Sunday, June 19, 2011

Benefits and Limitations of First Person POV

I'm very excited to make my first appearance on the Black Rose blog! My debut paranormal, Forever Freed, released a few weeks ago and I couldn't be happier to be part of the Black Rose group of amazing authors.

Today, I'd like to add to the discussion on point of view by talking about First Person point of view, which is the POV in Forever Freed.  First person POV is when the narration comes entirely from one character - the main character - and is the most intimate point of view because it allows the reader to get right into the head of the lead character.  I love how it allows the reader to feel the emotions, see the rationale for beliefs and decisions (no matter how skewed or unreliable), and hear the internal dialogue. In addition to intimacy, first person can create an immediacy of thought and action, because you're right there in the moment with the POV character. Done well, first person can also lead the reader to identify with the POV character, to develop a real sympathy for and understanding of him, even when that person acts in ways that aren't good or honest or moral.

Here's an example from Forever Freed, a story about a reclusive, empathic vampire who falls in love with a woman he planned to kill and her young daughter, then must fight his ancient guilt, bloodlust, lie by omission, and an old vampire rival who threatens everything he holds dear:
Soon, rich yearning tones filled the room. The melancholy of the anniversary hung over me still, and my dire need for sustenance didn’t help. It didn’t take long, therefore, before the image of the smiling blonde girl transformed in my mind’s eye into another girl, with olive skin and chocolate ringlets.
A girl who had once been my whole life.
 A daughter whom I had failed.
In hearing how Lucien Demarco hears the music, in knowing what's going through his head as he plays his violin, you are right there in the midst of his sorrow, guilt, and grief.

Here's another:
The next morning, I emerged from a normally restorative trance - a semi-conscious state that was my only form of rest - agitated and strung out. My body craved more blood, my mind yearned for Samantha’s joy. Jesus, I was just hungry.
One thing was for sure: I had to get out of my head. All night, the most punishing memories had assaulted me. I thought of Lena, my beautiful wife who crossed an ocean at my request, her body rounding with our second child, only to die at the hands of a monster who forced me to watch. I saw the tumble of my little Isabetta’s dark curls sprawled out over a blood-covered blanket. My conscience also pulled in Catherine, my best friend in this dark existence and also my lover for a time.
I had loved all of them. Failed them. Lost them.
         I muttered my aggravation in my mother tongue as I stalked into the bathroom. Setting the shower water just shy of scalding, I stepped in.
Here, the reader knows Lucien's planning something that's wrong (stalking the heroine with the intent to kill), but being inside his head, you also know tragedies that have brought him to this moment, the angst and guilt he feels, and you sense he carries all of this around like an unbearable weight.  First person allows you to manipulate your readers' emotions, even when you're character isn't behaving himself.

This excerpt, from Lucien and Samantha's first official meet, illustrates the idea of the immediacy of first person:
How ironic I’d been stalking her for days and now encountered her out in the open—though the comings and goings of patients, staff, and visitors continued to protect her. I swallowed thickly, acknowledging my rather dire undernourishment. Nearly six weeks had passed since I’d fed on a trio of wolves on the shores of Black Lake north of the city.
 I scoffed. I’d gone this long before without feeding, and now she had me doubting my control as if I were a neophyte. I was used to the clench of hunger in my gut, had forced myself to endure it for much of my existence--I usually didn’t tempt myself by intermingling with humans, though, let alone with one who was so appealing, but I was eager to taste and feel her happiness again.
So I resumed walking. Her feelings intensified within me as I approached. Forty feet, then thirty. By the time I was within ten feet, my mouth was so alive with the rich sweetness of her joy, I was salivating and struggling to keep my fangs retracted.
Her emotions provided such exquisite relief I couldn’t force myself to pass her by. Without a conscious decision, I stopped in front of her, her allure locking me into place as surely as if I were shackled. She looked up and smiled. Her teal eyes settled on me like a caress. In that instant, I needed to be in her presence. I hadn’t intended to, but I was going to have to talk to her now.
“Would you mind if I asked you a question?” I finally asked, working hard to make my voice relaxed, casual—the exact opposite of the tense anticipation that shivered over my skin.
Her brow dropped and her expression became a little guarded, but she smiled. “Sure.” Her eyes widened and her heart rate increased as she took me in.
I walked over to the bench and hesitated as my nineteenth-century manners resurfaced. “May I?”
She nodded uncertainly, her pose less relaxed.
So close to her for the first time, it took everything I had not to reach out and cup my hand behind her neck and pull her into me, particularly as her pounding heart pumped blood into a blush that spread from her face down her throat.
         Touch her. Feel her. Taste her. I shook the urges away.
The reader is right there in the moment with Lucien, experiencing all of his initial reactions to the heroine.  This excerpt also illustrates one of the limitations of first person--the meet is entirely from Lucien's point of view. Aside from his interpretation of her facial expressions and body language, and her dialogue, the reader doesn't know Samantha's reaction to him. Understanding that is a key to successful first person point of view - you can't include things that happen outside of the point of view character's first-hand, personal experience.  This made Lucien's empathic abilities very useful, because he could sense her reactions in a way that was a bit more reliable than simple impressionistic interpretation.

Two other considerations for successful first person are limiting the number of sentences beginning with "I" and avoiding filter words. Both are completely doable, though take some attention and practice.  Here's an excerpt that shows the difference between first person filled with "I" sentences and filter words, and a more effective one without:

The edited version:
Someone ran up behind me. I turned defensively, nearly dropping into a crouch, and was floored to find Ollie darting across the empty street while Samantha gaped.
“Lucien!” Ollie cried as she flung herself around my legs.
I froze. My mind was everywhere at once. The girl. Her heat. Her touch. Her scent—the spring hyacinths again. I held my breath, a last-ditch effort at restraint.
       Samantha’s confusion rolled through my body and played out across her face.
Same excerpt, but with "I" sentences and filter words:
I heard someone ran up behind me. I turned defensively, nearly dropping into a crouch, and was floored to find Ollie darting across the empty street while Samantha gaped.
“Lucien!” Ollie cried as she flung herself around my legs.
I froze. My mind was everywhere at once. I saw the girl. I felt her heat. I felt her touch. I smelled her scent—the spring hyacinths again. I held my breath, a last-ditch effort at restraint.
          I felt Samantha’s confusion roll through my body and saw it play out across her face.
See the difference? Starting too many sentences with "I" is not only repetitive, it's also redundant. In first person point of view, everything happens to the main character, so the "I" is often understood.  Similarly, filter words such as I saw, I heard, I felt, I realized, I touched, I smelled, I noticed add a layer of distance (the filter) between the reader and the immediacy of the action, and are also redundant. Again, everything that is seen, heard, felt, realized, touched, smelled, and noticed is done so by the first person narrator, making filter words usually unnecessary.

So, do you enjoy first person point of view (reading it or writing it)? What are your favorite first person stories, and why do you think that POV works so well in that story?

Thanks for reading!
Laura Kaye

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About Laura Kaye:
A multi-published author of paranormal, contemporary, and erotic romance with four books releasing in 2011, Laura Kaye’s hot, heartfelt stories are all about the universal desire for a place to belong.  Laura grew up amidst family lore involving angels, ghosts, and evil-eye curses, cementing her life-long fascination with the supernatural.  Though an avid fiction writer as a teenager, a career as a historian took her in other directions until recently.  Now that Laura’s inner muse has awakened, she’s constantly creating new story ideas!  Laura lives in Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and cute-but-bad dog, and appreciates her view of the Chesapeake Bay every day.

Forever Freed Blurb:
A heart can break, even one that no longer beats.

I stalk my new neighbors, a single mother and her child, drawn by the irresistible scent of their joy and love. I crave their blood, starved for some healing respite from my ancient grief. Now to lure them into my grasp.

But they surprise me. Little Olivia accepts me without fear or reservation—talking, smiling, offering innocent affection that tugs at my long-lost humanity. Her mother, Samantha, seeks me out when she should stay away, offering sweet friendship, and calling to the forgotten man within me. They lure me instead.

Ah, Dio, Lucien, run and spare them while you can…

5 comments:

  1. Hi Laura! This post was enjoyable to read, especially the caution against starting too many sentences with "I". (You can see I'm trying to avoid that in my comment, hee hee). Very clever to use an empath vampire to sense the reactions of other characters, thereby avoiding one limitation of first person POV.

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  2. Laura, thank you for this post. My three novels are all first person POV and your words were extremely helpful for me to see the difference between good writing and redundant writing. I liked the way you showed the difference between a scene with a lot of "I's" and one without. Very helpful.
    Thanks.
    Patti

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  3. Great post, Laura. I think your examples on cleaning up the writing can be used for third person POV as well.

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  4. Jen--thanks for your comment, avoiding all those I's can be tricky!

    Patti--glad you found the examples helpful!

    Isis--I completely agree the filter words can be avoided in third person POV as well.

    Thanks for your comments everyone!

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  5. Thank you, Laura, for writing this entry! Since I write with a first person POV I found your post enlightening and helpful.

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