Wednesday, November 5, 2014

First Person POV: Building Kinship with the Reader by Jim Hill

First person point of view has found a home in middle-grade novels, and it’s easy to understand why. Though there are narrative limitations and challenges to writing in first person, the strengths can outweigh the weaknesses.

In her book, The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb states that one of the strengths is that an author can “create a sense of connection. The intimacy of first person sets up a direct communication between reader and writer.”

I refer to Lamb’s point as immediacy – the quality of bringing one into direct and instant involvement – and this connection may be one reason that first person is so engrossing to young readers. Using this technique the author draws the reader into the narrator’s private world, creating a confidante. That relationship empowers the reader with an insider’s sense of belonging. In a very real way, the narrator makes friends with the reader. They share secrets and concerns that others in the fictional world may not be privy to. BFFs in the making.

In The Lightning Thief, protagonist Percy Jackson opens the book by directly addressing the reader with a warning, and a confession about his true nature, that bridges the gap between narrator and reader.

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal lifeBeing a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.”

By starting this way, Percy presumes a level of intimacy and knowledge that we want to play along with. Even if we have no idea what a half-blood is we nod our heads and smile hoping we’ll get it soon enough. As if realizing that perhaps he’s opened up too much, Percy tosses out a disclaimer to keep the reader at arm’s length, in case we’re not like him.

"If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened."

After that quick rebuff, Percy then dives back into the warning, showing his concern while bringing the reader back into his circle of intimacy.

"But if you recognize yourself in these pages––if you feel something stirring inside––stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense you too, and then they’ll come for you. 
Don’t say I didn’t warn you."

First person narratives work by bringing the reader inside a private club for two. Reader and protagonist become confidantes in a shared adventure. 

Speaking directly to the reader also allows the writer the ability to establish a distinct voice quickly. Conversational quirks and flourishes are aimed straight at the reader. First person helps shrink the psychic distance, tearing down the wall between reader and protagonist.

By having the protagonist open up to the reader and share self-perceived vulnerabilities there is the opportunity to build kinship and reveal hidden truths. As the reader gains a deeper understanding of how the protagonist sees the world and reacts to it with asides and direct address, the reader can also discern how the protagonist may be misreading the situation. Just as in real life, confidantes can question the motives and authenticity of each other.

The affect of immediacy, and the opportunity to craft a unique voice through the protagonist's asides, make first person a compelling choice. With first person, the writer has the means to get the reader invested in the protagonist’s story from the very first words, a virtual arm around the reader. 

A whisper that says, “Hey, we’re in this together. Let’s go!”


  1. Fantastic post for anyone mulling over the merits of first person POV!

    1. Thanks, Michael. I find it very easy to write in first person, until you run into having to figure out how your reader can find out something your character doesn't know.

      Oh, I know, Invisible cloak. h/t JK Rowling.

  2. Not all, but certainly the majority of my YA manuscripts are ones I've written in first person POV. I never thought of it as being as appropriate for MG as it is for YA, but you're right. There's no reason it couldn't work.

    Great post, Jim!

    1. It's a natural fit for YA too. I have a wildly unsubstantiated belief that "kids today" relate to first person because of first person style video games.

      Somebody research that for me so I don't sound crazy. Thanks.

    2. I think there's probably sound logic in that. Also just the natural development of the ego.

  3. This is really smart insight into the function and use of first-person, and I think the "private club for two" concept is especially important.

    I've come in contact with a number of writers recently using alternating first-person to focus on two main characters, which expands the club, so to speak--and not for the better. First-person is a great way to establish immediacy with a single main character, but one of its limitations is that singular focus. Alternating first-person works against the function of the perspective, and is consequently rarely anything but jarring. A close third-person is almost as immediate, and handles multiple points of view far more effectively.

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

    1. Thanks, Harrison. The best dual narrative books I've read have effectively told two stories around shared events (Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, and Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones).

  4. I've seen some of this alternating first-person POV's to focus on a male and female character. For some reason, I always think of "Flipped" when I see this. Yet, it seemed to work for the MG I was reading and these were the books that my child was most interested in picking up to read.

    1. Hi Brenda. Yes, when done well alternating POV's can make a more compelling read. The trick is balancing the narrative so one character doesn't outshine the other. At least in my opinion.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!