First-person Point of View #amwriting

A month ago, I mentioned the problems I was having with a short story I had been working on. I couldn’t seem to get into my main character’s head. So, I rewrote it in the first-person present tense narrative mode, but because I was unused to that mode, it felt like I had written a walk-through for an RPG (geek-talk for role-playing game).

Apparently, it read that way too.

But after a lot of help from my writer friends, and a lot of rewriting, I got into the swing of things. Finally, the story drew me into my character’s mind, which was what I had wanted all along.

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. One thing I had to keep in mind is that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything so the narrator cannot be omnipotent. At first, this was difficult for me. When I chose to have the reader experience the story as the protagonist does, I had made a fundamental change in my style of writing, and my finished product has required several rewrites.

After all, in real life, we aren’t all-seeing and all-knowing. Any lawyer will tell you, even eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

We each see and interpret things from our own perspective. The human mind is hardwired to fill in the blanks—this is why eye-witness accounts of a single event will often vary so widely.

That lack of information is why I now love writing in this point of view for short stories.

What I had to figure out:

Who is the best person to tell the story? I could easily have told it in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story. It didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted it to be when written in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. She had to tell her own story.

What was the inciting incident? That was also difficult – deciding where the story actually began was the first step to getting it on track. Because this story is intended for submission to an anthology, I have a specific word count to fit the story into, and the anthology’s theme must be strongly present throughout. After reading the first draft, a writer friend pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

They were right. Thus, I had to scratch the first half of the story and begin at what I had thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What does she actually know? She isn’t omniscient, so she can only know what she has witnessed. That was also a problem for me, as I know everything. Just ask me. But I had to figure out what she really could have witnessed, and then work only with that information.

What does my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the truth is that her quest is to find herself as a human being, as much as it is to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line in this tale, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

I am once again approaching the finish line on rewriting this tale. The submission deadline is still several months out, so I’m not rushing. I still have to rework and condense a few things at the front end of it, but now I know what changes I want to make. Writing this story has been an awesome adventure for me, and once this is ready for an editor’s eyes, I might attempt writing another in the first-person point of view.

Sometimes writing a story with a finite word-count limit and a specific theme to adhere to is as time consuming as writing a novel. But finding ways to work within these constraints is making me a stronger writer, so even if this isn’t picked up by the publication I hope it will be, I will have a good marketable story.

I’m grateful to have the company of talented authors to help me brainstorm sticky problems.

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8 responses to “First-person Point of View #amwriting

  1. I’m happy you were able to find your path. I wrote a first-person present tense story awhile back and struggled with, too. I kept slipping into past tense without realizing it until my writing guru pointed it out.I ended up liking the technique and want to use it again.

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  2. Wow, Connie, you spurred some interest here. I’m comfortable writing in First Person but never tried present tense. It sounds challenging, especially if you need to develop the character along with the story. As David commented, slipping in and out of the third person would be easy to do, but ruin the effect. I’ll let you know if I ever try it. Right now I’m spending all my energy finishing up my next book.

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  3. LOL! I know everything, too — just ask me! *twinkle* Your friend is so correct, but I would not have known how to explain it: “the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.”

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  4. First-person narration can seem limiting because it usually feels so subjective (there is also objective first-person narration wherein the narrator stand on the sidelines telling someone else’s story, as in Nick in the Great Gatsby) but you can still use a range of “knowing” that is beyond what the character is immediately stuck in. Limited omniscience (also known as a flaneur voice), allows the narrator to separate from the character, and deliver a panoramic view of a situation or place, comment on it, then narrow the narrative range to the familiar voice of the first-person narrator/character. This way the telling doesn’t feel so confined.

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    • I like the way Fitzgerald wrote Nick, in the Great Gatsby. That was my introduction to first person limited–almost a flaneur, but not quite. When I began working on this story, I tried it three ways, and the one that finally clicked was first person, present tense. My protagonist is mute, yet she’s the only one who can tell her story. (I think its one of the best things I’ve written, but we’ll see.)

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