When is close too close?

This will be a post about POV – point-of-view – in writing, so if this kind of thing bores you to tears, look away now. For everyone else, I have a question:

Do you enjoy First Person POV – i.e. the type of story that is all about what ‘I said’, ‘I saw’, ‘I did’, ‘I thought’, ‘I felt’?

The reason I ask is because I’ve never particularly enjoyed First Person POV, but I didn’t actively hate it until I began reading the second book in First Person POV in almost as many days.

The first story I read was actually pretty good. It had a lot of the elements I look for in a good sci-fi story. But it also had a heroine I simply could not ‘like’. She vacillated between ridiculously wimpy not-quite-adult and hardcore, kickarse hero. The motivation was there, but it was almost too much, along the lines of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.

I like characters that aren’t perfect. I like them to have quirks, weaknesses, flaws. I even like them to be ‘broken’ because then there’s the hope that they will heal and grow. What I don’t like is seeing them from the inside.

I won’t name the story or the protagonist because I’ve suddenly realised that these are criticisms I apply to almost all First Person POV fiction. There have been exceptions [C.J.Cherryh’s Foreigner series is one], but they are rare, imho.

This issue crystalized for me when I started reading the second ‘Me, Me, Me’ story. It was even worse. Just a few chapters in and I couldn’t read any more. Not only did it have editing issues, it had a main character whose motivation can only be described as schizophrenic. This particular character spent virtually the whole first chapter being paranoid, for no real reason. Then she did a complete about face and…

Enough. I doubt that the author concerned will ever read my blog, or this post, but I don’t want to say anything that might identify the story because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Writing is hard. Publishing is harder, and none of us need other authors criticising us in public. That’s why I never leave reviews of books I’ve hated. Sadly, I hate this one.

Moving on. So what do I like?

I like Close Third Person POV – i.e. where we see the character from the outside, but also get some thoughts and feelings.

I also like reading more than one POV – i.e. where we get to see the story through the eyes of two or more characters. Importantly, we get to see the main character[s] through the eyes of other characters.

I know that some of you find multiple POVs distracting, and I can understand that; you’re reading along happily and suddenly, bang, total change of POV, of scene, of story arc etc. Unless you enjoy that particular technique, multiple POVs can be hard work. Nevertheless, don’t you think we get a more truthful version of the main character when we see them through the eyes of others?

I know I’ve been surprised by how others see me, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not. When I’m honest with myself, however, the change of perspective usually makes me grow as a person.

I’m not saying that I lie, to myself or others, but I’ve learned that we all see ourselves through the prism of some sort of bias. Confident people generally see themselves as hero material. Less confident people may focus on their flaws to the exclusion of their good qualities. Outsiders, however, can often see things we are incapable of seeing in ourselves.

Just as I believe this ‘outsider’ view is healthy for real people, I also believe it can work for characters in fiction. I think it helps to balance out the internal distortions of ego, providing a more realistic, and often likable, character.

Coincidentally, this outsider view also allows the author to avoid the necessity of writing that awful mirror scene. You know the one:

‘Look at me. I’m looking at myself in the mirror/pond/reflective glass so I can describe what I look like to you, the reader’.

That technique is a tool, and like any tool, it has its time and place, but like all the other tools in the writer’s bag of tricks, it shouldn’t be abused. And it shouldn’t be…predictable.

Okay, that’s probably more on writing than I’m comfortable with, but I would like to know what everyone else thinks. I really am open to persuasion. πŸ™‚

Agree?

Disagree?

‘Yes but…?

‘You’ve just been reading the wrong books…?’

‘Boooooring…?

cheers

Meeks

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

42 responses to “When is close too close?

  • amberafter

    I like reading and writing things using 1st person POV. Especially when they are easily able to convey their mindset through it. That’s shot my blog is all about really. There’s a story to be told and what better way to tell it through the eyes of the main character!

    Like

  • D. Wallace Peach

    I wrote one 1st-person book, and it was a lot of fun because it forces a super tight pov. Often when I’m writing in 3rd person and feeling “distant,” I’ll rewrite the scene in 1st person to tighten the pov and then change it back to 3rd.

    But like you, Andrea, the focus on self can get tiring if the character is angsty or self-absorbed or a waffler. 1st person YA novels, especially, can run this risk if the writer isn’t careful. One thing that 1st person can’t do is hide information from the reader – it’s all out there. 3rd person adds more opportunity to keep the reader guessing, to withhold information and pace the reveals.

    Multiple 3rd person is sometimes dictated by the story, and it has even more opportunity to have secrets, multiple plot threads, and hidden motivations that work for and against the protagonist. Plus the protagonist doesn’t need to be witnessing every scene. This is my preferred approach too because the plots can be much more complex. Great subject for discussion.

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    • acflory

      ‘I’ll rewrite the scene in 1st person to tighten the pov and then change it back to 3rd. ‘ I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone doing that before, but it makes sense as it must force you to change your whole way of looking at the scene/character.
      I don’t think I could do that, but I often have to sit down and literally writer out what a particular character knows and what they don’t know.
      I find I do this a lot by the third book of a trilogy coz things can get pretty complicated, and I forget. πŸ™‚
      Totally agree re 3rd person and those hidden motivations. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • D. Wallace Peach

        Usually, I write it out in 1st person “in my head” and that’s enough. But I do recommend the technique to new writers who have trouble getting close to their characters.
        And I forgot to mention a bias of mine – omniscient. I can barely stand reading it, mostly because it’s rarely done well. I’d rather read 1st person any day over that. πŸ™‚

        Like

        • acflory

          I don’t like omniscient either, but even that has its place, in very small doses. Can’t think of the last time I read a novel that used it, but I suspect some of the literary ‘classics’ probably used it a lot.
          I wonder if First Person POV will become more commonplace as our relationship with media changes?
          I’m sure head-hopping came about because of the film industry and the use of camera focus to provide more subtle story-telling. Once we learned that cinematic language, I think we extended it to the written word as well. Or at least tried to.
          In the next 20 years the new thing will be AR and VR. I think VR, in particular, and online experiences where you ‘become’ the protagonist in a much more visceral way, may change our expectations of reading as well.
          I enjoy gaming, but I’m not sure how I’ll feel about a reading experience that’s always from the ‘self’.
          Time will tell. πŸ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

  • dvberkom

    Interesting thoughts. I’ve written 2 series, with one in 1st POV and the other in 3rd. I started writing novels in 1st, thought it was really easy to do, but then tried 3rd and LOVED it. I ended up going into a couple of different characters’ POV to tell a more nuanced story. I especially enjoy the antagonist’s/villain’s POV πŸ™‚ But I definitely agree with the idea that POV is in service to the story–whatever the story needs is what’s right.

    Like

  • DawnGillDesigns

    I don’t think I notice, unless something else is terrible. I did just complete Matt Haig’s The Dead Father’s Club – which was fabulous (do read it if you get a chance) which I borrowed from my local library. That’s in first person, and was pretty close to perfect. I’m going to contact him and tell him I enjoyed it. πŸ˜‰

    Like

    • acflory

      lol – that’s a pretty good recommendation. I’ll see if I can find it. Oddly enough, if the story is good enough and the telling is good enough, we /shouldn’t/ be aware of ‘how’ it happened. The story is what’s important, not the technique. Technique only comes into it when it doesn’t work.

      Like

  • anne54

    What an interesting topic, and discussion. I agree that it’s the writing that is important, not just the POV. However, many authors seem to use the first person as the easier option. As I am not an author, I presume that it is easier to establish motives and reasons why the main character acts as he/she does if he/she is actually telling the reader. Inferring these things is much more difficult.
    Candy is right to point out that some murder stories are enhanced by the first person, especially if the voice is right. Sara Peretski springs to mind as someone who does this well. However, multiple voices also works well, but create a different feel ~ Louise Penny. It’s the writing that’s important and keeps me reading.
    And as you are asking……my pet peeve is novels written in the present. I find that rarely works, and annoys the bejesus out of me.

    Like

    • acflory

      Well said, Anne. I find present tense story telling annoying too.
      The thing I’m finding most interesting is that all of us seem to be saying something very similiar, just in different words; technique doesn’t matter so long as it gets the job done. And the job is to catch the reader and not let go until the story is over. I like that.

      Like

      • anne54

        I have just started reading a book that has multiple points of first person views. I wouldn’t have noticed except for you r post, so I will read it with a different eye now.

        Like

        • acflory

          Gah, that will be tricky! Please let me know what you think of it coz just the technical aspects make me shudder. I mean, how do you know who’s who? Do they introduce themselves with each change? -boggles-

          Like

          • anne54

            I gave up on it, despite Peter Carey’s glowing endorsement on the front cover. Each character was introduced by his/her name on the chapter headings. I couldn’t see the point of having the voices of all the family members, especially as the story was read over years.
            However I have just finished “Last dog on earth”. Highly recommend it, my best book of the year etc. It has two voices. The human is in the form of a diary, and the other is the dog. Dystopian and disturbing, but worth it.

            Like

          • acflory

            -giggles- The /dog/ is the storyteller, or one of??
            Just looked it up on Amazon. There are two. Walker or Ehrenhaft?

            Like

  • Widdershins

    1st person has to be really, really good or, as you say, it gets really, really bad, really really quickly! πŸ˜€ … the same with multiple POV’s and the author not knowing how to seamlessly shift from one to another … which isn’t a matter of the ‘art’ of writing, it’s the ‘craft’, which anyone with two brain-cells to rub together can do. (this one’s a bit of a peeve of mine, as you can no doubt tell πŸ™‚ ) Nothing throws me out of a story quicker, even quicker than typos, than having to go back and figure out whose head I just ended up in.

    Like

    • acflory

      lmao – yes! Confession time. The very first story I wrote [never finished] was me being arty farty and head hopping like crazy. At the time I thought I was being clever, doing with words what a camera does so effectively in movies. -facepalm- I learned, quick smart. My preferred POV break is the chapter, but where I need to get a different perspective in ‘real time’, it’s the scene. Nothing less than that. I know some writers get away with breaking with paragraphs but…if I have to go back to find out ‘whose head I’m in’, the story’s a lost cause.
      Agree re all of this being a question of craft, not art. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  • greenpete58

    I honestly don’t think too much about POV. A good story is a good story, and I’ve read them from all points of view. Multiple points of view can be very effective, I think, if they’re done well. The one book that springs to my mind is William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” As far as writing, I’m not a fiction writer, but I would think first-person POV is the easiest, and multiple POV the hardest.

    I’ve read classics that use all different points of view. My favorite go-to is Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” though, where he used an omniscient narrator. “Call me Ishmael.” Not “My name is Ishmael.” A big difference, and it sets the stage for the entire novel.

    Like

  • Yvonne Hertzberger

    Interesting. Four out of five of my novels are third person, with some thoughts, etc. included for depth and clarity. I did use first person in my second novel and found it very difficult for some of the reasons you mention. However it can be done without the issues you mention reading. I hope I avoided those for the most part. I did have one advantage, however, in that one novel, in that my character could learn a few bits of necessary information via using a kestrel’s eyes to see a battle. Fantasy is great that way. lol. That said, I discarded first person after that book. Re. reading – I don’t like navel gazing, I need redeemable or decent characters, and there has to be development. I do prefer third person close, with more than one character’s POV shown, though keeping it to the main ones.

    Like

  • Candy Korman

    I was just writing about this last night (an upcoming blog post on a closely related issue)… Some stories require the first person POV. The narrator, reliable or unreliable, controls the flow of information to the reader. It can be compelling and it can also be full of sh-t. In mystery fiction, the detective’s POV allows the reader to come along for the investigation. Clues and red herrings appear to both the reader and the character at the same time. This can also be done with close third person, but the first person can be more nuanced and controlled. Anyway… the voice that’s best for that particular story gets my vote. All, any, rotating, POVs … all good (and all bad, too.) LOL…

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      Yes! I never thought of that before, but Mystery is one genre where the POV has to stay with the detective in order to unravel the clues.
      ‘The voice that’s best…’ That is what it boils down to, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  • Berthold Gambrel

    As a reader, I think I’m pretty much open to any style. Done well, either way can work. Maybe I lean a little towards Close Third Person, just because I feel like First Person has become overused these days.(I have no numbers on that; it’s just my impression.) But well-written First Person story can be quite good.

    I am also a huge fan of “unreliable narrator” stories, and to a degree that relates to what you said about different POVs. I like reading a story, happily going along with what the First Person narrator is telling me, and then gradually realizing that what they are saying isn’t the whole truth.

    As a writer, it all depends what effect I’m going for. I never thought about it before, but I’ve never consciously considered which perspective I should use for a story. I always feel like I know as soon as I begin whether it has to be Close Third or First.

    Like

    • acflory

      lol – I’ve never written anything in the First Person, but I totally agree that whichever POV we use, it has to be done well.
      I started this post because I was genuinely baffled by my reaction as a reader, especially with regards to the first book. It should have been excellent, but somehow missed the mark.
      I feel as if I’ve learned something from all this, as a writer. I don’t think I’ll even use First Person POV myself, but if I do I’ll be very, very careful how I do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Mick Canning

    I sounds as though the things you disliked in the first person POV sci-fi book you mention were not so much the fault of a first person POV, but rather just bad writing (I may have misunderstood, of course).

    Personally, I feel that to write in the first person, you need a valid reason – not gimmick, not just to be different, but reason. In my own case (there, you knew that was where I was going!), I used the first person to create a feeling of immediacy; it was important that the reader understood that the narrator had absolutely no idea how this was going to end – that it was happening NOW.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      -grin- I did say there were exceptions. Seriously though, I agree with you. First Person POV is there for a reason, and I think you’re right about the immediacy. I’m not sure why both of the fiction books I read /had/ to be in First Person POV. Maybe the authors felt it would be easier. I actually think it’s harder to do well. Interesting point that immediacy…

      Liked by 2 people

  • Frank Prem

    I like to be able to describe what my protagonist is doing (for convenience, generally male gender) so that I (narrator) can describe actions/emotions etc.

    First person if i want the character to be outrageous ‘I own the sky…’ ‘I am the creator’.

    The change in writing requirement is pretty extraordinary.

    I don’t care much for first person mundane. Too much like social media.

    Like

    • acflory

      What Mick said about immediacy probably holds true for your ‘outrageous’ character too. I guess for me, both fictional characters were a little/a lot too mundane. No mystery, no sense of a person unfolding.

      Liked by 1 person

  • cagedunn

    First person: there are some stories I’ve read where i didn’t even notice until the end (or someone mentioned it and I had to go back to check! Chocolat by Joanne Harris is one) – that’s a good first person pov; so involved the reader doesn’t notice (using too many self-references is what jars me).
    third person close: i like this, but not head-hopping. I find it takes me ‘out of story’ if the pov changes without a scene change (and it’s obvious as a scene change).
    I’m not sure if the issue is whether it’s first person or not – the use of pronouns (I, me, we, he, she, they (and names), etc.) needs to be minimal, the story needs to be foremost, unlike a diary (unless that’s exactly what it is, in which case, I wouldn’t read it).
    It’s all that said, saw, felt, did, thought, knew, understood (etc.) stuff that ruins the story. these things are passive, not active. Show us the action, don’t tell us it was seen, felt, thought (how does one think to onself? one wonders). Do, or do not is what some famous grey chap said (Yoda).

    For the same reason, I don’t like static description that goes on for pages (or even para’s) – I like to be the character (like method acting, I suppose), but with a slight remove, so when they do something where I need a bit of distance, it’s there. The occasional camera angle (with no pov, what I call static observation of actions without the main character experiencing the event/s) can be okay if done well, and there are even some quirky narrators (Terry Pratchett stands out here, as does Agatha Christie [different, but the same technique]) who keep the reader attached to the story by use of the Narrator (not the author).

    As a writer, I like third person close, and often have only one pov character – the reason? I like to read stories that aren’t too long, so I write them to the length I enjoy reading – selfish, but there it is.
    The main story for one character (to me) is about 50k words in a novel, so for each other character, how many extra words will that take?

    Sorry, got a bit carried away – good stories are important to me!

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      I know what you mean about ‘not noticing’ the POV. That C.J.Cherryh series I mentioned is in First Person, but the protagonist is a very bottled up kind of person so self references slip in unobtrusively rather than being the focal point of the narrative.
      Hmm…I wonder if that’s it? In scifi, there are a number of elements that must balance if the story is to work. Maybe First Person POV focuses too much on the character. And yet, even in scifi it’s character driven story that I love. Need to think some more.

      ‘static observation’, yes, I sneak some of that in as well, often for emotional distance so we can all catch our breaths.

      Isn’t it odd how many tricks of the trade we all use, often without even knowing that we’re using them?

      Liked by 1 person

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