Friday, February 17, 2012

Point of View, Part One

I just finished Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games. Overall, I'd give it a solid B. The first three-fourths were a good B+ or even A-, but that final quarter of the book was where it kinda dropped off. It bothered me for a little while, wondering where did Suzanne Collins go wrong.

After contemplating the third book and comparing it to Hunger Games and Catching Fire, I figured out what irked me about her final installment - it was the point of view (POV) she employed. It worked just fine for the first two books, but in book three, it doesn't.  Without giving away the plot, just know that the story needed to be told from a perspective of someone that was ACTUALLY involved in the plot, since Collins wrote all three of her books from the first person POV.

Having worked with young aspiring writers, point of view seems to be a pretty easy concept to grasp. But when you sit down to write, it's one of those things that can either make or break your story. And then you get to over-thinking things. So I'd like to just talk about point of view, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and why you might use one POV over the other.

First Person POV: The entire story is told through the eyes of your main character. Easiest way to identify this POV is when you see the narrator using the pronouns I, me, us, we.

Some people might argue with me, and I don't mean to diss First Person at all. But it is the EASIEST POV for a beginning writer to write in. Think about it - we experience the world through First Person, so writing in that voice comes more naturally. Just because it is easier doesn't make it easy, however. But it is the least complex from a juggling-all-of-your-literally-elements standpoint.

First Person Pros:
1) The reader connects to your protagonist easier. First person is super intimate, making it easier for your reader to really get caught up in your narrator and your story.

2) Your main character's personality is allowed to develop more deeply. Since you're telling the story from your protagonist's POV, it's very liberating for a writer in working to make that character more three-dimensional.

3) You get to build suspense. Since this POV is limited to one person, you're able to conceal clues much easier. This is a helpful device when you want to surprise, shock, or get your reader to throw your book across the room.

4) If you write Young Adult, your readers will love it. Most teens are naturally self-centered and First Person satisfies that innate mode of thinking. If you disagree, you haven't been around teenagers enough. I taught 9th and 10th graders...oh man. Seeing things from multiple perspectives takes a certain amount of maturity. First Person is just easier for them to settle into.

First Person Cons:
1) Because you are limited to your main character, other characters might not feel as well developed. So your reader is relying on your protagonist's single perspective.

2) If your protagonist is unlikable. Maybe your main character is a jackass. Many readers might get turned off if they're repulsed by your protagonist's thoughts, feelings, and words. I personally enjoy reading a book with a main character I don't necessarily like - it shows just how strong the writer is. First Person makes that kind of dynamic almost impossible (i.e. Bella in Twilight. She was so boring and stupid, which is why I hated the books).

3) No subplots. With the limitation of First Person, you're really not able to develop subplots. I've seen writers try to get around this by changing the viewpoint to another character (split point of view). I will say that 95% of these efforts usually fail, as it's really tough to pull off.

4) It's easier for you to do more telling instead of showing. Because you're stuck in that one person's mind, it's all too natural to keep doing all of this introspective writing and have nothing going on. Sometimes, when I'm reading a book in First Person, and the writer has gone through four or five pages of the protagonist's innermost thoughts, I get bored. I want stuff to happen.

All in all, First Person is a growing POV and more books are using it. Young Adult, mainstream fiction, mysteries, thrillers...these are genres that generally are First Person friendly.

For more complex plots with multiple layers (i.e. epic fantasy or science fiction operas), I'd stay away from First Person POV.


Kelley said...

I totally agree with you about Mocking Jay. It was still a good book but I didn't like it nearly as much as the first two.

Thanks for listing all this out!

Matthew MacNish said...

I've actually rewritten an entire novel from 3rd person omni into 1st. It was a lot of work, but it served the story better, in the long run.

Jay Noel said...

Kelley: Right. It was good, and it did end the series. But as a reader, you just feel like you miss out on a lot. What if it had been written through the eyes of Gale??? Or even Peeta???

Matthew: I was going to add that to my post. When your draft just doesn't feel right, try changing the POV. Sometimes, it's the missing puzzle piece!

Melissa Bradley said...

I used first person for the first time when I wrote my novel, Maxie BRiscoe: Werewolf. It was actually a dark fantasy erotic thriller which meant that all of the sizzling scenes were my one character POV. It was quite difficult to do, but my protagonist, Maxie, would not let me tell it any other way.

Jay Noel said...

Melissa: And that's why it works if your novel really is just about ONE person. Collins ran into the biggest failure of First Person when her story started to become really big - encompassing other people and places.

As a reader you're thinking, Damn. Stuff is happening and I can't be there! And it gives you a feeling of being cheated out of the rest of the story.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

If it's handled properly, a first person POV can really suck you into the story, but I've not done any first person writing, other than my blog. Jodi Picoult uses a different approach: each chapter in her books portrays a different character's POV. (And the character's name is provided as chapter title, so you know upfront whose POV is coming.) The way she handles it, the approach is extremely effective.

Rusty Webb said...

Good points. All my early efforts in writing we're 1st person. It took me years before I was brave enough to experiment with 3rd and multiple viewpoints.

And the showing and telling thing. I'm just finishing up Neal Stephenson's Reamde and it's approx 1000 pages and almost entirely 'telling.'

Weirdly enough, one of my favorite books in quite a while. Which proves to me that showing vs telling might be better stated as interesting vs boring. Sometimes telling works, but I suppose it's like adverbs and guns: Things that can ruin your day if not handled with care.

Dafeenah said...

First person is very difficult for me to write in. It's something I'm working on though. I haven't read any of that series but it seems it wouldn't be something I'd have enjoyed reading though.

Christine Rains said...

I agree with you about Mockingjay. It fell apart at the end for me. Loved the series, but not the ending. I prefer third person POV. Sometimes I'll write in first person for short stories, but it's because I need that intimacy with the protagonist immediately.

Rachel Frost said...

Thanks for sharing this. I agree with you about almost all of it. I have a hard time with 1st person POVs because, like you said, they can sit in their thoughts and stew for several pages, which is really boring. And if you don't like the main character, the book will basically suck. I couldn't finish the Twilight or Hunger Games series' because by the second book the main characters had outlived their share of whiny-ness and stupidity.

MaryAnn Pope said...

I agree with you completely. Mockingjay was just too big of a story for one POV. It worked well for the other two stories, but too much happened off screen in Mockingjay.

Third person is my favorite POV for both writing and reading, but it has its own pitfalls.

Heidi@Rainy Day Ramblings said...

I just finished Hunger Games and need to read this next two, there a lot of mixed reviews on Mockingjay. I appreciate the time you took in writing this informative post on view points. It seems these days I am running across books with mutiple POV and sometimes they are confusing, messy and just don't work. Authors really need to employ a narrative that is best going to tell the story!

Jay Noel said...

Susan: My current WIP is written in 3rd person limited/episodic. When I change viewpoint, I make the text with # # # #. However, the POV is still 3rd person limited.

Rusty: Sometimes you have to tell, especially if you're filling the reader in on a little backstory. But it's just like adverbs and guns - gotta watch it.

Dafeenah: I have issues with it too, since I'm so used to writing in 3rd person. And that tells me I NEED to keep trying to write in 1st person.

Jay Noel said...

Christine: Yeah, it kinda all just fell apart in the end. Almost like Collins got sick of writing about Katniss and just wanted to put it out of her misery!

Rachel: That's why when I like a book despite not liking the main characters, it has ALWAYS been written in some form of 3rd person.

MaryAnn: She should have written Mockingjay in 3rd person. It would have been better.

Heidi: Multiple POV can get confusing. And many writers are writing in multiple viewpoints (i.e. George R.R. Martin). I like writing in multiple viewpoints, but you have to keep it straight. Separate chapters or hard separation marks.

M Pax said...

I need to read Hunger Games at some point.

I tend to write one character in 3rd person at this point. But plan to branch out to multiple character pov's. I usually write 3rd because most sci-fi magazines won't consider stories in 1st person.

Great article, Jay.

Jay Noel said...

Mary: Thanks! I like big stories with subplots. Pretty much impossible to write in 1st Person. But with the explosion in YA literature, you're seeing a ton of 1st Person POV these days.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I have never attempted anything in first person. I think it takes an expert writer to pull it off successfully and I'm just not that good. Third person through two people is more comfortable to me.

Claire L. Fishback said...

Tag! You're it in the Campaign's 11 Questions Game! Head over to to pick up your questions! Can't wait to read your answers!

Jay Noel said...

Alex: I haven't written anything in 1st Person is YEARS. It would be frustrating since I write in 3rd person limited these days.

Claire: Another one? Oh, okay...I'll do it!!!!

Mr. Shife said...

Good stuff Jay. I have not thought about this topic in a long time but it was nice to get an excellent refresher from you. I have no idea what point of view I would write from but it does not matter until I actually get started on that book. Have a good weekend.

T.D. McFrost said...

I never get tired of these lessons and yours was indeed refreshing.

I am pretty darn good at Third Person close (agents said so, not I). I used to turn up my nose at writers who practiced First Person because I figured there was nothing easier than writing in your own voice, which is essentially what you're doing--simply pretending, is all. And then I started writing First person myself. Let me be the first to say, it is not as easy as I had thought. What troubles me is the tense. I'm so used to writing in past tense, so having to apply present tense is a bit rough. But I'm practicing and hopefully I'll get the hang of it.

You have a wonderful blog Jay. ^_^

(P.S. That captcha input is annoying, I spent three minutes battling with the stupid thing. LOL)

Julie Dao said...

Great insight here, Jay. My current WIP is written in first person and although it's easier to write than third person sometimes, it can be difficult to separate myself from the character! Agree with you on Mockingjay... it was actually my least favorite of the series, but a solid B would be what I give it too.

Jay Noel said...

Shife: I'm telling you - you need to get writing now!!!!

T.D.: 1st Person would be my first choice for any beginning writer. But if you've moved onto writing in 3rd, writing in 1st is VERY difficult. And thanks!

Julie: I could see how writing 1st person would be a challenge in that way. And yeah, I was disappointed with the ending, but overall it was good.

Phats said...

This is easily one of my all time favorite series, I want to re-read the first one again before the movie comes out. The third was my least favorite but I still enjoyed it, I was absolutely crushed when I was done because there was not another one coming out haha. Also with what happens in the end.

When you release your book let me know I will give you Travis Treatment on my blog and plug it haha :)

LTM said...

great post here. I didn't care for Mockingjay as much either, but I'm not sure POV was the only problem... :D

I'm with you on the cons of first person. I'm more a first-person author, but I'm contemplating making a change for my WIP. There's too much going on, and MC would have to be either a super-stalker or psychic to know it all. :o)

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I don't really like first-person point-of-view all that much, but I still read it. I prefer third person both in reading and writing.

Jay Noel said...

Phats: Thanks man! I could use the plug when the time comes.

Leigh: Yeah, it wasn't the only issue. POV is just one thing you can do to revive a floundering story.

Michael: I like it when it makes sense. I read a long of YA lit., so lots of 1st person there. Writing, I prefer 3rd.

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