first person.

    “The Innkeeper’s Song” has maybe ten perspectives, all first person, and they are all beautifully distinctive (First lines: “I smell them all, and pigeons too” The Fox; “My name is Karsh. I am not a good man. I am not a particularly bad one either.” The Innkeeper; “On the ninth day I began to starve.” Tikat). He names his chapters after the characters, and combined with the clarity of voice, it does not get confusing.

    “Tamsin” is first person, a twenty year old girl looking back at events from seven years before. And his short stories have voices that are just as strong – check out “Salt Wine” in “The Line Between” for first person plus dialect.

    Robin Hobb would probably be my other favorite, and for depth I don’t know if you can beat her; but if you want to look at establishing voice in a few short lines, then Beagle is a wealth of examples.

  9. In response to:
    He uses third person limited, but, at least as far as I have read, he treats it as though it were first person excepting only the use of third person pronouns and conjugations rather than first person. It works very well, certainly, but I don’t understand his reasoning. Anyone with a possible explanation?

    Posted by Rashkavar

    I can’t speak for GRRRRRRRRRRM, but I have a tendency to do something similar, but not nearly as consistent as George does. First off, let me just say that I live by the belief that as a writer I suck. I assume we all suck, or we’d be published. I don’t bother with varying levels of suckiness as it’s all just justification. :) So while I may speak with confidence, I don’t presume I’m right.

    I try hard to keep the perspective from one character’s view point at a time. By time I mean a whole scene clearly owned to only one character. Then the way I’m thinking as I get into that character and their perspective leaves me with anything non dialogue sounding as if it’s the thought of the character. It’s very tedious to read if I italicise it or something to show it’s a thought.

    When more casual readers take a gander at it, they speak of the scene as if they were in it. Which ultimately is how I’d like to leave it, but I haven’t figured out how to write it consistently yet. Going straight third person, causes some character separation. It’s more like watching the character than being the character.

    So, I’ve not written anything serious in 25 years, since college. And I’m rusty as hell and forgotten more than I remember. But the question you posited regarding grrrrrrrrm mirrored what I’ve been tinkering with, so I shared my opinion. Which, by the way, is free and worth half that!


  10. I totally thought the over the shoulder boulder holder was a name for the camera man who carries the camera on his shoulder…. boy was I wrong.

  11. Hi. I really enjoyed the podcast. I must admit until I listened to the Hunger Games series, the only other series I read that was first person (if memory serves me) was the Lens of the World Trilogy by R. A. MacAvoy and that was when I was still in High School, or about 15 years ago. Needless to say I found the first person in Hunger Games very jarring after years of fantasy and science fiction in third person.

    I started writing my Golden Idea and am using first person, which I have never tried before so I have no idea if I’m even on the right track. I would not sure how people on the forums feel about this, but if you would please indulge me. Below are the first two paragraphs and I would really appreciate some feed back a to wether I’m doing the first person properly. I’d also love another podcast on first person viewpoint (I’ve already listened to the Unreliable Narrator podcast several times).


    David Lein

    The bus shelter constructed of steel and glass sat on the edge of the highway miles away from any form of civilization. Thunder rip through the night sky and I counted the first drops of rain that struck the roof until they merged into a single constant din. Even as the rain ran down the glass front I could see myself reflected, a ghostly illusion wearing a deep blue kimono covered with beautiful sakura blossoms. Two katanas at my hip, a mop of poorly cut brown hair, a rarity in feudal Japan and behind the reflection rose alone cherry tree lost in a sea of maples and pines.

    Closing my eyes, I remembered the spring rain filling my roots, the warm summer nights beneath the stars and the cool autumn breeze that gently sang me into the deep winter sleep. I was the spirit of the tree. A Kami cursed into the body of a young man, no older than sixteen. If the curse had ended there I would have died during the early decades of the of Tokugawa Period, but I lived on.

  12. For me my favorite use of first person is definitely Robin Hobb (like you mentioned) with the Farseer trilogy. The ‘artifice’ is that he is writing a history, which totally makes sense in the story, but since he is a broken man it turns into diaries, memoirs, and raving ramblings :) You don’t have to wonder if he is going to live or die, but you can wonder how terrible the misery is going to get.

  13. I have three major characters for first person perspective. Then I separate these interactions between five acts. In each act, I figure out which perspective has the most at stake, and then write from their perspective, because its about conflict.

Comments are closed.