Monday, October 2, 2017

Writing in First Person Point-of-View - 7 Pitfalls & Praises

by Jayme H Mansfield @JaymeMansfield

Me, Myself & I - Pitfalls & Praises for First Person POV
When the idea for my debut novel was conceived, little thought was given to the chosen point of view. With abandon, I set off on my happy writing path, weaving a story that initially was only for me. Birthed was my natural inclination to write from first person POV. Three novels later, I can’t get the “I” out of me. Call it narcissistic . . . or perhaps it’s just plain fun.

I’m also a gal who prefers happy endings, so let’s first get the dangerous terrain out of the way—those perilous maneuvers we want to avoid when writing fiction from me, myself, and I, and us and we—those sneaky pitfalls that send manuscripts tumbling into agents’ and publishers’ wastebaskets and give our editors the willies.

Pitfall #1 - The “I” Disease 

Overusing this one letter word is tough, and thanks to my editor extraordinaire, Andrea Merrell, I’ve been healed. Hallelujah!

Her medicine was simple. First, apply a search and find and ferret out those overused I’s. Warning: Put on sunglasses as we might be blinded by all those neon yellow highlights that flash across the screen. Then, dig deep and restructure sentences, and in many cases, delete the word altogether. Often the fix is easy, and sometimes not. But continue wrestling the little pest and take it to the mat.

Pitfall #2 - Too Many Filter Words

First of all, what are filter words? They’re those seemingly innocent words that put distance between the reader and our characters, filtering that character’s experience.

Here’s an example from my novel, RUSH:
Tuck was unrecognizable to me, except for his dark, black hair, which was matted against his cheek and caked with dried blood. I saw that one eye was swollen shut, ringed with purple, and his lips were distorted. Like an animal, I watched him huddle in the corner of the cell, knees drawn to his chest and head leaning back against the brick wall.

Now, read and note the difference…

Tuck was unrecognizable except for his dark, black hair, which was matted against his cheek and caked with dried blood. One eye was swollen shut, ringed with purple, and his lips were distorted. Like an animal, he huddled in the corner of the cell, knees drawn to his chest and head leaning back against the brick wall.

In other words, remove anything that has our readers looking at a character looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw (or felt, heard, tasted, smelled …) In first person perspective, we need to be behind the character’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands … We get the point, right? When in doubt, ask, “Where do I want my reader’s senses to be?”

Pitfall #3 – Head Hopping

Whoever’s head we’re in, that’s where we must stay—in his or her mind, body, and soul. If the first-person POV changes to another character in a separate chapter, that’s fine (and can make for a really exciting story), but our heads must change to that character. Think of it as donning a bobble-head, and until it stops “bobbling”, that’s who we are.

Pitfall #4 – Character Clones

This pitfall is a leg-breaker if the story has more than one character assuming first-person POV. Remember, even though the change can only occur in a new chapter, each character has his or her unique voice. Personality, age, education, male or female … these are only some of the character’s traits that will influence their thought pattern and how readers perceive the story.

Here comes the happy ending, so let’s get on to the good news:

Praise #1 – Like Playing Dress-up

Plain and simple, it’s super fun to be in the head of a character. Emotions are raw and the action is real. The reader is not only in for a treat, but as the writer, we not only hang out with our characters, we become them. There aren’t many amusement park rides that offer that kind of thrill. So when friends and family are concerned we hang out with our book characters too often … now we can assure them all is well, because we are the book characters.

Praise #2 – Cheap Therapy

First person POV is an outlet for making sense of the world—for the reader and the author. Challenges and celebrations, fears and joys are authentic—those shared human emotions played out in the minds of characters in the pages of a book. Sure, writing in general is therapeutic for most, but first person perspective goes straight to the heart.

Praise #3 – Whispers in Ears

The phrase, cuddling up with a good book, is by no mistake. The magic of story draws us in, forming relationships and providing stunning outcomes. And, with all of that, comes intimacy. Of course, other POV’s deliver that as well, but first perspective is … intimacy at its best.

Many say first perspective is easier to write. It’s how we talk, right? If we were the author of Catcher in the Rye and mastered voices like Holden Caulfield, then perhaps. But I beg to differ. Any way it’s sliced, the writing craft is hard and all POVs have challenges. So, we keep plugging away, practicing, improving, and realizing writing well is a lifelong journey.

Where I live in Colorado, there are high mountains to climb, difficult slopes, and paths riddled with pitfalls. But just as reaching the summit to gaze at the panoramic and stunning view, the outcome of well-written, first person POV is worth the effort.

If you enjoy strapping on hiking boots to navigate first person POV, what are the pitfalls you’ve overcome and praises shouted from the mountaintops?

TWEETABLES


Jayme H. Mansfield is an author, artist, and educator—and feels a bit incomplete when she’s not juggling all three balls. An award-winning author, her debut book Chasing the Butterfly, is a book club favorite and Amazon bestseller. Her next book releases November 1, 2017 and is based on a true family story that begs to be told. RUSH provides a tension-filled, moving tale of a pioneer woman’s determination to survive in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893.

She and her husband live near the base of the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains, having survived raising three hungry, hockey-playing sons. Currently, a very needy Golden Retriever runs the roost. When Jayme isn’t writing, she teaches art to children and adults at her long-time art studio, Piggy Toes.

Visit Jayme at www.jaymehmansfield.com and sign up for her entertaining newsletter about writing, art, and education.
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24 comments:

  1. Jayme, This is excellent. You capture the pros and cons of first person clearly. I like how you provide encouragement for authors who use it or want to us it. I've been working on a fantasy series where my protagonist is in first person. It's been fun and I've had to address each pitfall you mention. I use third person for my other main character. I don't think I'm quite ready to try multiple first person. But we'll see.

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    1. Henry, you are an amazing storyteller -- I'd love to read your work in first POV. Thank you for the commenting this morning ... you early bird!

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  2. Great advice, Jayme. You know I was laughing about the "I" disease. Wish we could invent a pill for that (LOL). But doing the hard work is best, and you did it beautifully. :)

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    1. As I wrote, you are editor extraordinaire. Thank you for helping me with the "I" disease -- you are a good doctor, and I'm so blessed to journey along the writing pathway with you!

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  3. Great article, Jayme. Very helpful. I'm using first and third person in my novel. I'll be sure to take note. And congrats on Rush. I look forward to reading it.

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    1. Thank you, Starr! I hope to see you in the near future and hear about your novel -- I'm sure it's beautiful. Any new artwork to share?

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  4. Jayme, the title of your post immediately grabbed my attention because I struggle with first person. I wrote half of my WIP in 1st person, but it just wasn't working for me. I finally decided to go back and change it to 3rd person. I don't know why first person was such a struggle for me, especially since I enjoy reading stories from that perspective. Maybe if I had your list, I would have been more successful at it. Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. Hi Karen! Thanks for commenting and sharing the reality that we often have to go back and make substantial changes in our writing--takes perseverance and bravery--good for you! I wonder what makes us "wired" to lean toward a type of POV. I'm considering third person for a new story and can't seem to find my groove as easily. Hmm?

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  5. Thanks for posting this. My WIP is 3rd person, but this has given me courage to revisit several key chapters for 1st POV possibilities. You are SO right, it isn't easy to write even though enjoyable to read. Great post. Jay Wright, SC

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    1. You are welcome! Thanks for sharing a comment, and I'm glad to hear you may consider giving 1st POV a whirl. It really is fun to hang out in the character's head. Best of luck and here's to storytelling--a challenging craft to be sure!

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    1. You are welcome! Here's to the writing life!

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  7. Excellent! Full of useful information.

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    1. Thank you! So happy you found it helpful.

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  8. my new series turned out to be first person, and I've found that I like it. I've been told that I've found my voice! I have noticed, too, that I have a mild case of the I disease - and being the naughty editor-while-writing author that I am, I am perpetually looking for that and tweaking to turn the sentence to say it differently

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    1. Wonderful! It's such a treasure to "find the voice" that fits just right. Yes, that pesky "I" disease is tricky, but oh, my, the editor's yellow highlight tool was potent medicine for me. When she (Andrea Merrell) enlightened me with turning sentences, I felt like the Holy Grail was discovered! Thanks for sharing today.

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  9. Jayme, great reminder on guiding our readers straight to the story, instead of going through "I."

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    1. Thank you! It's something that I need a perpetual sticky note on my forehead ... hopefully I won't leave the house with it on my face!

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    2. Thanks for a great article, Jayme! Writing my debut novel in first person was challenging (those pesky "I"s). But as another reader also said, that's how I found my voice. I also enjoy immersing myself in the character, and feel my readers can go deep as well.

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    3. You are welcome! Thanks for sharing your 1st person POV experience--I agree, it's rewarding when readers can go along with us into the character's head and heart. Happy writing!

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  10. Thank you for giving insights on the next round of editing.

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    1. You are very welcome. That editing is tricky business--good thing we all have each other to navigate the potholes. Have fun hanging out in your characters' heads. They make good companions!

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