Pub Rants

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(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

First person POVs can be awesome. Writers can nail a snarky voice of a character or infuse a lot of witty dialogue with it. First person POVs can stand out as distinctive. Earlier this week, I was reading a sample with that POV and although the voice was strong and the dialogue snappy, something was just off for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then this morning I woke up with a bit of a eureka moment.

The writer was using the snarky internal observation of the main narrator to describe the other characters. Well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except, wait for it, that’s all they were doing. In other words, the writer was using the witty voice to tell about the characters rather than actually developing the characters in the scene itself  (as a writer is forced to do when using the third person narrative structure).

If the scene is strong enough, the writer can probably get away with it. But if the scene is feeling flat with only the witty voice to carry it, then it’s going to be one-dimensional and feel off.

In short, the writer is still telling instead of showing character.

I’d have to give a whole chapter to show what I mean and in this instance, I certainly don’t have permission to do so. But if you’re writing first person POV story, get with your critique partner and see if you might be guilty of that.


20 Responses

  1. Heather said:

    Wow, that’s a great observation, and something I think I may be guilty of in my first draft of a manuscript I created last September. I will keep that in mind when I come back to review it.

  2. Gin said:

    Also, if all the snark is internal, in the narrator’s voice (first or close third), it’s not being shared with the other characters. The reader knows the narrator is witty, but the other characters don’t. I remember reading a romance that was very funny, until it dawned on me that the heroine wasn’t sharing her snark with the hero, and part of what he liked about her was her sense of humor, except he never got to know her sense of humor. Especially in romance, it’s more effective when the h/h snark together, and they really get each other’s sense of humor.

  3. Yvonne Osborne said:

    Just found your new home here. I started my first novel in 1st person then changed pov upon advice from my practicum prof. It’s not for rookies, that’s for sure. Congrats on snagging Wool!!

  4. Rebecca R Kovar said:

    I think the most difficult part of writing first person POV is restricting yourself to what your character can actually know at any given moment. I never thought about the description angle. Now I’m going to have to look out for that. Thanks!

  5. James Ziskin said:

    Interesting post, Kristin, as always. One thing to bear in mind about a snarky first-person narrator is that that the very snarkiness is “showing” a lot about the narrator, if not the other characters. That may not be better writing or story-telling, but then again it might be…

  6. Claudia Carbonell said:

    I believe that it doesn’t really matter what POV you’re using as long as the story is well told and for the author to breath life into the characters. Thanks for the observation!

  7. Gigi said:

    A Q (I hope you can answer!): this will probably just pertain to romance writers, but I’ve heard rumors that NY publishers are increasingly likely to offer contracts for their digital-first lines–where and how does an agent fit into the equation?

  8. Ka-Yan Bakalar said:

    What a great observation, I’ve never thought of this. I must say, when 1st person is done well, it can be so powerful. I especially love the fact that 1st person, unlike 3rd person limited, really allows the reader to make up her own mind about the characters around the MC. Mastering this, though, is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

  9. A M Perkins said:

    I read a novel recently (no names) where this was a major problem. It culminated (for me) with the first person character telling the reader that another character was absolutely hilarious – that it was their number one attribute.

    I waited the whole book for that other character to say something even remotely funny. No dice. I was honestly disappointed – I wanted funny, dangit!

  10. JM said:

    In the final book of ‘The Hunger Games’, multiple characters sit around a table and basically have to tell the reader why Katniss is still likable and worth rooting for, because by that point things are happening _to_ her vs. her actually _doing_ much of anything, much less anything that shapes character. It fails. Same phenomenon.

  11. Lewis Preschel M.D. said:

    Often when the internal monologue gets good and snarky, and yet the scene is passive, the writer is writing for an audience of one, the author. It is telling, not showing. The writer does not notice this, because they see the scene in their head. Their attention is focused on writing not showing. However, being witty interferes with and intercepts the action before it reaches the written page. That’s why we all need a critiquing group or partner. They see it immediately. Write for the reader and this happens less often.
    Leonard Elmore said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

  12. Mary Jane Cole said:

    Such good advice! Now, I can pinpoint my new characters’ qualities alot better. Thank you!
    Author of, “Gorko!: Mississippi Mud and Moscow Madness” (2013 RUNNER UP IN GREAT SOUTHEAST BOOK FESTIVAL) and “The Perfect Dress”. Self published by Author House.

  13. Dee Jordan said:

    I write mainly in first person POV. I found what you said to be extremely interesting. I will read through my manuscript and look for this. Thanks for the tip. I try hard to develop my characters and tend to use dialogue peppered with characterizations. (I think, now I’m scratching my head.)

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