Six Limitations of the First Person POV

In my last post I discussed five reasons to use the first person POV for your writing. This post will explore how that choice might limit you.  Please refer back to my first post the point of point-of-view to learn all about the different points-of-view available!

Six Limitations of the First Person Point-of-View:

1) It Imprisons You In One Character: In the first person POV the reader hears all the protagonists thoughts and everything is filtered through their perception. The reader only gets one interpretation of events. John Gardner writes that “first person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out the possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.” (The Art of Fiction). Is it important to understand other character’s motivations in your novel? If so, first person may not be the right choice. Remember all events will be distorted by the protagonists perception of them.

2) It’s Narcissistic: Again, I’m going to quote Gardner here (who had an uncanny loathing for first person POV) in his book The Art of Fiction he states that the first person POV “can achieve little grandeur. It thrives on intimacy and something like gossip. It peeks through a keyhole, never walks through an open field.” He continues to say that the first person is claustrophobic and creates narcissists of us all. In some ways this is true. We are trapped in one perception constantly saying “I did this,”  “I felt that,” “I,” “I,” “I”! The first person POV is introspective and explores only a single character’s experience. It is very limited in scope. First person POV might not be the right for you if you are writing a grand epic.

3) What Gender is Your Narrator? Writing in the first person POV can make it difficult for the reader to know the gender of the protagonist. When one writes in the third person the pronouns of “he” and “she” quickly identify gender.  In first person, however, the narrator has to specifically mention their gender or relate themselves to someone of the same gender (or compare themselves to the opposite gender) in order for the reader to be clued in. Have you ever read a first person POV book and you were certain the main character was female, only to find out on page 15 that they are male? I have. Of course this could also be used to one’s advantage. The book Written On the Body by Jeanette Winterson never identifies the first person narrator’s gender, and thus the story becomes an interesting reflection of the reader’s concepts of what actions they deem as male or female.

4) The Tell Tell Tell Trap: It can be very easy to stop showing what happens in a story, and start telling the story when you use the first person POV. It will seem very natural. After all the story is from the POV of one character, and its easy to let the character tell what happens. So a writer needs to be very conscious that they are able to get into the action and show what is going on. Beware of first person POV taking over and telling your whole story! 

5) It’s Hard to Set the Scene: Because the story is told from the protagonist’s perspective, and the reader is inside the head of the protagonist, it’s hard to describe the setting. One isn’t able to pull out of the main character’s head and describe a room, a village, or the way the sun sets. All of these things must be done through the protagonist’s filter. The protagonist must view those images (with his/her eyes) and choose to talk about them. They must also reflect the protagonist’s attitude and feelings, when they describe them. Some readers are also pulled out of the story when a protagonist notices a plethora of specific details of a scene. Do you notice every detail in every room/space you walk into? I doubt it.

6) You Must Write in the Character’s Voice: In first person POV the voice of the story is the voice of the character. When working in third person omniscient or limited the author has the option to vary the voice of the story, exploring both an authorial voice and a character voice. In the first person, the authorial voice will take a back seat or disappear all together. The language of your story will also likely be limited by the language of your character.

Has anyone used the first person POV and found themselves limited? What did you do about it? Did you change to a different POV. Did you make it work in your favor? I’d love to hear your experiences!

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15 thoughts on “Six Limitations of the First Person POV

  1. Great post, Ingrid. I agree with all the limitations. Some of the same limitations exist in third-limited, e.g. you can’t delve into other character’s heads and motivations. When writing YA where voice is king, it makes sense to use first person. (I still like third-limited, but I’m trying to break out of my rut!)

  2. Laura,

    Thank you for the informative post. I have worked with first-person quite a bit, and discovered that for shorter stories first-person can work very well.

    I recently sold a story to a magazine that published an editorial concerning the pitfalls of first person POV.

    The problems I encountered is trying to make it work in a novel, but I think I have a handle on that also!

    Thank you again for your great post!

  3. I find 1st person POV to be frustrating, but I occasionally use it. I do find it very limiting and often resort to shifting to other characters’ POVs. Characters do quickly become narcissistic, so it works when they’re supposed to be. Laura’s right about YA; it really works in that genre.

  4. I think another limitation of first person POV comes in plotting. It is much more difficult to do a plot where different threads run and eventually come together. You tend to be restricted to what one character has seen, or been told about, and that is bound not to include the truck coming around the corner, or not until it’s too late.

  5. I stared my MS in first person, then switched to third so I could get the viewpoint of the other important characters. I found that for my story, third person didn’t work. The story was central to the main character, and pulling out of her head put too much distance when what I really wanted was for it to be more intimate.

    I needed to try, though. Seeing it both ways helped me figure out what my story was really about. It wasn’t about the plot. It was about her journey. How she handled her challenges, how she reacted, how she felt, and most of all, how she changed. In this case, I couldn’t pull it off from third person.

    With that being said, I felt all of the limitations you mentioned in this post and had to figure out how to overcome them. That, and I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time weeding out all of the “she” and “her” references after making the switch back. Thank heaven for critique groups!

  6. My first three novels were third person offhand blokey male POV, in other words what came naturally. As a challenge, I decided to try first person present tense female for my next project. I think it has worked well in a fraught thriller and has taught me a great deal.

  7. I found your blog via Literary Rambles, and I think your posts on POV are terrific. I’ve written in both, although right now I’m loving first person. Thanks for your thoughtful ideas!

  8. Pingback: First Person: Do You See What I See? | Amie Kaufman

  9. I’ve written my first novel in first person present tense. It’s an ” upper middle grade” mystery. I went with this, as I was on the journey with the character.
    I’m wondering if, in a series, anyone has started in first person and moved onto third for, say, any of the others in a series. Or moved from first present; to first past tense?

    Love this post. I have to go back and read the reason to write in first person. Thanks.

  10. Interesting. I wrote three SF novels in 3rd person. The protagonist was described by my editor as an arse. I was disappointed as he was largely autobiographical.
    I wrote my next novel in first person present tense female character (I’m a man, by the way)
    Now I am so happy with the character, I feel like writing another one about her but am feeling the strain of such a close POV.

  11. I don’t know about others, but I hate READING a novel written in the first person. I get very tired of reading “I.” Just my own prejudice, but because of it, I would never write in it either.

  12. I’m writing a novel in first person where the protagonist is an investigative journalist. The idea of his personal development and unanticipated involvement in the story he is investigating demands the kind of intimacy that 1st person allows. And because of the crime solving, mystery and thriller aspects of the plot, 1st person also works well in this genre as it only allows the reader to know what the protagonist knows which helps to build suspense and tension.

    In the 12,000 some odd words I’ve written to date I use ‘I’ and ‘my’ about 600 times. The character is telling the story – 1st person doesn’t or shouldn’t mean it’s all about him. I use a lot of scene and dialog to balance things out and give a sense of the present as the story unfolds, to give the other characters a way to express themselves, and I do my best to write without the 1st person pronouns and determiners whenever I can. Also the story is told from some point in the future, after all the events have taken place. This gives me the opportunity, if and when it’s absolutely necessary to provide coincident details that I want or need the reader to know about. “Little did I know at the time…”

    To help balance out the narcissistic tendencies of this person I have the character talk about his concerns about others in the story, albeit in a limited way from his perspective but it helps. I admit it is a challenge at times but if the story demands it, as mine does, there are ways to mitigate the downsides of this person.

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