Overcoming POV Prejudice

I used to heave a metaphorical sigh of frustration every time I saw the word “I” on the first page of a novel.  Now, I no longer count first person point of view as an automatic strike against a book, but I do still think that there are several pitfalls to which this point of view is particularly susceptible.  Though I still think that it’s the POV (well, common point of view…I’m not really counting second person since it’s so rare) most often done badly, I do think that there are some great examples of it done well.At first, I guess I didn’t really have a particular reason to dislike first person, other than a personal preference for third person limited (don’t even get me started on the strangeness that is third person omniscient).  Then, I began to gather a series of assumptions about the way it was typically used: first person was used for contemporary novels, while third limited was used more often in the sci-fi and fantasy that I liked.  Partially because of this content difference, I think, first person tends to occur in books in which there is an overly-emotional narrator or in which the action is more likely to be internal than external.  This trend isn’t due to a limitation of these particular points of view, but rather to lazy authors who tend to use the point of view that they think most easily depicts internal/external action respectively.The problem with using first person in a story that involves a lot of inner conflict is that it can become too much.  Just because our character is wracked with inner turmoil and their thoughts are circling over and over the same topics does not necessarily mean that we have to be taken to every single place their mind goes.  In most cases, a taste of this is enough for a savvy reader to get the point, then we can focus on external actions, or what new thoughts or breakthroughs the narrator has.  Just like we don’t need a description of every sidewalk block our narrator steps on along their walk to school, we don’t need to see their every thought all the time.

Another difficulty with first person arises when switching between the viewpoints of multiple narrators.  With third person limited, the voice and tone of the book can be consistent while still maintaining the individuality of the characters; perhaps different details about scenes stand out to the different characters, or their thoughts tend toward certain topics. With first person, however, the voice and tone has to shift consistently between characters because those passages are being told in their voice.  When done well, multiple-narrator first person is a great way to add depth to a story; when done badly, it makes me ask the question, “why?”  If you did not have a distinct voice for each of your characters, why did they all need to tell the story?  If you didn’t have their voice down, why didn’t you just use third person limited, where you could stick to your own authorial voice?

One final problem, perhaps my biggest pet peeve when it comes to first person POV, is when authors confuse having a good reason to tell a story in first person with having to explain to the reader why this person is narrating.  When I am reading a third person book, I do not expect, at some point, for the invisible floating eyeball to directly address why it is narrating this story.  We know that there is no such thing as a floating consciousness that can see into others’ thoughts; we accept it as a medium through which the story is transmitted directly to us, without actually passing through another consciousness that is actively distilling the story for us.  I don’t see why we can’t just accept first person in the same way.  Epistolary novels, in which the entire text takes the form of letters, e-mails, or diary entries, do need an explanation for why the narrator is telling the story; usually the explanation is clear from the letters, e-mails, or diary entries themselves.  The narrator was trying to communicate to an other (someone other than the reader),or they were writing down their own thoughts.

If it isn’t an episolatory novel, however, and the first person narrator is just relating their thoughts and experiences, either in present tense, as they have them, or in past tense, as they reflect on them, I don’t feel like we need the kind of cop-out explaination I see in many books.  The one paragraph, tacked onto the front or end of the book, saying, “hey, this thing happened, and so-and-so encouraged me to write it down…so I did.”  In most cases, books don’t gain anything from these half-baked explanations because the trope of the narrator as actual author of the book is not carried out throughout the rest of the book; if it is successfully carried out and is integral to the narrative, such an explanation does have a place.  However, we do not need an explanation for why a character is narrating with a perfect memory for detail, or in a far more articulate manner than one would expect from stream-of-consciousness; this is all part of the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to story as a medium.  We don’t question that floating eyeball’s memory or vocabulary, after all.

Finally, lest it seem that I said there are first person narrated stories I enjoy just to avoid being accused of complete stubbornness, here are some books in first person that I’ve recently enjoyed, with notes about why I think that POV works for them.

Easy, by Tammara Webber

The very personal subject matter of this book (assault, relationships, betrayals, and fear) made the first person the most appropriate point of view to use.  Even though pages are spent on internal conflict, the external action is described beautifully as well.

Wolves of Mercy Falls series: Shiver, Linger, and Forever, by Maggie Steifvater

I have a soft spot for these books, which are each told with multiple narrators.  While I feel like Steifvater’s poetic authorial voice is so strong that it might sometimes smooth out the differences between the characters’ voices (four teenagers who all think/narrate in concise, lyrical sentences?), what she does beautifully is capture each character’s view on the situation.  The vocabulary and philosophy that each character uses to interpret their world, as well as the unspoken thoughts and backstory that are revealed are a powerful part of why these novels may constitute the most beautiful YA series I’ve read in years.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley

The main character’s unique stream of consciousness and tortured views of herself are integral to understanding why she acts as she does.  The voice of the narrative is so unusual that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the first chapter, but the sing-song narration became one of my favorite parts of this novel.


Welcome to My Blog

Hello, internet.

This is my blog.  The header title comes from a song by the Ataris.  The full lyric is, “on random notes of parchment, I’m scrawling my existence…dressed in white.”  The description comes from a Fall Out Boy song.  I know that twenty-somethings who graduated from prestigious private universities are only supposed to acknowledge the existence of pop culture when they engage in facebook wars over whether Batman is a paternalistic capitalist and Spiderman is really the superhero of the working class, but I have to admit a weakness for early 2000’s emo music.  There, now that that’s out of the way, what is this blog about, anyway?

I write.  I read.  I’ll be writing about writing and you can read about my reading.  I’ll write about life.  And maybe, when I’m being completely sincere, I’ll be funny.  I’m told that the less I try, the funnier I am, with the result being that when I’m at my most earnest, I’ve got my family in stitches.

So, here goes.