Honestly, I think books written in first person narrative should come with warning labels from the Library of Congress…like packs of cigarettes have from the Surgeon General. Its an awful thing to say…but I kid you not, that’s truly how I feel about 1st person. This does not mean that I absolutely won’t read a book written in 1st person, just means that:
- I’m less likely to read it and…
- I’m less likely to enjoy reading it.
Unless the book is a diary, a memoir, or a biography…1st person should be avoided like the plague. This is actually what I was taught in school. Every English teacher I ever had in Middle and High School warned me away from 1st person narrative…and at the time I remember thinking: If it sucks so much, why even teach us about it? I didn’t understand then, you see, the pitfalls of first person. Once my reading obsession began (and later my writing obsession), I totally got what they meant. It became painfully obvious why one should not use 1st person narrative.
- It creates an atmosphere ripe for randomness, lack of focus, and useless information. I mean, think about it a minute. Take a snap shot of your own personal thought process over the course of a day. How many random, useless thoughts and tangents do you think about? Me…OMG…I have a wandering mind. Now, think about if your mind was poured out onto the page…word for word. (And this is what most of these first person narrative books do, poor out one character’s thoughts for the length of the novel). With a few notable exceptions…most books that I have read that use 1st person have pockets of rambling or useless information, and lack of focus. This is not to say that other 3rd person books don’t have it too…but just that its more prevalent in 1st person narrative.
- No matter how interesting a character is…no one is so fascinating that I want to hear every single freaking thing they think about everything…all the time, for 300 to 400 pages. Its just TMI about one person, one opinion, one POV. One-sided, jaded, etc.
- Limits the plot/storyline in terms of character development. Its difficult to develop other characters when we only ever know what one person is thinking, feeling, seeing. All the other characters are shaded by this person’s view of them (which is just naturally bias by his/her own perceptions of things.)
- Limits the information that the reader can be told. The only events, knowledge we have is knowledge or events that take place within earshot and eyesight of the 1st person narrator.
- (Whether I am the reader or the writer) It just makes every aspect of the book more difficult and (9 times out of 10)…less interesting.
What I have noticed a lot of writers doing now is… have a 1st person shifting POV as an alternative to just straight 1st person. Now, this, I like. Because you get the best of both worlds. By switching between characters…you get more than just the one bias perception of things…Also, because it switches back and forth, there’s less time to lose focus, info dump or ramble. A book that I just recently read which did this very well (kudos): ‘A Nun Walks into a Bar’ by Tracey Jane Jackson. Also, ‘Breaking Dawn’ from the Twilight series, shifted between Jacob and Bella very effectively…It made for a richer story. Though I did like all the Twilight books even the ones written in strict 1st person from Bella’s POV (a rare exception for me). Still, at times I was frustrated with being stuck in Bella’s head.
But everything good has its drawbacks… I must also mention that there is an art to 1st person POV shifting.
- It has to be a smooth transition between POVs…and well-defined. (While I don’t write in 1st person, I myself still sometimes struggle with switching POVs with aplomb. There’s a delicate art to it.) What do I mean? Have you ever read a book where you get to some point and have no clue whose mind you’re in? Or who’s talking? This means, there is not a well-defined POV shift…its weak and confusing.
- POV can’t shift too often or its jarring. No matter how smooth or well-defined the POV transition is…If its happening every other paragraph, at some point its just dizzying. This was a major problem with the 3rd book in the Divergent Series (Allegiant).
- Shifting between TOO many people. If you shift POV…you shouldn’t shift between everyone and their dog. I have read books where every character in the book was telling the story. This is not good. Seriously, if you popped open a soda…would you let everyone in the room have a sip from your can??? Heck no, because it would be polluted after all those lips touched it. The same is true with POV shifts. Too many cooks in the kitchen ruin the soup.
D. Alyce Domain
*Tossing in my two cents*
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