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.