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 The Artistry and Craft of the Bard

Point of View—An Overview
Part One—First Person

© 2002 by Lifetrekker
All rights reserved.

"Point of view may be the single most important choice
a writer makes.... Point of view offers the controlling framework
that shapes any fiction and determines its dimensions."
Alyce Miller, Author of Stopping for Green Lights (Obstfeld, 38)

Point of View is an essential element in the artistry and craft of the bard. It is the lens from which we see a story unfold. If you were to go to your collected library of mainstream literary novels, mysteries, romances, adventures, fantasy, etc. and flip through the pages, you would notice that every single story is told from a specific point of view. Several different options are open to a bard when it comes to choosing a point of view. They are writing from the perspective of a first-, second-, or third-person narrator.

First-Person Point of View

In first-person point of view, the story is told through the eyes of a single character. It is the eyewitness to the action. The reader receives all of her information through the filter of the character, usually the protagonist or another main character. The predominant pronoun is the first person: "I, me, mine, us, our, and we."

Example: "I woke up this morning with a splitting headache. Perhaps it was the fifth of gin I had consumed the night before or maybe it was my guilt pounding at my conscience. Whatever it was I knew the day already sucked. There was no way I could simply hide in my darkened bedroom. I had to go. I had to go and find her. I had to go and find her and tell her that I had been a complete ass and beg her forgiveness. I had to ... oh, hell, and at that thought a violent spasm took hold and I wished for Hades himself to help me end the agony."

First person is a favorite among writers. Edgar Allen Poe used the first person in his "The Tale of the Tell-tale Heart":

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."

Another famous novel written in first person is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would civilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

There are many wonderful examples. Why is this point of view so popular? Raymond Obstfeld writes in the Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000) that "the intimacy of the ‘I’ immediately makes the reader feel like she has a friend who’s going to share some juicy personal experience. It’s like reading someone else’s diary." (Obstfeld, 40).

To do justice with this voice, the author, much like an actor, must step back from herself and block the voice she most often hears in her head, her own voice. Unless the first-person point-of-view character is herself, as in an autobiography or memoir, the character is that, a character. The voice should be distinctive from the author’s.

To put this in perspective, think of your favorite actor. If you have seen that person somewhere, like an interview, simply being who she is, recall that reality. Now, take that person and think of the roles or, better yet, the characters she has created. No relationship. The actor is not the character and the character is not the actor. The actor may draw upon pieces of herself and bits of knowledge acquired through experience (Stanislavski’s Method), but the product, the character, is not the actor.

In building a first-person narrator, the bard must do the same. Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, Speaker of the Dead, Xenophile, Children of the Mind (Learn more about Orson Scott Card at, writes in Writer’s Digest Books’ Elements of Fiction series: Characters and Viewpoint that "when you use a first-person narrator, you are almost required to tell the story in someone else’s voice—the voice of the character telling the tale. A careless writer will have all the first-person narrators talk amazingly like herself, but if you take characterization seriously, the use of first person will lead you to discover a new voice for each story told by a different narrator."

Monica Wood adds a wonderful list of first-person dos and don’ts. Beside the first two, which I have discussed above in detail, she adds:

  • Allow the "I" narrator [her] own quirks, prejudices, and vocabulary.
  • Make sure the "I" narrator’s observations fit with her world. A professional skater might call the night sky "black as ice"; a printer might call the same sky "black as ink."
  • When the narrator is a child, simplify the vocabulary but don’t necessarily drop all imagery from the prose. A child sees in simile, too: "The dog was big as a bear."
  • When the narrator is an adult looking back (a reminiscent narrator), watch for sentimentality. Avoid cliché. Use the specific in place of the abstract. Replace indistinct feelings ("I felt nervous") with something the reader can see or feel or hear: "Every tick of the clock sounded like a gunshot." (This is also true for the other points of view)
  • If you want the reader to get a physical picture of the narrator, be careful about letting the narrator describe [herself]. Don’t use mirrors, ponds, or storefronts to let the narrator see [herself] and relay what [she] sees to the reader.
  • The "I" narrator should describe himself only if the description also reveals [his] personality: "I admit I was a handsome devil." Otherwise try the following techniques:
  • Describe by association: "I’m husky like my sister."
  • Use the plot: "Because I was tall she put me last in line."
  • Use an observant second party: "I thought you’d look much older," he said. (Wood, 99-100)

There are dangers and disadvantages in using the first person.

  • First-person narrators can be unreliable. They might lie. They might lie to others, the audience, and to themselves. If the character is meant to be a liar, the bard must find ways to let the audience know that he is a liar. The easiest way is to have the character get caught in the lie. The story of Pinocchio, if told from Pinocchio’s point of view, would be a good case in point. Almost immediately in the story, he lies and his nose grows and he is forced to admit he has lied.

    Another way to let the reader know if your narrator is lying is to create a character whom the reader can trust. That character can verify the information and key events that take place in the story. In Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket is the character who corroborates the truthfulness of the information.

    The movie, The Sixth Sense, is another excellent example of this technique. In this film, the main character played by Bruce Willis does not know he is dead. Various clues like the appearance of red and the dropping of the temperature provide clues. More important, the young boy played by Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. As the film progresses, the audience comes to understand that Bruce Willis’ character is dead. The clues and build-up are subtle. A masterpiece of writing and film.
  • First-person narrators can withhold information. First-person narratives often take place in the past. The narrator describes what has already happened. Since the events have already taken place, the narrator knows the story’s end. (This is not so in first-person narratives that take place in the present tense. Sandra Scoppettone’s Lauren Laurano mystery series is a must for alt writers who would like to explore first person working in the present tense. To learn more about this author visit

    Let’s say you pick up a novel and read the following:

    By the end, I had figured everything out. The mystery was too obvious. Cheryl was no murderer. Kip had not died. He had faked his death and left behind the hate that had festered within his soul. The marriage had been a sham. He had only done what society had expected him to do. He had married, sired children, had worked off his ass to provide hearth and home, complete with the requisite tree house and a white picket fence. Dead, he had exacted his revenge and had escaped to the Castro and melded into the fabric of the life conformity had denied him.

    Why go any further? The plot is solved, all major questions answered. The reader has no need to read on.
  • Another error authors make in regard to first-person narrators is the way they handle information in general. Example:

"Tell me about Delores," I pressed again.

Taking a deep breath, Daisy’s eyes flicked up the street and down. "You don’t know what you’re asking. I’m one dead bitch if Arlo thinks I’ve snitched."

"Snitch or not, what do you think Arlo’ll do to you when he learns that you and Delores are like this." I held up my left hand, the middle and index finger crossed. "You’ll be a dead bitch any way." I smiled when I saw the flame of disgust spark. I had to sigh. Somehow, she looked vulnerable. So young. Scared. "Daisy, come," I whispered and guided her back down the block.

"Where we going?"

"Somewhere safe," and when we got to my Ranger, I opened the door. "Come on. The corner’s no place until we find Arlo. Come on."

She slid in to the passenger seat.

"Buckle up," I chuckled, as I fastened my own and fired the ignition.

"How can I trust you?"

I put a hand on her arm. It was cold. Shaking. "You can always trust me." She nodded and I pulled out into the traffic. "Okay," I said when I was sure that the Waste Management truck bearing down on my bed wouldn’t land us both in Dominican or worse. "Spill it, sweetheart."

"She’s dead," she said. Then she told me more.

Here the author, in this case, me, is "diddling" the reader. While the reader may allow the first-person narrator to withhold the ending, holding back information that allows the reader to connect the dots of the plot is at the very least annoying.

She is creating more distance between the story and us by making the narrator an artificer, our enemy in the quest for information instead of our ally. The author who does this thinks she’s increasing the suspense. In fact, she’s weakening the suspense by decreasing the reader’s involvement with and trust in the narrator.... instead of saying "Then she told me more" ... some authors don’t even say that much—they just have the character remember at some key moment later on, "I thought back and remembered something else [Daisy] said, something that didn’t seem important at the time." Now, if what [the narrator] remembers is something [she] told us [Daisy] said at the time, that’s perfectly fair; but if this is new information to the reader, [the reader has] a right to feel ... improperly deceived.

The worse case is when the first person narrator refuses to tell the reader something that she herself did. (Card, 150-1).

This error in writing doesn’t just occur in first-person narratives. All too often, novice writers make the same mistake when writing in third person.

  • First-person narrators cannot read minds unless they truly have the gift of clairvoyance.

I watched Nova as she spoke to Marie. She wore an easy, gentle smile and laughed. She was happy. Her boyfriend had proposed and she was already making plans for the wedding she just knew would be spectacular. Everyone back at the country club would not just be green with envy, but they would forever be in her debt. Just to be invited, especially if the new president could also attend.

Clearly, as the first-person narrator relates this event, she cannot know what either Nova or Marie is thinking. This is an error almost all novice’s make. The error occurs not only when writing in the first person, but when writing in the third person. The only way a narrator can know what is happening is by overhearing the conversation or being clairvoyant.

  • First person is more presentation than second or third person, and the readers notice the narrator more. It is also intimate, and the reader can come to know the character, not just be part of her thoughts and dreams but feel what she feels.

(To be continued.)

Card, Orson Scott. The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Characters & Viewpoint: How to Invent, Construct, and Animate Vivid, Credible Characters and Choose the Best Eyes Through Which to View the Events of Your Short Story or Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988. Pages 126-174.
Checkoway, Julie, ed. Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1999. Pages 95-124.
Davis, J. Madison. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 61-77.
Ducornet, Rikki. The Stain. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1984.
Novakovitch, Josip. Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995.
Pages 99-126.
Novakovitch, Josip. Writing Fiction: Step By Step. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998. Pages 72-91.
Obstfeld, Raymond. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 38-50.
Wood, Monica. The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Description: How to Engage Readers and Keep Stories Moving by Creating Vivid, Believable Depictions of People, Places, Events and Actions. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1995. Pages 84-118

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