5 Lessons in First Person POV

5 First Person POV lessonsI made a promise I would review every book I read, and I will but, you know me – rule breaker! So I thought I would do this one a little differently. I am going to dissect and share what writing lessons I learnt from this book: Breathe, by Sarah Crossan. And I hope whilst I am doing this, it forms a kind of review.

This book is written in a unique way using the first person POV, so the focus of this lesson review will be on perfecting the first person POV.

Deconstructing Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Image curtsey of google images

Breathe is a YA dystopian novel, written in the first person* about love, courage, power and sacrifice. Amazon’s blurb says:

Years after the Switch, life inside the Pod has moved on. A poor Auxiliary class cannot afford the oxygen tax which supplies extra air for running, dancing and sports. The rich Premiums, by contrast, are healthy and strong. Anyone who opposes the regime is labelled a terrorist and ejected from the Pod to die.

Sixteen-year-old Alina is part of the secret resistance, but when a mission goes wrong she is forced to escape from the Pod. With only two days of oxygen in her tank, she too faces the terrifying prospect of death by suffocation. Her only hope is to find the mythical Grove, a small enclave of trees protected by a hardcore band of rebels. Does it even exist, and if so, what or who are they protecting the trees from?

How do I learn when reading? I collect words and sentences, especially unusual ones and I do it prolifically when I read in order to refer back later and dissect. I’ve had to retrain my brain to be able to read consciously. Normally my eyes switch off and I see pictures instead of reading words, so in order to pay proper attention to the words I refocus. Anyway, enough rambling. What did I actually learn?

First Person POV

I always hear the phrase ‘writers need to learn the rules so they can break them.‘ One of the cardinal rules I’ve learnt is that if you are writing in the first person you do it from one characters POV. *I said earlier Breathe was written in the first person. It is. But, from three main characters POVs.

Interesting.

Did it work? Not right away. The book rotates around each character, each chapter from one of the three main characters: Alina, Bea and Quinn.

The thing about first person that I love is that its so personal and deep to that one main character. The book opens with the character Alina. I assumed – she was the main character. But the book ends with a chapter from Bea. I started out thinking Alina was the main character especially as there was love triangle. Quinn and Bea are old friends, Bea loves Quinn – he’s never noticed her despite being BFFs. Quinn falls for Alina. And then, part way through the book realises his mistake and how he has always loved Bea.

I’ll be honest. I never realised but, wherever the love interest is (not the male, *climbs on feminist soap box, whips out bra and searches for lighter* but the relationship itself) is where the main characters are. By the end of the book for me Bea was the main character. I was left a little confused. For me, the book would have worked better if it was from just two main characters – Bea and Quinn, as the relationship could have had more depth from longer page time and we could easily have watched Alina through their eyes – that or perhaps it could have been written in the third person and worked just as well.

That being said, I did believe Bea’s heartache and I just about believed Quinn when he converted to Bea.

I would say it took a third of the book before I could easily switch between the characters, and for the first two sets of rotations I got very confused between Alina and Bea. Possibly because they were both female and therefore, it wasn’t until I was a third of the way through, that I really knew enough about each character to spot the differences between them quickly.

Once I did however I thoroughly enjoyed the variety.

Differentiating Main Characters

It wasn’t until I looked back at my highlights that I saw how Crossan had actually differentiated the characters. It’s subtle, and driven primarily through character desires and therefore in the way they look at the world. And actually rather genius. For example:

Alina – the rebel looks at life in a philosophical way – she is driven by the need for freedom and therefore watches the detail in the serenity and beauty of nature. Here’s two examples:

Every now and again I spotted something simple and ordinary – like a toothbrush. what happened to its owner?

Im afraid of upsetting the stillness

Whereas Bea who is driven primarily by love, thinks and speaks in a much more tangible way. Crossan uses tactile descriptions playing on the senses to build on Bea’s personality, goals and lust for Quinn.

He doesn’t feel that way about me,’ I say. I have never admitted this out loud, so when I hear the words spoken in my own voice, clear and undisputed, I could cry. I look at my mum steadily.

He squeezes my knee and leaves his hand resting there. My stomach tightens as I wait for something else,

…in my chest has swollen up so that my whole body feels like it’s filled with poison. I don’t love him in the way my parents love each other – sweetly, almost wearily. When I’m with him I feel each nerve within me awakening so that when he touched me, when he brushes my arm accidentally, I shiver and I have to bite back an urge to cry out. I feel the ache everywhere: in my neck, in my belly, between my legs.

What I love is that I had no idea I’d picked up on so much until the end when I  looked back at the random phrases I’d highlighted and found pure Crossan gold.

Describing Other Characters
The last key lesson I learnt was around describing other characters. When writing in first person, everything (including other characters) is seen through the eyes of your main character so you need to describe them fully as well as identifying their goals without making it seem arbitrary.

I think Quinn is the best character at doing this because he goes through some difficulties not having spotted who his father really was. Ironic, and more impactful because he spends a lot of his time looking at and kind of analysing other people, yet, didn’t spot what was under his nose  – both for Bea and his father.

What I think Crossan does really well is facilitate her main characters describing the other characters not through their physical appearance which can sometimes be shallow and stilted but through their thoughts, actions and emotions bringing a depth to the secondary characters you might otherwise not get:

She gulps down some water and squints at me as though she isn’t quite sure what she’s seeing.

She flicks her thick hair from her shoulders and pulls at the hem of her incredibly short dress. I’ve never met a person more in love with herself.

and my favourite of all – a description of his father…

He is speaking into the mirror, talking to my reflection as though he can’t bear to look at the real me any more.

Lesson Summary:

ONE

First person does work better from one characters POV, however, rules are meant to be broken and by the end of the book I really enjoyed the flick between the three characters and the tension that built having to wait to find out what happens to one of them.

TWO

I would say that if you are going to write in first person from more than one POV its better to do one male and one female, or two VERY different characters if they are the same gender and age it can make it hard to differentiate between characters.

THREE

Again, if you are swapping character whilst in first person POV, you need to be VERY clear who the main character is, otherwise your reader won’t know who to invest in.

FOUR

Differentiating multiple first person characters is hard. But it’s easily done by focusing on manipulating their speech and thoughts to focus on their goals.

If a character is driven by love then their thoughts and speech will be more tangible and oriented to the sensations they feel because of love.

FIVE

If you’re not conscientious, describing other characters in the first person can steer you down a path of describing clothes and appearance. But by a character observing action, emotion and pondering another’s thoughts, you achieve a depth you can’t get with clothes and appearance.

What lessons have you learnt about the first person? Have you ever read a first person novel and found habits you don’t like? What tricks do you use when writing in the first person?

If you’re a fan of YA books, especially with a twist or hint of dystopian fantasy I think you will love this read. I did.

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62 comments

  1. First person POV… can be brilliant or a disaster, and is very tricky to get right. Can also be very boring for a whole novel all the way through if not done right. Your author here seems to have got round this by using 3 different characters, but this might be hard for a lot of readers to get their heads around if they are not very flexible. And also not advisable if you can’t 100% show the differences between your characters. Love how you used a book to illustrate all this, Sacha! Reading is definitely the best way of learning, I think. You are also very good at analysing, and distilling it down to the facts. Great post! Oh and love that books cover!

    1. I so agree about it being brilliant or a disaster. Not sure I have ever read a first person POV that was boring because it was first person though. I know I think doing three characters was a risk – two is more easily manageable – but then we can’t all do the same things.

      Thanks Ali – thought you would approve, I know how much you believe in learning from reading. I don’t think I realised the significance of that until I started reading consciously. Thats thanks to you. 😀 <3

      1. What I meant by boring is that sometimes a story which only follows one POV can get very one track minded, so that you miss a lot of the action which a secondary character might be involved in because the main POV protagonist isnt there to see it. Then you have to resort to second hand reporting, which can be quite flat and tedious, when having a second POV would transport you directly into the thick of it. I’m not sure that made any sense at all. Its late…
        LOL! ?

  2. Interesting post and POV. I’m into neither YA nor dystopian futures so I don’t think this book would appeal to me but I enjoyed your thoughts about the writer’s use of multiple perspectives. I have just read a couple of books that also have multiple POVs. One had two first person characters and I could detect very little difference in their voice. Each section seemed to flow just the same as the other. I wasn’t sure why the author had chosen first person and felt it would have been better told in the third person. The second one mixed first and third person and I also found this off-putting, as if the author had made a mistake and forgotten which POV had been chosen. Again I’m not sure of the author’s intent in doing so, but felt the third person would have been just as effective and less confusing. On the other hand I have read at least one book that relates the same situation from the point of view of a number of characters; a bit like witnesses in a witness stand I guess. That was interesting. After all, none of us ever experience the “same” situation in exactly the same way.

    1. I’m like you, Nora. Not really a fan of YA or dystopia, but enjoyed the post anyway. The other book that does this from many points of view is “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult. It worked very well, I would say and was easily translated into a movie. Of course, they changed the needing in the movie, to something that naturally made more sense. I won’t mention it here as some of you may want to read the book or watch the movie.
      At first, I had written my novel in a similar way, but soon realized it didn’t work. I still let each person tell their secrets, but they tell them to my protagonist. That worked much better.
      Peace, love & great story writing to all,
      Sherrie
      Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
      http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
      Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

      1. I haven’t read “My Sister’s Keeper” or seen the movie, though I think I have heard of it.
        Your technique of having the characters tell their stories to the protagonist sounds like an effective strategy.
        The trailer for your video is great. How lucky you are to have a talented husband writing beautiful music for you.
        I wish you every success with your novel.

    2. That’s understandable, not everyone can like every genre. What were the books you read? I think choosing your POV is vital to getting a good book written. Sounds like they didn’t get the book edited which is never a smart move really.

      I think there was a film which was originally a book called crash that told a story from like 7 peoples POVs never read it but would like too.

      1. Perhaps the books were edited. Sometimes what works is simply about what works for an individual reader too. We don’t all “get” what a particular author aims to do. I saw a headline for a post, which I haven’t as yet read, that said something like “don’t write for everyone, as everyone doesn’t exist”. You have to choose your target audience and write for them. There are probably others that read and thought these books amazing.
        Sharing the interesting POVs that you do gives all of us much to think about, which is a good thing for our development as writers. Thank you. 🙂

        1. Yes that’s very true Norah. I have even felt that about an author I DO like – some of their stuff I get others I just don’t. Thank you for the lovely comment by the way 🙂

  3. It sounds to me as though a number of people would have given up on this book, with the confusion that you dscribe between the voices. Unless the story was exceptionally gripping, I suspect that I would have done. I think that to write in first person and to use more than one POV, the writer has to make a supremely good job of it for it to work.

    1. I think for me – because it’s a genre I love, I did find it gripping despite the difficulty at the beginning. I completely agree Mick about the writer having to make a good job – not sure I’m that brave.

  4. This is a topic I feel very strongly about, because I have written two novels (and another is on the way!) with multiple/rotating first-person narrators. I’ve broken all the rules. Well, I’m a self-published author, so I make my own rules!
    I think the first person gets to the reader so directly, that if it’s well done, it’s magic. What’s well done? If the reader is convinced he ‘knows’ the character/s and wants to continue reading about him/her/them. That won’t happen all the time with all readers, but neither is it guaranteed with traditional 3rd person narrators!
    I love it when there are two, as you mention, M/F narrators. A famous recent example: Gone Girl. But these stories are (usually) very intense, so the other characters just ‘fill in’. Which is fine, but if you want an array of well developed characters, this won’t work.
    Coming to my book. It’s a historical, family saga, so there are many important characters. I agree with you that the main characters lie where the love interest is, but for me they’re all important. I love all my characters, even the villains and the seemingly minor ones. I see them, dream about them and try to get inside them. that’s why they write in the first person.
    My novels have complex plots, but it’s overall my characters who are in charge; they drive the plot on, and convince the reader to read on (or not).
    From my experience, as a writer there are two issues to overcome with multiple narrators.
    1- Making sure that the reader knows, in the first few lines, who’s narrating. My beta readers and editor are really helpful on that point. (it’s much easier if there are only two).
    2- Maintaining the character’s voice throughout his/her narration. It’s easy to slip back to writer. That’s why I say I ‘go into a trance’ when I write. I become absorbed by my character, like an actor.
    My feedback on this aspect of my writing is mixed, but overall positive. Very few readers/reviewers have pointed out multiple narrators as an inconvenience when reading.
    Finally, I couldn’t do it any other way. I enjoy reading third person narrators, of course, but I’m almost certain I’d never use that type of narrator myself.
    Sorry I’ve rambled, but it’s a fascinatng topic for me 🙂 Thanks for inspiring this ‘conversation’. .

    1. Ok, wow, where do I even start to reply to this. I ADORE how passionate you are about the first person – I feel exactly the same. I am like you and don’t think I would be able to write a book in the 3rd. Although ironically some of my fave books are in the 3rd person.

      I am like you in the way I approach my characters – it’s trance like. My eyes switch off, my fingers become automatic and I just see the story play out as i tap words out – is that weird?

      I am fascinated by your stories I have them on my TBR pile – its massive though, but I am super excited to read them after this comment 😀 how is the next book going?

      1. Thank you for your reply to my comment.
        I’ve recently interviewed an author who says one of her characters took her clothes off and jumped in a lake, totally unexpectedly for the writer! I love it when that happens, when characters do things and develop ‘on their own’!
        I’m struggling to find the time to finish book 3. I’m aiming for March-April.
        How’s yours coming?

  5. This book was on already on my radar, so I appreciate your review.

    I am curious, did the author identify the character whose POV it would be at the beginning of each chapter? I am a huge fan of Robert Jordan’s wheel of time series and while he didn’t specifically call out the name of the character at the beginning of each chapter, you knew who the chapter was going to revolve around by the use of graphic under each chapter heading. Without that, I might have been lost trying to keep more than two characters straight.

    1. Yes, the chapters were numbered so to speak using the name of the character so she did identify each chapter. The hard bit for me was remembering the girls – although they had different names and goals, it was still hard to tell them apart

    1. Thank you Charli – a number of people have said they liked this review style. I will have to try and do it a bit more often. I completely agree, I think POV choice is integral to getting a book ‘right’ so to speak.

  6. This is DEFINITELY made me realize how I can improve my writing in terms of character and narration. I’ve often preferred 1st person when writing, but now I see that I still have a lot of room to improve.

    Thank you for the post and advice!!

  7. I love writing in 1st-person pov because, as you say, the pov is so deep. I think it’s a great exercise for new writers for that very reason. (A little trick: If I feel like a 3rd-person pov is too distant, I’ll write the scene in 1st-person and then switch it to 3rd. Works like a charm).

    I agree that multiple 1st-person povs add a whole other dimension and it’s much harder. Unless done very well, it can be confusing, popping the reader out of the story to figure out who’s at bat. Of course, then I wrote a book with alternating first-person povs! So, go figure – yes, rules are meant to be carefully broken 🙂

    1. Agreed Agreed Agreed – I don’t think I will ever write a novel in 3rd. I just wasn’t bred that way!

      THAT is an AWESOME tip. Thank you 😀

      Haha – which book was that? I suspect given how talented you are you absolutely smashed it!

      1. The Bone Wall has alternating first person povs by chapter. I titled each chapter in the character’s name to help avoid confusion. The twins are a split personality, so the reader sees the world through both of their perspectives. 🙂

  8. Very interesting post. I’ve read a number of books with multiple first person POVs. And also books, which switch back and forth between the third person and several POVs. It works, but keep you, as the reader, on your toes!

      1. I’ve seen this too. The MC in first person and everyone else in third. I can’t remember the book. It took some getting used to, but once in the swing of it, I didn’t notice it as much. The writing has to be pretty good to get away with it. 🙂

      2. The author separates it by chapter but you do have to keep abreast of what’s going on and who’s viewpoint you’re in. There’s a really good book out at the mo which uses both povs – ‘I Let You Go’ by Clare Mackintosh. It’s in the bestsellers list. The author James Patterson also does this – and very well.

  9. You certainly have a great style about you Sach. You are unique in your thinking, and your review process here was so engaging. Kudos to Crossan. Yes, rules are meant to be broken, but only if you know how to do it well. <3 🙂

      1. Sacha, it’s time you start believing in yourself! Do know that I’m a gracious person and I always give credit where it’s due. I will never intentionally say anything to hurt a person’s feelings. But if I don’t like something, or not in agreement, I just won’t say anything. But when I do, it’s my sincere opinion. xo

  10. Swapping POV is the new black – makes me go ‘hurrrrumphh!’, as I’ve been doing it for years and was told I ‘couldn’t’, and now every debut novel, indie and trad, is in at least three – and first person, too!

    What I’ve found as I read more and more multiple POV books for review is that 75% of people don’t know how to do it. They carry on writing as the narrator, or as themselves, using the different POVs to get information across from another location, or to give back story. Sacha, I’m not pretending to be an expert!!!!! But virtually all my books are written that way and as far as I can tell from reviews, it works. I was interviewed by best selling light romance author Joanne Phillips recently, who has read several of my books and asked me how I managed to do it. The link is here, if you want to read it:

    https://joannegphillips.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/superstar-interview-terry-tyler-and-the-house-of-york/#comment-8162

    Hope it’s of some use to you! xx

  11. ps, the other thing you absolutely MUST do is to head each chapter clearly, with the name, location (if necessary), and time in which it’s written (I put something like ‘Erin: March-August 2012). And start it off with something that is peculiar to that character.

    If the characters are not clearly written, all the reader has to do is to put the book down for a day, and they forget from whose head they’re reading.

  12. I am so exhausted, I don’t know if I commented on this post or just thought about it. O_o How’s that for ya? Eh? Anyway, love this post. This is a huge topic (and, as always with writers, a controversial one) so I’m glad and not surprised you tackled it. 😉 <3 You rule-breaking word weaver!

    And I'm going to check out Breathe. Thanks.

  13. I found this post really useful. Made me think about my book written in first POV from 3 characters. Your point about which one is main character struck a chord with me. Hmmmmm needs more thought, so glad I read this.

    1. Glad you liked it – Nothing better than deconstructing something you have read – if you are writing from 3 POVs have you read any other books that do it that you liked? I am munching my way through a berzillion books in my genre – so that I can devour every ounce of their skills – I sound like a stalker don’t I?! lol.

  14. This post was very helpful! I’m fifteen years old, and I love writing. For the past three years, I’ve been working on my own adventure/fantasy/romance novel. I was inspired to start my own book when I noticed YA fiction is lacking morally-upright books that are still action-packed, intense, and captivating.

    Since my main character is incredibly round, complicated and dynamic, I’ve found that the story is easiest to follow from her first person POV. It’s a thrilling story! I want to share it with the world, but there’s still so much to work through in my head. After completing a short story and first draft, I am now working on my second draft, but I’m struggling to find her true voice. Do you have any advice for keeping the story’s POV intriguing and deep, but still consistent to my main character?

    1. Hey Sophie, glad you liked the post. I think most YA books are written in the first person POV, although not all of them. It’s a closer perspective, and by the very nature that you are only seeing the story through one persons eyes, its deeper. I am going to think about your question, when people ask me questions about advice, I usually mull them over, and then work up a post for a couple weeks time, so if you hang about or follow my blog, hopefully in a few weeks I will have a good answer for you. But off the top of my head I would say its all about emotion. Giving a story depth is about showing the range of emotions that character feels – usually conflicting too – and definitely conflicting in YA stories. If you know what your protagonists positive traits are – do you similarly know what her negative ones are? We all have them and its just as important that a protagonist has them – showing their bad side just as much as their good gives them depth, and also shows that no matter how consistent a person we are, all humans (characters) can be pushed to react to a bad situation and thats when they behave inconsistently. Its kind of ironic, but sometimes behaving out of character makes them MORE of a character and more consistent to your original design. Hope that helps, but as I say If you stick around I’ll draw something proper up in a few weeks for you.

  15. Sacha, this is another really helpful post, thank you. I kept thinking of ‘Gone Girl’ which I read a few months ago, making sure not to see the film first, of course! I was not expecting the two POVs, but you make a very good point here about it working better if the two characters are very different and male and female. In this case, it worked for me with GG because of the great story and I can see why it had to be done that way, building the true character of Amy for the reader so we could see who she really was. It’s done very cleverly but I normally would be put off by more than one POV. But then again, as you say, we read about writing rules and then we break them anyway…and if it works, then it works… 🙂

    1. Hi Sherri, thank you for taking the time to read it. Ahhh yes, unfortunately I made the error of watching the film first, also, someone told me the twist, so it kind of took the fun out of it anyway but that is a great example. Agreed, the POV may well have put me off before I read Breathe, but actually I think I would be much more adventurous now I read that book. And actually, I might even attempt it one day… possibly….maybe if Im brave enough!!!!

      1. Oh that’s a shame, I hate it when that happens. So hard to keep away from spoilers these days isn’t it? Never say never Sacha, writing takes us down some very surprising and challenging paths, so I’m discovering… 🙂

  16. Thank you so much for this post! Very well written and it made me want to buy this book.
    I stumbled upon your blog because I am struggling to decide if I should use the first or third POV. I want to alternate between a male and a female characters. Your lesson No 3 made me think because I keep wondering how do I do to show clearly that the girl is the main character given that they will both have a similar “air time” if that makes sense.
    Do you have any examples or advice on dual POVs where the main one is clearly showing?

    Thanks in advance and keep writing!

    Jen

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