E. Michael Helms: Me, Myself, and I


Me, Myself, and I—or why I favor First Person Point of View

Why do I favor writing (and reading) in First Person POV? “I’m glad I asked that question,” I said. Okay, all kidding aside, here are a few reasons why:

Realism: We all experience life in first person. Think about it. When is the last time you heard anyone referring to him or herself as anything other than “I” “me” “mine” “my” “myself”? If your wife, husband, best friend, lover, or worst enemy dines out at a fabulous restaurant in your absence, how do you learn about their dining experience? It must be relayed to you through the spoken word from the individual’s own mouth. Think second-hand information. In real life, there is no “omniscient” being that can fill in the particulars about what your friend or cousin saw, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted during the meal.

Imagine you’re at a crowded stadium for your team’s most important game of the season. If they win, they play for the national championship. Lose—they go home—game over, season over. You are there, experiencing first hand (first person) the scent of hot dogs, popcorn, roasted peanuts, and draft beer wafting on the breeze. Not to mention the lovely young college lass wearing the low-cut blouse sitting in front of you. The air is electric. The crowd roars as you watch the quarterback scramble and hurl a sixty-yard TD strike to the open wide receiver. The roar is deafening, the stadium literally shakes, and you are there!

But what if you’re stuck at home with no ticket? Worse yet, your new sixty-six inch, flat-screen TV is on the blink. The game is about to begin as you frantically dial your radio to the station broadcasting the game, hoping to catch the opening kickoff. Ah, there it is, and the reception is decent—not great—but you can pick out what’s going on from the announcer’s running commentary. “Shotgun formation, empty backfield. Bronson studies the defense. He takes the snap, avoids a tackle and rolls out of the pocket to the right. Deshaun Carter has a step on the cornerback down the right sideline! Bronson sidesteps another rusher. He’s got Carter wide open . . . there’s the throw . . . it’s . . . Carter juggles the ball . . . he’s got it! Touchdown, Tigers!”

Which scenario do you prefer? (Assuming you are a rabid football fan; if not, insert your own favorite pastime.) For me, experiencing the game first hand wins, hands-down.

Walk a mile in my shoes: Another strong point for First Person POV is the intimate connection between the reader and protagonist. From the beginning the reader is “inside the hero’s head” and immediately privy to his thoughts and emotions. Nothing is “watered down” by the distance of a third person narrator. Reader and protagonist are bonded “in the moment.”

Strong characterization: Because the reader is inside the hero’s head, he/she quickly learns what makes the protagonist “tick.” The reader becomes a mind reader, knowing minute details about the protag that might not be revealed to anyone in the story, even our hero’s closest friend or love interest. Nothing is hidden from the reader. He/she sees all, knows all, even the protagonist’s deepest, darkest secrets. Quite an advantage, is it not?

Did someone say “pitfalls?”: Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there are—or can be—obstacles to First Person POV. If handled correctly, I believe first person is an effective and highly entertaining way to construct a story or novel. There are, however, a few things to be aware of:

Scenes where our narrator is absent. If our hero is missing from the scene, he can’t know firsthand what happened. This is where strong secondary characters can shine. The protag’s good friend was a witness, and through snappy and informative dialogue events are transferred to our hero. Or, our hero reads about it in the newspaper, or hears it as breaking news on the radio or TV. The point is, important information can be passed to the protagonist effectively in a variety of ways. Skillfully done, it works fine. Poorly done, it can kill your story and cause readers to abandon ship.

Sentence structure. I did this, I did that, I said, ad nauseam. Too many “I”s can quickly become irritating, especially used at the beginning of sentences. I crept to the window. I listened for any sign that he was inside. I pulled the revolver from my back pocket just in case he showed. You get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one. If you plan to use First Person POV be prepared to find innovative ways to break up the nasty habit of beginning too many sentences in the same paragraph (or page) with “I.”

The sounds of silence. There is always the danger of too much inner monologue, or thought, or reflection. If you find your protagonist slogging through a page or two filled with the above, hit the brakes. Break up those lengthy, silent soliloquies or risk losing the reader. Too much “silence” amounts to telling the reader, not showing. So, when your hero begins to wax eloquently to himself, have him receive a phone call with pertinent information that propels the plot forward, or a knock on the door from the cops warning him against crossing the line, or have him unexpectedly spot a suspect and decide to tail him. Remember, B-R-E-A-K it up!

Scarecrows won’t cut it. To pull off First Person POV for the long haul of a novel-length work, your protagonist must be stuffed with more than straw. He or she must be well-rounded, with a strong voice and a vibrant personality. A healthy dose of attitude always helps. Our hero can bend, but not break. Our hero has morals, lives by a code of honor that can’t be broken, but always has a flaw or three to balance things out. No Superman or Superwoman allowed here, unless you’re writing a superhero book. Above all, the reader must be drawn to the protagonist by that certain “something” all heroes possess to one degree or another.

Okay, there you have my perspective on First Person POV. I take full responsibility for my humble offering. I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts, agree or disagree. Or, the author of this brief article would enjoy hearing reader’s opinions, whether they agree, disagree, or wish to remain neutral in this matter.

“Oh, good grief!” –Charlie Brown




12 thoughts on “E. Michael Helms: Me, Myself, and I

  1. I also use first-person point of view in my books. It just came about as I was writing the outline. A very vague outline mind you. 😉 I like first person as it just seems more natural to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I find first person limiting, both as a writer and a reader. It can, when done badly, read like diary confessional stuff, or worse, voice over narration from a movie. I’m always reminded of The Great Gatsby when I start a book in first person, and therefore, the rest of us are fighting for second place. . .a distance second.

    But to be fair, I started off writing exclusively in the first person, and I, eventually, became bored with it. There are, of course, excellent examples of first person, but the narrator and the authorial voice have to be dynamic and unique, and that’s increasingly rare these days. Gone Girl and The Martian are but two recent and popular examples of first person that work quite well. I also enjoy the Mac McClellan series, too, but if I have my druthers, give me third person any day. Oh and there are some novels out there at least partially written in second person, too. Arkansas by Jon Brandon and Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell spring to mind. Both fantastic books, very engaging and well-written.

    Good discussion, Mike.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fun post, Mike. First person works well in certain situations, mystery novels are often one. But close third has it’s uses. Especially if you are writing multiple points of view. It’s really a call of what works best in each particular book. I’m partial to first, and I like to read books in first, but sometimes…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fun? You seem easily entertained, Kait. 😉 My first book, a memoir of my tour in Vietnam with the Marines, was written in first person-present. Don’t ask why; it just happened. My two-volume Civil War/Reconstruction saga was written in multiple first person POV. I think it worked well, and is perhaps the best thing I’ve ever written. Of course the Mac McClellan series is in Mac’s voice. So far, the only book I’ve written in third person (mostly omniscient, though I might have strayed now and then) was my fictional autobiographical sequel about combat vets dealing with PTSD years after the war. I’m also proud of that one, although it stands alone as my only offering in third person.

    I’ve read TOMATOE RED by Woodrell, an excellent book in my opinion. It’s difficult to pull off any good book, no matter the POV. I simply wanted to express my feelings why I chose first person for the Mac series. Who knows, if I ever have the opportunity to write another book I might just slip back into third person. Here’s the deal: however you write, give it your best shot. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good article Michael. It’s very true that first can be good but only when used well but as you’ve said, it’s true about any point of view. I personally like reading and writing in third person. I found it funny as a number of the points you put for first person, I felt fit third person. 🙂 I think as an author its about finding what works for you and no matter the point of view, writing a good story, good characters and knowing how to use the point of view well. You have some really good tips for anyone writing in first person. I don’t think I’ve ever read any in second point of view – definitely not many books out there but cool that some decided to venture there. I’ll have to check them out. Have a great week Michael.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Maggie. Find your niche and go there. I have a couple of “literary”–type books in mind I’d like to write, even have most of the story plotted in my mind for one. Guess what? Both are envisioned as third-person POV. I suppose the best answer is, whatever floats your boat, go with it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Maggie. I’m convinced it all depends on the individual writer. If you can handle the POV well, it doesn’t really matter which you choose. Just make sure you know what you’re doing! Best of luck with the release of “Deadly Ties!”
    P.S. Maggie is a great writer — check her out! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. First is my preferred POV. No doubt about it. Especially in thrillers, 1st POV can make the storyline more chilling. But I also use deep third, alternating between three main POV characters (protagonist in 1st; the others in deep 3rd).

    Great tips for anyone thinking of making the switch. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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