Who’s Talking? The Perils of POV

I spent a good portion of the last few days reading submissions, and whenever I do so in a concentrated period of time, I start to trip over writing patterns. In this case, the pattern emerged almost immediately, as it only served to solidify a suspicion I’d been forming for months: First person POVs are all starting to sound the same.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. First person seems to have become the point-of-view of choice, particularly in young adult fiction where I rarely see anything else, and in some cases it is brilliantly done. There’s always a shining star of an example, a project where the voice is distinctive and consistent and draws you into the story. Unfortunately, these instances are few and far between.

First person narrative offers the writer a very specific set of challenges, the most obvious one being to come across sounding like the character and not like oneself. With young adult fiction, the second most common problem is capturing the teen voice—sounding like the young adult in question rather than a grown up struggling to remember their own teen years. Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is that writers stop there. They appear to believe that sounding unlike themselves and/or like a teenager is sufficient, and they move on to address other writing issues, from plot to pacing. But those challenges are only the beginning.

Who is your character? Who is this person telling the story? What makes them different, unique, worthy of taking the role of storyteller? First person protagonists are more than their actions within the story, they are the voice that welcomes the reader into the world, and as such the writer’s job is to know exactly how that character sounds. Who are they, and how is that reflected in the way they speak?

Speech patterns are a vital part of characterization, whether you write in first person, second, or third. Word choice and rhythms convey everything you wish to tell, or conceal, about your characters, and this is especially important when you are focusing on the voice of your story. What part of the country or world is the narrator from? You don’t need to spell out a heavy-handed, hard-to-read accent in order to make it clear that your speaker is from the American South or Asia or Eastern Europe; word order and vocabulary choice, along with a few facts, can put that voice firmly into the reader’s mind. Is your narrator well educated? From a wealthy background? Or do they come from a rural, poverty stricken locale where most kids stop going to school by the time they’re sixteen? How would each of these individuals sound?

Even characters who come from an average background—suburban teens whose main concerns are boys, grades, and parents—need to sound like individuals. If the character is interesting enough to become the focus of your novel, they are interesting enough to have a specific voice. The average teen narrator crawls out of my submissions pile sounding whiny and self-involved. The teen years can seem to be a selfish time anyway, but adding on a poorly written first person POV makes the entire opening of a manuscript sound like me, me, me. Even if that is your character’s persona at the start of the story, it cannot come across in a generic manner.

So how do you make your character sound unique? You need to get to know them, and often this happens in the process of writing your book. As the story progresses, most writers learn more about their protagonists than they did when they began, discovering how they react in various situations and what that says about who they are and how they come across to the reader. The key is to go back to the beginning once you’ve made these discoveries and incorporate them into your character’s opening voice. Don’t just revise for plot consistencies—make sure your character sounds consistent as well. This is important for any point of view, but with first person any deviation in personality or voice is much more obvious—and much more jarring.

Also, ask yourself what your character would be willing to share. Just because the thought might go through their head, does not mean it is something that needs to be voiced within the confines of the story. Restraint can sometimes be a good thing. In the same way that you should not include every bit of research you’ve uncovered while preparing to write your book, you should not have your protagonist blurt out every fact about themselves or idea to cross their mind simply because you, as the author, know that it exists. Information can inform the character’s personality without being included in the narrative itself.

First person POV can be an exciting, wonderful way to draw a reader into a story, but, if poorly done, it can also bore them to tears within a matter of pages. With first person, a reader knows almost instantly that this is the voice they are going to be following, this is the character who will lead them on their journey, and your job as the writer is to make that character a compelling one—someone with whom the reader wants to spend some time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be likeable—they can be intriguing or fascinating without being nice or loveable—but they do need to sound distinctive and to make the reader curious.

6 thoughts on “Who’s Talking? The Perils of POV

  1. Thanks for an interesting blog. Writing from a first person POV is difficult and probably not authentic if the author isn’t close in age, gender and location to the main character. In my YA novel the main character is a 16 yrs old Chinese woman living in China. I am not even close to her authentic point of views, so that story is told from the traditional third point of view. Also there is a parallel story line of a 16 yrs old American woman living in New York. So if the story was told from the first person point of view of th young Chinese woman, she can’t know about the other story of the young American teenager .. so you have to eliminate it.
    Personally, I think that you have to be a better writer to tell it from a first person POV. It is more of a challenge to make it authentic. I am not there yet, so Idon’t even attempt to write as first person. But I wonder why you get so many YA submissions written in first person. Did these authors learn from somewhere that that is the current “hot trend” so they write in first person? And If am allowed to ask one question .. I read on another blog that contemporary YA fiction without a hook is very difficult to place now. The blogger is on vacation, so she didn’t answer why is that. I can refer you to her post about it. Do you find it to be the same? Thanks.
    Best wishes in finding some gems among all the YA submissions, so your time spending reading all of them is worthwhile.

    1. I agree that contemporary YA is a difficult sell without a hook these days. In fact, it’s hard to sell any fiction without a hook of some sort. Novels really need something that makes them stand out. It’s no longer sufficient for them to be of publishable quality, there needs to be something that makes them marketable as well. It’s very competitive out there, and more and more editors are being forced to take the opinion of the sales force into account before they sign on a new book.

      As for why there is so much young adult fiction being written in first person, I suspect that it is in part because there have been some very successful first person YA books in recent years, and writers focus on what has been selling. Also, I think that young adult readers more than any other age group look to really identify with a protagonist, and so many writers feel that is easier for them to achieve in first person than in third. But that’s a guess on my part. And as I said, some of these books are indeed beautifully written, but many are not, and I agree that it requires more skill to achieve the right tone and voice in first person. There are certainly first-time authors who pull it off, and I’m not saying writers should discount first person as an option–just that I feel I’m seeing more first person submissions that fall short of the mark than I am seeing successful ones.

  2. Hi Nephele,

    Love the new blog! 🙂 Awesome. 🙂

    And this was a great post about POV, because I completely agree. Myself, I flop back and forth on POV, simply because of how the story comes to me. Oh, I know, such a lame reason, but it’s true. Sometimes the characters just start talking, and I’d better get it down or they’ll quit talking to me. And that’s worse, trust me. 🙂

    I’ve even done a few books in 1st and 3rd POV, alternating between chapters. How do you feel about those stories?

    Candice Gilmer

    1. Thanks, Candice! It’s still a bit of a work-in-progress, but I’m loving WordPress.

      Re: POV, I think it’s possible to combine first and third person in a single work, but most of the instances I’ve seen have been poorly done. I don’t think it’s the easiest task. Like anything with writing, certain techniques are going to be more difficult than others. It’s the type of thing I try to look at as part of the whole.

  3. Hi – I love this post, and would like to tweet it! I’m here from querytracker, and am a teen librarian as well as an aspiring writer. I purchase teen fiction for my library, and these days I’m seeing an awful lot of first person, present tense. When done well, it’s a compelling viewpoint, but it isn’t at all easy to pull off, IMHO. And you definitely risk monotony if you don’t do it well.

    1. Thanks, Mary, and thank you for dropping by. You can always Tweet any of my posts; I’m happy you want to share.

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