A little while back, we did a general post all about the basic differences between first person point-of-view and third person point-of-view. But once you've chosen a POV for your novel, how do you use it to the fullest advantage? Here are a few things to keep in mind about first person POV as you get started:
1. The POV you choose will affect your narrator's voice.
In the case of 1st POV, your main character's "voice" is the same as the narrator's voice. Everything gets filtered through them. As the main character's emotions shift in response to the story's events, so will the narration.
2. The POV you choose will affect whose side(s) of the story you can tell.
When the main character is telling the story, you're presenting their version of events. Take, for example, the children's tale of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. The pigs' version of events is different than the wolf's. There are a few clever adaptations that tell the wolf's side of events instead, and events and motives are drastically different when Big Bad is the one in charge of the narrative.
3. The POV you use will affect the overall theme and mood of your story.
To use the example of the Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf again, think about the themes of the original story. The first two pigs are lazy and lack foresight, and almost get eaten. The third pig saves the day because he chose to work hard--and apparently knows enough about building that he can make a pretty solid house. The mood is tense, if you don't know what's going to happen, and the theme is that hard work is rewarded.
Now, if the wolf were telling the story, it would have a different feeling. Some retellings have him angling for sympathy; he's just a poor, hungry wolf, following his nature, after all. Some have him arguing there's a conspiracy out to get him. Some frame the entire incident as an accident, a misunderstanding, that ended up with his good name being dragged through the mud. The wolf's story could have many different themes, but it probably isn't going to be anything like the pigs' version.
So your main character is going to tell a different story than their sidekick. Their emotional arcs will be different. Whatever your character is struggling with will have a lot to do with the overall mood and theme of your story.
4. You can use POV to your advantage when you work on Showing vs Telling.
This is my favorite part of POV. Personally, I imagine 1st POV as being like a magical/future tech type of contact lenses. These lenses let the reader sense everything the character is sensing, and hear their thoughts. With good contact lenses, the wearer forgets they're there, because they're unobtrusive. That's how your POV should be. Show the reader what the character is experiencing, instead of having the character recount it for the reader second-hand. For more tips on this, check out the series we did over this past summer!
5. Always remember that you can't show events your narrator doesn't know about.
This is an important one. It sounds simple, but it's easy to forget. If the main character wasn't present for a conversation, they can't know about it unless someone tells them. If they're worrying about a long-lost friend, they can't say "I'd never see him again." Because the main character doesn't know that yet. Your main character can't know how someone else is feeling, unless that character demonstrates their emotions somehow. The main character can't think "John was sad because he flunked his math test" unless you've given the main character enough clues to come to that conclusion. Bottom line: if the main character has no knowledge of it, they can't narrate it.
Hopefully these deep dive POV tips are helpful! A lot of them cross over to 3rd person POV also, but we'll do a separate post on some of 3rd person POV's quirks and benefits soon.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!