I Am What I Am

It was cartoon-character Popeye who uttered those words…more or less. Actually, what he said was slightly different:

Yam

Let’s not quibble about a word or two. In return, I promise not to go on at great lengths about spinach, about Alma, Arkansas — known as “The Spinach Capital of the World”– or about the body’s need for vegetables. All good topics, truly, but not what we’re here to talk about today.

Today, the topic is POV — or, for those who don’t care for acronyms, point of view. Specifically, first person point of view. You know, where you write from a personal perspective, where you talk about yourself, and share your thoughts and feelings.

Right now, I’m using first-person point of view as I write this. Notice that all-important letter?

Letter I

It might not look like much, but it’s a powerful word in the English language, a word that gives voice to our thoughts, a word that defines who we are, a word that captures our life experience so that we may share it with others.

Beginning writers are often encouraged to write stories from the first person point of view. There are advantages, indeed.

  • Writing in first person is a natural extension of our thought process. We’re always sharing thoughts with friends, talking about events in our lives. Quite simply, we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves.
  • Every writer possesses a unique voice. Writing first-person pieces may lead us toward a greater understanding of our own voice, allowing us to further refine it and develop it.
  • The first-person POV can be a powerful one because it creates such a strong bond between reader and narrator.  Everything — sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts — becomes real as the reader experiences the events “first-hand”.
  • It’s often easier to include backstory when using a first-person narrative. The information shared is seen as an integral part of the story, not as something “dumped-in” to benefit the reader.
  • Using the first-person point of view can help writers avoid “POV violations” or “head-hopping”. Obviously, the narrator can only report what he or she has witnessed or thought. If I’m writing about what’s going on at my dinner table, for instance, I can’t suddenly jump to a scene across town in your kitchen.  I can speculate about what you’re serving — spinach, maybe? — but I can do that only from my own first-person point of view.

There are disadvantages, too, in this point-of-view. Perhaps the most significant is the last point mentioned above. Yes, first-person helps avoid POV violations, but it does so because of the restrictions it places upon the author. Many stories require knowledge of different events occurring in different places. Multiple points of view — when correctly used — allow the author far greater freedom in storytelling, resulting in a richer and more complex story for the reader.

Another problem in using the first person point of view is that it’s often hard to truly break away from who we are. When we write a story, we’re not really writing about ourselves, even when we use first person. We’re telling the story from the character’s perspective. In other words, we must become the narrator, not the other way around.

There are many pitfalls involved here. When we’re writing in first person, it can be too easy to be “too nice”. We’re apt to emphasize all the good points of the narrator rather than highlight the faults and foibles — those things that contribute to character growth, dramatic conflict, and meaningful storytelling.  Carried to an extreme, the result can be a boastful, braggart of a character that no reader will like.  At best, a “nice” narrator can quickly get tiresome and boring.

If you’re going to write from a first-person point of view, be willing to dig deep emotionally. Express who you are — the character you’re portraying — in an honest fashion. That means showing the warts and all. 

All of which brings up another point to consider. Do you really want to get inside the mind of your character?  What if you’re writing the tale of a maniacal serial killer? Telling a tragic story of sexual abuse? Sharing a story about depression or mental illness? Do you really want to be that narrator? Can you do it convincingly? A lot of good writers can, but it’s not easy. Sometimes slipping into the mind and body of a character is painful, indeed.

One final consideration, of course, is the conventional standards of the genre in which you write. For me, as a romance writer, the question of POV has always been simple. The convention has been to use third-person points of view for both the hero and the heroine of the story. In the past, it was a rare romance novel that broke that rule and dared use first-person.

On the other hand, some storytelling formats demand first-person. The “true confession” market — a very lucrative market, by the way — requires that all stories be told by a first-person narrator. Makes sense, really. It’s not much of a “confession” if it comes second-hand.

Today, of course, the standards aren’t so strict. With more authors publishing their own work, rules are being cast aside in favor of creative design and author preference. Keep in mind, though, that many readers of genre fiction do still want the traditional styles. Romance readers might be willing to accept a first-person story, but given a choice, they might opt for the more familiar style of storytelling.

Whether or not you use first-person point of view in novel-writing or in creating short stories is your decision, of course. Even if you choose not to write from the first-person perspective, the ability to do so is a useful skill to have.

To help develop your first-person point of view, you might make regular entries in a journal, jotting down your thoughts, your impressions, your emotions.

Another good exercise is to sit quietly for a moment or two, and then write down your sensory experiences. What did you hear during that time? What did you see? What was the temperature? The lighting? Learning to capture details like this will improve your writing no matter what point of view you use, of course.

Play around with first-person word prompts. Even a simple sentence starter will get you going. Try these:

I am

I want

I hate

I used to be

I am going to

First person POV can be insightful, entertaining, and attention-getting. It can also be dull, disastrous, and disappointing. Give it a try, recognize it as a good tool to keep in your writer’s kit, and know when to pull it out and use it.

Falling in Love

Although I usually keep my thoughts and remarks somewhat “genre-free”, today I’m making an exception. I’m a romance writer, and today, I’m going to write about romance. Or, more precisely, about the romance genre in fiction.

Of course, there are many, many different “sub-genres” within the world of romance novels. Yet, at their heart, all romance novels are about love, about people who meet, discover an attraction to one another, and whose lives are changed by that wondrous phenomenon we call “falling in love”. falling-in-love

How does it happen? What does “falling in love” really mean? How do we know when love is real?

For most of us, I think, love is simply something that happens somewhere along the way as we go through life. We meet someone. Something “clicks”. We smile a lot. We laugh a little more. We enjoy spending time with that someone special who’s brought joy and happiness into our heart.

Sometimes love lingers quietly in the background for years before exploding into passionate sparks. At other times, with just one look, or a single spoken word, flames of love might burst forth at once. More often, love is slow, but steady. We see. We like. We pursue.

But that’s the real world. What about the fictional world in which our heroes and heroines live? Romance novels don’t often cover lengthy time spans — although, of course, there are exceptions.  The men and women of our romance novels (and yes, I’m going to go the traditional route here and speak of men and women falling in love) meet on Page 1 or thereabouts, and within the space of 200 pages, or thereabouts, they’re married folks, perhaps parents, and already living their happily-ever-after ending.

How does it happen?

Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense, to be honest. As writers, we all understand the importance of conflict and complications, so we have to throw obstacles in the way of our handsome hero and lovely heroine.

Unfortunately, too many authors misunderstand conflict, I think. They give readers characters who are totally opposite, characters who have absolutely nothing in common, characters who do nothing but bicker, argue, and go out of their way to make each other miserable.

Then, mid-way through the book, these authors suddenly bring hero and heroine together, throw in a few sultry looks, and yep…next thing you know, they’re romping in the sheets and declaring their undying love.

I’ve read books where hero and heroine meet one morning, and by late afternoon he’s so madly in love with her, he’ll do anything — even risk his own life — to save her from danger. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure he’s a heck of a nice guy, and maybe he would jump in and swim with sharks for her, but I still question the depth of his love after knowing the heroine for no more than a few hours.

Or consider the story of one loving couple from a historical romance I read years ago. They met once. Yes, once. They were children. They both felt something special. After that one meeting, they were separated. Over the years, their paths crossed a few times. Once, she was attending a lecture. She suddenly got chills of excitement running up and down her spine, but then it was gone. What had happened was that he had passed by the lecture hall on his way to an appointment. Yeah. He had those shivers and quivers, too. This happened several times. No meeting between the two of them. Just near-misses, and lots of quivers, shivers, tingles, and heart palpitations. Finally, in the last few pages of the book, they were reunited! Must I say it? Yes, dear readers, they declared their love and lived happily ever after. At least, that’s what the author expected readers to believe.

This reader said “Huh?”

Point #1: Falling in love usually requires spending a little time together.

My next concern involves those conflicts I mentioned before. Good romantic conflict doesn’t lead to argument. Heroes and heroines don’t have to hate each other. Quite the opposite. Good conflict occurs when hero and heroine are drawn to one another; they want to fall in love, they want romance to happen — but there are reasons why they can’t allow it. And those reasons had better be good ones!

I recall a story built around a seemingly good premise: Hero was quickly falling in love with the heroine, but she was married. Or so he thought. It was, of course, a misunderstanding. That man she talked about all the time was really her brother, not her husband.

Excuse me, folks, but didn’t these two characters ever talk to each other? Don’t you think, logically, a few conversations might have resolved the whole “I-can’t-love-her-because-she-has-a-husband” problem?

Point #2: If your couples are truly falling in love, they should be on speaking terms.

Yes, they may have secrets, but simple misunderstandings are’t enough to create believable conflicts. Real conflicts come from issues of mistrust, from past experiences that have affected the characters, and from external problems that prevent the couple from having the relationship they want.

Another problem I’ve encountered with couples falling in love is what I call “the believability factor”. This is a situation that creeps into stories in different ways — like in the story of the dashing sea captain who picked up a doxy on the pier. Of course, she really wasn’t, but he didn’t bother to inquire about particulars. He took her immediately to his bed. They had sex. They had more sex. They had even more sex. He was insatiable. He simply couldn’t get enough of her. (By the way, since she was his captive, she didn’t figure she should resist all this physical affection.)

And then…he discovered the truth. She wasn’t a working girl at all. She was a decent woman who was running away from a bad situation. He realized, too, he loved her, but to make up for his bad behavior, he wouldn’t have sex with her again until she forgave him and agreed to marry him. Or some such nonsense. The exact details have escaped my mind, but after several chapters of sex, sex, sex, the author then expected me — the reader — to believe that this hot-blooded sea captain would steadfastly resist the heroine (and any other woman) for nearly a year no matter how much she yearned for his touch. Sorry. Disconnect there. His sudden change from lusty lover to passionless gentleman wasn’t believable.

It’s the same with all those die-hard, confirmed bachelor rakes who’ve sworn never to marry, and who then, with no apparent motivation decide they must propose to the lovely heroine. Maybe it’s the only way she’ll give in to him…but wouldn’t such a devil-may-care playboy be more apt to simply move on to the next, more-willing woman?

Point #3: Maybe we can’t always find reasons for why we fall in love, but we do need reasonable explanations for changes in our behavior.

Of course, there’s the other side of this quick-change coin, as well. The shy, inexperienced heroine who intends to save herself for marriage needs good motivation for suddenly turning into a wanton, sex-craving paramour. Maybe she’s doing it because it’s the only way she can save her life. I’d buy that. If it’s mere curiosity that’s prompting her actions or if her only motivation is winning a silly bet with a friend…I’m not so sure that would be enough to get past my “believability factor”.

Everyone loves a good love story. As romance writers, let’s give our readers stories that have passion, conflict, honesty, and believability. Most of all, let’s give our heroes and heroines a chance to truly fall in love.

Comments, please?