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First-person POV: Common problems and how to fix them

This blog post covers:

  • What first-person POV is
  • The advantages and disadvantages of using a first-person POV
  • The two main types of first-person POV – embedded and retrospective
  • Common problems and how to fix them
  • The use of first-person POV in ethnography

First-person POVs have become increasingly popular in various fiction genres over the past few decades. Meanwhile, if you’re writing memoir or ethnography, you must use a first-person POV. That is, unless you are doing something really experimental.

A quick summary of first-person POV

A first-person POV is a narrative written from an ‘I’ perspective. It’s especially popular in:

  • YA fiction
  • Romance

And it’s how you normally tell the story in:

  • Memoir
  • Ethnography

Here are two examples:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth, but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.

The Hunger Games

When I first arrived in the field, I went to speak with the village chief. She invited me into her office.

The Narrative Craft

Advantages and disadvantages of a first-person narration in fiction

AdvantagesDisadvantages
It’s the most immersive POV with minimal narrative distance.

No need to mark transitions between exploring a character’s thoughts and speech.

Works well when the viewpoint character has an obvious flaw that forms a central part of the story. 
It can sound heavy handed and filter words are often overused.

We’re stuck inside the perspective of one person – if that person has a bland or annoying narrative voice, we can get bored or irritated quickly.

It can be restrictive, even claustrophobic.

 

Two types of first-person POV: embedded and retrospective

When writing from a first-person POV, you have two main options. You can look back from a future point on earlier experiences (a retrospective narration), or you can write from an embedded perspective, focused on the moment when the action is unfolding.

This is NOT just about choosing which tense to write in. It’s about the distance you establish between your narration of the events, and the events themselves.

The tense you use does offer some clues though. If you are writing from the present, then you are definitely embedded.

Confused? Don’t worry, I’ll use some examples to make it clearer.

Embedded first-person POV (present tense)I reach out to stop myself falling  
Embedded first-person POV (past tense)I reached out to stop myself falling
Retrospective (past tense)When I was nearly thirteen, I almost fell over and dislocated my arm

The main difference here is that an embedded first-person POV takes us straight into the action unfolding.

Framing devices

Meanwhile, retrospective first-person narration uses a framing device. Examples include:

  • It was a hot July day …
  • When I was nearly thirteen …
  • When I first arrived in the field …

This framing is not about dating the action; rather, it is about directing the reader’s attention to specific features of the setting in which the narrative is about to unfold. (Ideally, these features should be relevant to what happens next – this is a common shortcoming with mentioning the weather as a cliched start to a chapter or scene!)

Let’s summarise embedded vs. retrospective first-person POV:

EmbeddedRetrospective
In media res openings (in the middle of the action!) “I cut the rope and the boat pushed off …”Uses a framing device “The summer of 2013 was unusually balmy …”
Hard cuts at the end of scenes.Armchair, distanced accounts.
Past perfect used for backfill. 
Insight as and when it occurs. (insight evaluates or judges.)Reflections.
Moves in time and uses anchoring devices.Fixed in time, telling the story from a later point.
See: CIEP Intro to Fiction module on first-person POV.

Issues with embedded or retrospective first-person POVs

If writing from an embedded POV, consider whether to use the present tense or not. The use of present tense in fiction can look unusual and conspicuous. This can break reader immersion as readers aren’t as used to it, and this can slow the narration down. If it is well-used, the reader won’t notice it as a problem, however.

Another problem with first-person POV in general is that some readers find it irritating.

If writing from a retrospective POV, one obvious problem in fiction is that we usually know the narrator has not died (unless they are a ghost). Be careful not to include lots of exposition alongside the narration (this is not much of a problem in many ethnographies, which often include a lot more telling).

Now let us consider …

First-person POV in ethnography and cultural anthropology

In fiction a first-person POV takes us into the mind and skin of another person. Exploring this subjectivity and their take on the world is key.

Ethnography, meanwhile, uses the researcher as a conduit to produce academic knowledge about a setting. The ethnographer’s personality takes a back seat (except in auto-ethnography), but it still spills through the narration.

This spilling will involve your personality AND your theoretical perspective. These will both affect what kinds of events, situations, and things you notice, and how you respond to them. Your POV will be present in the adjectives you use to describe scenes, situations and people.

Embedded narration in ethnography

In embedded first-person POVs, the action is usually happening in the present. This gives it an immediacy and is often more readily combined with thoughts and feelings. There is little psychic (narrative) distance between the reader and the text, which makes the description more powerful. Compare for example:

Embedded ethnographic account: Saturday was payday – finally!

Expositional discussion of the same event: The salary was due to arrive on Saturday 23 August.

Now, in the book Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian made some comments on the use of the ethnographic present vs. a retrospective framing. He cautioned against a danger with the present tense (embedded), in that it could situate the encounter as outside of history. Personally, I think opting for the retrospective for this reason would be a blunt tool. While what Fabian describes certainly can happen, the immediacy of the ethnographic present can make for more compelling writing.

Retrospective narration in ethnography

With retrospective first-person POV, the action is happening in the past. A time is usually mentioned in a more specific way to frame the relationship with the present, e.g.

When I first arrived in the field, I went to speak with the village chief. She invited me into her office.
It was hot July day and we had been driving for hours in the sticky sunshine.

A retrospective framing is common in ethnography because it allows the ethnographer to create a distance between the events and the narration. The act of looking back makes extensive theoretical commentary (exposition) on the ethnographic events possible. Just as in memoir, this is filtered through the distance the ethnographer has from the events, which is a powerful tool for casting their description of the events as reliable and trustworthy. Here’s one example from a draft of my early ethnographic writing:

One day a female friend and member of Zagreb Young Antifascists visited Belgrade, the capital of Serbia – where I was living at the time – for a conference. In the evening, we went for drinks in downtown Dorćol, where she then suggested spray-painting some antifascist graffiti messages in the neighbourhood, in which there were a large number of rich and complex graffiti murals as well as a lot of scrawl, largely written by a mixture of local ultras groups claiming particular territories, and far right political organisations such as Obraz, as well as occasional left-wing messages. After some time in the neighbourhood, we were positioned outside an entrance to a residential building, spray paint can in hand, when a man in his late twenties exited the building and tried to accost us.

This scene is about action: there is a potential fight about to happen. Even so, the narration is retrospective because the primary purpose of the narration is to expand theoretical understandings of gender and violence. The events are used as a repository of experience that are dipped into.

Cultural anthropologists:

  • Look over your previous ethnographic writing and figure out what framing devices are being used and how they are directing attention to particular aspects of your setting.
  • Do you use embedded narration as well?

And finally …

Whichever POV you pick, make sure that any shifts are clearly marked out to the reader.

You can do this by using section breaks, chapter breaks, transition sentences and by using strong, distinct character voices to mark the shift.

Hope you found this discussion useful! If you did, please sign up to Narrative Craft Magic below!

For more on POV in fiction and ethnography see:

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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