I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you liked this post, subscribe here to get writing tips, tools and inspiration as well as information on the release of my books.