12.1: Variations on First Person

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

We’re beginning a new season, and during 2017 we will be focusing our topics on structure. We are also going to shake things by expanding our cast a bit. You’ll be hearing some new voices soon! They belong to:

  • Wesley Chu
  • Piper J. Drake
  • Mary Anne Mohanraj

We’ll post more on that in a few days, but we’ve already begun updating our “About” page.

This week your hosts are Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. We spend a few minutes on the administrative stuff  above before jumping into January’s structural topic, the first person voice, with a discussion of the variations in how that POV is presented. We cover some of the different first person POV styles, what sorts of stories they’re often best-suited for, and how we go about writing them well.

Spoiler Alert: Episode 12.3 will feature Sandra Tayler, and is a Project In Depth on her story, “Risk Assessment,” which was illustrated by Natalie Barahona and Howard Tayler. It appears in Force Multiplication: Schlock Mercenary Book 12, available direct from Hypernode Media, or through Amazon.



Take something you’ve written, and put it in the three different forms of 1st person — reflective, epistolary, and immediate.

The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi, narrated by Priya Ayyar

25 thoughts on “12.1: Variations on First Person”

  1. Howard, you can help readers clear the hurdle of first person immediate by remembering Anne Frank. It was written in that POV and she dies at the end.

    1. I remember Anne Frank, but that doesn’t help my readers much. I have no problem writing 1st Person viewpoint, and most readers have no trouble reading it. The ones who do? They’d likely have problems with The Diary of Anne Frank, too.

      1. If there’s a way in-universe for memories to be retrieved post-mortem (brain scans, ghosts, objects infused with personality fragments, etc.) then it can be implied to the reader that the story they are reading could still be found in-universe. It’s not a solution for every story, but if you’re really concerned about getting that reader on board, it can work.

      2. Thank you so much for this. I have been having problems with a story of mine and this really helped me figure out what to do.

  2. I’ve been working on a first-person reflective project and I keep running into the fact that my narrator didn’t know a thing at the time and that he still doesn’t have all the answers as he’s writing his story. I feel like when I introduce something and I *don’t* acknowledge that my narrator still remains ignorant of the fact, I’m making a promise to the reader that I will provide answers later; I worry, though, that if my narrator is routinely being quiet about what’s coming, the book will start becoming predictable.

  3. Goodness, I needed this. I’ve been hearing everyone talk about “1st/2nd/3rd person X,” without having any idea what they meant.

    1. This is far from a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. For the record, finding older examples of first person immediate is really hard.

      First Person Epistolatory
      Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
      Revolution (by Jennifer Donnelly)
      Book of a Thousand Days
      Perks of Being a Wallflower
      Screwtape Letters
      The Color Purple

      First Person Reflective
      A Natural History of Dragons
      Life of Pi
      Tiger Lily
      To Kill a Mockingbird
      Jane Eyre
      Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

      First Person Immediate
      Hunger Games
      Challenger Deep
      The Time Traveler’s Wife
      The Ocean at the End of the Lane
      Fight Club

  4. You guys read my mind! I’ve been longing for a set of episodes on POV! Can’t wait to hear the rest of them and this season on structure. Thanks!

    1. Going back to last season’s elemental subgenres, would you say there are certain subgenres that lend themselves to a certain POV? Could you address some combinations of subgenre and POV that work well or achieve a particular effect? I’m working on an ensemble adventure right now so I’d love to hear your thoughts on POV for ensemble. Thanks!

  5. Really excited about this season, and the POV episodes in particular! Another POV option that is rarely used but can be quite interesting is first person plural. Also, if you talk about second person POV in the future, the A Story About You episode of Welcome to Nightvale does some really unique things with it!

  6. Hey, is it just me or isn’t the info for the cruise online yet? I thought Mary said in 11.52 that it would be on the site on the first of january.

      1. On the registration page, it looks like all but the most expensive rooms for the cruise are sold out. Is it still possible to register without reserving the expensive rooms?

  7. I appreciated hearing you discuss first person immediate. As a reader, I have hated it. I have put down novels partially through the first chapter because of how annoying it is for me to read.

    While I’m still unlikely to utilize it as a writer, you have given me reason to appreciate the narrative style.

    Of course, I can’t say that I appreciate the style enough to be happy with the writing assignment this week. But I’ll do it.

  8. Dear reader:

    There I was, surrounded by the four podcasters… when a transcript fell out of the sky!

    I have to tell you, I hear the voices in my ears, and they tell me about epistles, reflections, and immediate stuff happening right now, and I just have to tell somebody about it. You don’t mind, do you?

    Yes, the transcript has landed! In the archives, or over here


    You can read all about it. I have to say, it’s exciting! And there’s more coming soon, so keep reading (or listening).

  9. In discussing First Person Immediate, you mentioned that this POV is frequently also present tense. I have seen these POV both present and past tense, and the later is clearly not Reflective, rather creating an immediate sense of action while using past-tense verbs (Just finished reading Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines, as an example).

    Do you see any advantage or disadvantage to one of these over the other, especially in terms of reader engagement? When writing first person, is there one tense you prefer to use, if so, why?

  10. But isn’t 3rd intimate basically the same thing as 1st immediate? Where the narrator is the POV character, the only difference being the pronouns?

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