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!