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Essays – 1st person POV in Literary Story

William H. Coles


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Purpose: to explore character development when using 1st person point of view in literary story telling.

Most fiction writers are successful without exploring the intricacies of 1st person POV. But to achieve high character development for the great story that has character based plot, authors improve their writing by understanding how characters affect readers, and then apply the effects through controlled writing.

Terminology POV = point of view. 1st person refers to “I” pronoun usage in a prose story, but the “I” character may not be the protagonist or even a major character.

I. Mastering 1st person point of view

1st person POV use is effective when the author chooses this point of view for the right reasons. For the author of literary fiction, the choice must assure best story telling. Consider that in the 1st person point of view, the following disadvantages and advantages are in play. Advantages and disadvantages will vary in importance according to the story structure and content, and, of course, with the abilities of the author.

Advantages

*In narrative telling of the story to the reader, 1st person POV allows the sense of having been there (or being there in the present tense), and a memoir quality of telling my story as the straight-scoop to you the reader. There is a psychic and physical closeness to the action that provokes an intimacy.

*1st person  POV gives the reader constant characterization — that is the thoughts and actions of the “I” character. All other characters, even if the protagonist is not the “I” character, are secondary because of limited access to their thoughts and actions. This consistent access to one character’s opinions and attitudes often strengthens voice, and allows easier access to sarcasm, cynicism, and injection of surprise-humor.

*The 1st person  POV flows more easily into an intuitive writing style, giving a certain freedom from the necessity of structure.

Disadvantages

*In 1st person, the acceptance of a character’s dialog changes. In 1st person POV dialog, the reader knows that all characters' dialog other than the 1st person are  actually being presented, and might be altered in tone and credibility, by the 1st person. Some themes and meanings require reliability on the integrity of character dialog to reach meaningful impact on the reader. A 1st person character who is unreliable tends to confuse the reader as to what and who to believe in a story. In character based fiction, this may work against significance and the perfection of the story.

Example.

We were standing at the edge of the thousand foot drop on Mount Hood. Carol shivered and looked away from me.

“I’d like to shove your ass into eternity,” she said. I smiled.

“I’m not joking,” she said.

In the 1st person POV presentation, we do not know what Carol really said, or meant, in the story world; we know only what the 1st person POV told us she said. But in third person presentation, through a narrator or a character, the reader may interpret Carol’s words differently, and with an interpretation specific to each reader that will affect the story differently.

 

At the precipice, Paul looked down the thousand feet to the snow covered rocks below.

Carol stared at the side of his head, her fists clenched.

“I’d like to shove your ass into eternity,” she said. He expected warmth, but her gaze made him unsure what to think.

He smiled.

“I’m not joking,” she said. The arrogant bastard. She knew exactly what she had to do.

There are many ways to structure this mini-scene, but the examples show how Carol’s words can be interpreted differently in different POVs. At times, a scene can be given more impact by not filtering all information through the single conduit of the “I” character.

*The 1st person  POV limits knowing what other characters feel and think — characters who may have a more informed view of the story world and may be better sources of significant conflict and action.

*Because of limitation mainly to the mind of the “I” character, the reader has no comparative gauge to test credibility of the “I” character’s view of the world, accuracy of story presentation, or validity of opinions and conclusions. Credibility in story telling is a fragile, at times abstract, phenomenon that when highly developed may allow significant impact of story meaning. But when lack of credibility in character, plot, and/or story world perceptions is presented in excess, the chances for a significant effect of great story purpose are often lost.

*In “I” character, when the character is distant from the action, easy access to credible and accurate information is lost.

II. Using 1st person POV

How comfy the use of a single character in the 1st person POV (or first person point of view) is for an author. How easy the telling is.

“I was sitting at this gay bar studded with full-sized Michelangelo statues of  David at each end, and this girl couple walks in, one ugly, but the other one so gorgeous she made my heart throb. In a split second, I was falling in love with a dyke, and I hadn’t even thrown back a gulp of my straight up Port Ellen.”

The mood is chatty with attitude, a story that will be interpreted entirely through a character who provides the reader with  only his/her opinions, thoughts and abilities to observe and articulate the story. The character is inherently unreliable by the nature of the 1st person POV — can any individual really know and interpret the real truths that exist around him or her? And this story type will often rely on the ironies created by the differences the “I” persona  perceives in his/her world.

There are many flexible approaches to the use of “I” character. This story could be altered to more in-scene delivery, which will result in seemingly more objective story information and a change of attitude.

“My heart pounded when I saw a five foot two blond with her girlfriend. She walked with confidence, her short shorts creasing the flesh of her thigh as she walked. She smiled and looked away. I gulped my scotch and wondered if she could switch-hit the way I was imagining.”

Moving into the scene, rather than relaying a narrative telling, sets a little different tone and is more action oriented.

Now compare a delivery from 3rd person POV (multicharacter plus narrator, but not omniscient).

“Jared sat on a red Naugahyde barstool with his foot on a brass rail, close enough to touch the life-sized statue of Michelangelo’s David that stood at bar’s end as decoration. He’d wanted Johnny Walker Black, but the bartender had quotas to meet by serving the most expensive drink possible, and Jared had wound up with Port Ellen scotch that didn’t do much for his sour mood. When Doris entered with Camille, their arms linked to express their attachment, Jared’s gaze turned to her, and she smiled, not sure if he realized that the obvious desire he couldn’t hide would never be satisfied.”

Note how information is presented with possible consciousness of multiple characters and the narrator.

RED: narrator or protagonist providing information (POV).

GREEN: protagonist (character) information (POV)

BLUE: (minor character) information (?POV)

ORANGE: Doris’s, and possibly Camille’s too, information (POV)

Jared sat on a red Naugahyde barstool with his foot on a brass rail, close enough to touch the life-sized statue of Michelangelo’s David that stood at bar’s end as decoration. He’d wanted Johnny Walker Black, but the bartender had quotas to meet by serving the most expensive drink possible, and Jared had wound up with Port Ellen scotch that didn’t do much for his sour mood. When Doris entered with Camille, their arms linked to express their attachment, Jared’s gaze turned to her, and she smiled, not sure if he realized that the obvious desire he couldn’t hide would never be satisfied.

Skeptics can reasonably argue that the these complexities of point of view are artificially created, that authors should do what feels right and is effective for their purpose in their writing. That is the essence of style . . . one might point out. Yet, in literary fiction, an author is trying to intensely engage the reader and provide lasting and significant insight to the reader with ideas never before considered. For success, expert characterization and a character driven plot are necessary, and the more control the author has of the writing, and the story telling, the better chance for creating a lasting, enjoyable, significant story. Understanding POV clearly, and knowing the potential of efficient POV usage, helps authors write their best stories.

III. Distance in 1st person POV: psychic and physical

1) Psychic distance vaguely means how emotionally involved  the character is in the action. It is internal in the character. In psychic distance, the single 1st person POV limits breadth of emotional development and restricts one character to a “tight” range of reaction. When story presentation allows character distance, aspects of reasonable and objective information about character, plot and meaning are enhanced. Psychic distance is more easily created in third person and with more points of view.

2) Physical distance is the distance the character is from the action. It is external for the character. Physical distance allows more expansive imagery and broader interpretations. Different possibilities exist between a 1st person POV plunging to almost certain death in seat number 24C in an airplane while telling or showing the predeath moment and a narrator who describes (even in scene) after the fact the same disaster by telling or showing the character from a later point in time than depicted in the story, and being able to imagine, and feel, from yards, or miles, or eons away from the action. More objectivity becomes possible, albeit with a loss of immediacy.

IV. Awkward Constructions in 1st person

The effects of 1st person POV story telling are distinctly different and somewhat more restrictive than other narrative techniques, and 1st person POV is often chosen by beginning writers because the style is intuitively easier to write. Also, as previously mentioned, there is an immediacy and intensity effect, a sort of whisper-in-our-ear phenomenon that provides an intimacy between narrator and reader. Problems do exist, however. The 1st person POV has difficulty expressing the feelings of others and relating action that is necessary for story when the 1st person cannot be not privy to the information or is not present at the event . These problems may make for awkward prose.

Examples: awkward constructions in  1st person.

1) From the fire in her eyes, I knew exactly how she felt—enraged and hurt, and probably a little embarrassed, too.

2) In the dressing room, I knew the Hardrocks were tuning up, their grimy hands turning the geared pegs, the strings whining with tension.

V. Feelings

Great stories enlighten or reverse thinking about something. They have theme and purpose. And to reach maximum potential, stories must be structured for purposeful delivery through dramatic events and have clear understanding about how the story is narrated — with elements of narrator reliability,  clear moral thermometer readings, and logical motivation reasonably tied to all other action and motivations in the story — and dedication to story purpose rather than author performance.

Writing in 1st person POV makes delivery of story easier—there are certain shared attitudes with the reader that can easily bring a sympathetic response — and it is easier to tell feelings of love and hate and jealousy than to show them through action that never uses a word to describe the emotion. But for the majority of the writing, it is not effective to simply recount imagined or real events that create feelings. Action with conflict and resolution objectively presented is more effective for creating memorable emotions in the reader.

1st person POV can be the perfect way to achieve an emotional response and intellectual enlightenment in a reader by telling of a great literary story. But there are barriers that must be overcome when using 1st person POV.When authors find 1st person POV comfortable, they tend to tell real or imagined events that make them feel a certain way. But telling feelings does not have the same impact on readers as showing how feelings develop in a reader through story action.

1st person may seduce an author into making intuitive decisions about the story structure that may not be the most appropriate choices for the best story and the management of emotional responses.

VI. Narrator and “I” character

Most writers just do a 1st person POV conceptualization of 1st person. But “I” delivery of story information needs more thought than just doing. Consideration of a narrator function should be considered. One problem is all pervasive in "I" delivery: Point of view is often imagined by the writer as knowing something, with all its limitations, as one of the five senses. Thoughts and feelings are restricted in the 1st person and take on added subjectivity, possible unreliability, and may elucidate character more than propel story.

In storytelling, an author creates, a narrator tells, and a character acts. It is usually more prudent not to alter this in 1st person by collapsing the author into the character to narrate the story. All stories have narrative information that may be awkward or unbelievable when delivered by a 1st person character. And for great stories, the narrator also has to be more knowledgeable about the story world than the character, even in 1st person POV. This is one essential ingredient for useful ironies.  Narrators provide crucial and truthful information and are necessary in almost every story. Many 1st person stories simply use the 1st POV to surreptitiously provide narrator information, but this can lead to disbelief and mistrust of the character that in turn leads to a feeling of artificiality in the story telling.

Authors can’t resist, at times, interjection of opinions and attitudes from the author's sensitivities into the story world. It can be as subtle as a single disruptive adverb or the use of disjointed phrases, clauses and sentences.

Example

She was killing him. He would have no water, and he would die of thirst. The idea pleased her. She held a glass before him and tipped it onto the floor, ignoring the drought that had raged in the city from effects of global warning.

Note how extraneous thoughts, no matter how important, can push the reader away from the story.

In general, narrators should be more objective and reliable than characters, so in 1st person, narrator presence may be needed  to establish objectivity and reliability  that is important for clarity and story purpose.

When an author becomes narrator, there tends to be a blurring, or confusion, of the telling time. In storytelling, the real time creation and the narrator time of telling can effectively be different, and these may be different from story-action time. This may allow irony and justify cynicism. An author writing in March of 2008 may do well having a narrator, even in 1st person, tell the story from the time of 1875 about a character acting the story out as a 1st person POV in 1862. The differences, however, need not be years, but may be weeks, or days, or fractions of an hour.

Examples of the same scene with different aspects of POV

There was no doubt the ship was sinking. The captain sat alone, stone faced, in his cabin, an illustrious career turned infamous in minutes. In the radio room, the operator had twisted the knob off the now silent radio and laid his head on his arms. Below deck, the engineer failed to seal a compartment door, and a rush of water banged his head on a girder, causing him to lose consciousness before he drowned.

I watched as the life boat hit the water and rocked violently for a few seconds. Someone pushed me from behind. “Dear, God,” I said. I jumped and felt my lower leg crack as I hit one of the wooden seats that broke my fall.

“Move out of the way,” someone said kicking me in the ribs.

Many readers (and writing instructors) would not accept this construction in 1st person. A narrator provides information that the 1st person POV character cannot know at the time  he delivers this specific information. For many readers who find pleasure in serving as POV police, any deviation from a 1st person POV is an error, or at least a slippage in writing skills. Here is what might be suggested, or required, in revision. In this example, dialogue is used to deliver story information that can still preserve the 1st person POV.

We were crowded near the railing on the port side, the deck slanting twenty degrees.

“The Captain’s taken to his cabin. He ain’t seeing no visitors,” a man said.

“Career ruined,” a sailor said.

“A dead man,” said another.

“The radio’s out.”

“Engine room flooded a few minutes ago. I saw the engineer floating face down with my own eyes.”

Someone pushed me from behind. I looked down to the lifeboat as it hit the water and rocked. A deck officer shoved me. Three of us fell at the same time. My leg cracked as I hit the edge of a wooden seat. Pain seared upward. Someone kicked me in the ribs.

“Get out of the way,” he said.

For many, this attempt to provide, through dialogue, the story information wanted is awkward.  It rings with a lack of credibility and therefore makes the scene seem less real and harder to accept and enjoy. A major distraction is that the dialogue is delivered as the speakers are facing death, and it has a barroom chatty tone (due to exposition mistakenly filtered through dialogue).

The information might be provided through internal reflection.

I imagined the Captain alone in his cabin, a man with a stellar career ruined. I doubted the distress signals were going out anymore. In fact, the bridge had become silent and eerie among the yells and shouts on the deck. A man said the forward compartment had flooded, he thought he heard the cries of the engineer who suddenly became silent. The lifeboat dropped, the winch handle spinning to a blur. Someone pushed me and I fell, hitting the gunnels. My leg cracked and a searing pain shot upward in me. Someone kicked me in the ribs to move me out of the way to clear space for others to fall.

But this seems awkward, too. Another try. Much more internal.

With the deck slanting, I could not stand without gripping a rope or a metal ring fixed to flooring. My fall had broken my leg above the knee; pain seared through me with every movement. But I held on, waiting for the cries to signal when a rescue boat might be below. I was close enough to the rail to be in the crowd who would jump to the twenty feet or so below the slanting deck.

“I can’t jump,” a woman whispered to me, sobbing, clutching my leg to keep from slipping violently into the rail. I yelled out in pain. Was she an evil woman? Did she deserve to die? There was no time to lower her into a boat securely and safely. She’d have to jump. She’d have to be forced. Was there someone to do it? Even with my leg whole, I could never shove a woman, or any human, to possible death. She had to make that decision, not me.

“Do you have family?” I asked. That brought more sobs and she did not answer. The ship's horn blasted. The passengers panicked and began to jump. A few hit the boat, but most went into the water, looking for something to cling to, a deck chair, an oar, some piece of ocean debris. They’d all be unconscious in two to three minutes, motionless with the cold, clumped with broken ice. I began to pray.

There is no right way. And when solutions don’t readily come up, 3rd person or narrator presentations might be considered. But to change a POV is a drastic undertaking, and an even more crucial question might be asked: Are the information and the scene necessary? Is it time to delete this scene?

Most authors don’t consider alternatives, or narrator based information, in a 1st person POV delivered story. They go with the gut feeling of what works. And that usually results in the author and character being inseparable. And many of these authors are successful and accepted by readers, and have no need to change if they are satisfied with their work. But ignoring narrator function is not the right attitude for creating the great story. Don’t let the ease of writing fictional memoir in 1st person–without narrator function considered–hamper the potential of a story.

Present tense and 1st person POV

In any presentation (point of view), a story is told from a time point related to the existence of the author and the reader. This can be thought of the period in which the story is set. Many writers loosely assume that this time is clear when using the 1st person POV (1st person) because the writer creates the story as if it is occurring in the time of the writing.

In truth, all stories have happened. Even futuristic stories have happened in the creator's mind and are being told as if having occurred. No one reading a story actually lives the story, either at the time the story is created or the time the story is supposed to happen. At times, present tense is used to create a sense that the story is happening now. This  of course, is a deception—an often acceptable and effective deception–but still not a reality. Verbs indicating present action require suspension of disbelief that the story is happening now. Again, all stories have happened. This deception, and the need to accept the deception, can complicate effective in-depth characterization and confuse back story and front story.

The pleasing effects of 1st person immediacy and strong voice may become tiresome at times, and adding the inherent deception of present tense may work against reader enjoyment of many stories. Still, both present tense and 1st person serve important roles in every writer’s choices for best story presentation.

  For EXAMPLES of 1st person stories, see: The Activist, Reddog, On the Road to Yazoo City.

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4 Responses to “Essays – 1st person POV in Literary Story”

  1. mypoop Says:

    thank you so much, i wrote my entire essay using this as a reference—Great Work Bud!

  2. babygurl Says:

    this was very helpful x)

  3. Assignment 1: Working with POV » Literary Fiction Workshop Says:

    [...] Dialogue writing, 2) Improving dialogue, 3) 1st person POV, 4) Overuse of 1st [...]

  4. Fishhy Says:

    it's very useful ^^ thanks a lot =)

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