Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Writer Wednesday: Description in First Person POV


Today's topic comes curtesy of Fiona Phillips, who asked:

"In your opinion, does writing from first person perspective limit the amount of description you can use (of surroundings, characters, etc.)?"

First, that's a great question, so thank you for posing it, Fi. If you're comparing first person to third person, then the answer is yes. Unless you have a main character who is extremely perceptive, you're not going to get the same level of description in first person as you would in third person. However, that doesn't mean you can't have a good level of description in first person POV. It just means you have to tackle it in a different way. 

In third person POV, you can easily set the scene, describing as much as you want. But with first person POV, you have to make sure the description is coming across in a more natural way. If the character is entering a scene that's unfamiliar to him/her, it's natural to take in the scene, thus describing it for the reader. However, a character wouldn't naturally walk into the house they've lived in for the past ten years and comment on all the details of the layout. What you would need to do is describe that layout in terms of where the MC is and what the MC is doing. The MC might toss his/her keys on the mahogany table against the wall as he/she walks in the front door. He/she might trip over the runner in the hallway on his/her way to the living room, where he/she flops down on the brown, leather couch and puts his/her feet up on the glass coffee table. See what I did there? I'm giving details to describe the scene as it pertains to the MC.

So, yes, you can have that description, but you need to tie it to the MC and present it as it makes sense. It's different from third person POV, but it can be done. I hope that answers your question, Fi!

*If you have a question you'd like me to answer from the other side of the editor's desk, feel free to leave it in the comments and I'll schedule it for a future post.

19 comments:

  1. About two weeks ago I've read a novel that was way too descriptive (it was written in third person). In this particular case, the first person POV would have made all the descriptions more natural, because the MC was a very perceptive ten-year-old girl. A child narrator wouldn't necessarily know what to leave out, and she would want to tell the readers everything about each and every one of her pets, about her clothes (especially her hats, because they were important to her), her parents, her friends... She was the type of character who would describe every detail.

    Of course, that's a very specific case.

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    1. Determining third or first person POV should take the level of description into account, in my opinion.

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    2. I agree! It was the first novel of an inexperienced author, and it looked like the editing was done in a hurry (I think that the publisher insisted on the book coming out in time for the Book Fair, and the editor did what she could with the little time she was given).

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  2. Thanks for answering my question, Kelly. That's really helpful.

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  3. You hit the nail on the head, Kelly. Excellent way to illustrate the difference. Choosing the POV is probably the most difficult part of writing. I couldn't figure out which worked better for my second novel--1st or 3rd--and ended up writing the book both ways to see what I liked better.

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    1. I've done that too! Sometimes you have to see it both ways to know which is better.

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  4. Thanks for breaking down the difference Kelly. I prefer third person. The trouble comes with which tense to use. Simple past or past progressive? But then I end up mixing and switching tenses. Is there a trick or tip to keep your tenses straight/consistent?

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  5. Completely agree with this! For me, writing 1st person POV would seem easier if you're experiencing the story only. World building is much easier done with 3rd person POV.

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  6. Great advice. The only thing I'd add is to stress the natural part of 1st person. As a reader it drives me crazy when an mc thinks of their fiery red hair, because what person would think of their own hair with such a flowery description? If they compare it to Lucille Ball's or Dorito dust...way more natural. ;)

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    1. Yes! When authors do things for convenience instead of doing things naturally, it jumps out as weak writing.

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  7. I can see that getting pretty complicated pretty fast!

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  8. Most of my MGs stories are in first person, which is the voice that told them to me... What I find interesting is that very young children refer to themselves in the third person, and simple short PBs feel more natural in third person.

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    1. PBs definitely do tend to lend themselves to third person.

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