First Person, Present Tense and POV

In both my novels I have chosen to write the main character – in both cases a female vampire, but otherwise completely unrelated – in first person present tense. Perhaps as a result of The Hunger Games, first person present tense has caused a lot of argument lately.

I am prompted to write about narrative style by comments in two recent reviews of Suzie and the Monsters:

There was a lot of switching between characters and made some of the story hard to follow.

which is from this review, and:

At times I struggled with keeping up with the POV and the events taking place or where in the time-line they were occurring.

which is from this review. (I am not complaining about these reviews – I’m really very grateful for them, and the 2-star review is indirectly flattering.) The second reviewer was kind enough to clarify (elsewhere, in the R2R discussion):

In the beginning I was confused as to who was talking. I feel like Suzie was telling the story and then the next paragraph it was someone elses point of view.

Okay, fair enough. Here’s the beginning of my novel:

The girl in the mirror looks young, maybe twenty, twenty-two years old, too old to still be in school, but young enough not to stand out in the company of older school girls or students, like those standing beside me at the mirror as Forever Red, chosen for its name as much as its colour, glides across my lips. Jenny and Lisa standing to my right, …

The narrator is Suzie, and the girl in the mirror is herself, so the novel opens with a distorted first/third sense of self. There are a few points (all in the first few chapters) when the narrative seems to switch to third person, but these are an affectation, Suzie choosing to describe herself and her actions in the third person. Chapter 2 starts:

The girl in the doorway, well, the woman in the doorway, …

and later:

The girl in the mirror is a mess, …

and later:

The girl in the lift is dressed in a dark navy blue Jaeger suit with a white shirt, …

and later:

The girl emerging through the curtain as Moby’s Extreme Ways thrills through the atmosphere of the strip club strides with an intense purpose, …

and finally:

The girl in his living room is a fantasy come true, …

Do you see the pattern? It’s not an accidental lapse into third person, but a deliberate narrative device. It was never supposed to be confusing; it seemed too obvious. And it’s not a way of sneaking in information that Suzie herself is not privy to. (If you ever get as far as the end of the novel, you’ll understand how strictly I adhere to that.) Only in the last instance does the POV appear to shift into another character’s head for a couple of paragraphs, but even that can be read as speculation on Suzie’s part.

I find it rather ironic to be criticised for doing something that I hate other authors doing. I get very frustrated with head-hopping, and it annoys me that even some very famous authors indulge in it (and are allowed to do so by their editors).

Head-Hopping – Switching Point of View

Recently I read a couple of interesting posts on Tilly’s Slaton’s blog:

I’ll let Ciara Ballantyne explain why head-hopping is wrong:

Why is head-hopping wrong? For the same reason multiple viewpoint characters when using first is unconventional – it can be jarring to the reader. Which character am I with? Who am I rooting for? Who am I supposed to be emotionally connecting with? These are questions for which the answers are unclear.

Of course, having the story follow the thoughts and feelings of only one person can be quite limiting. The solution:

You should only switch between viewpoint characters at legitimate scene or chapter breaks

I agree completely. I hate when the POV jumps from one paragraph to the next. Even worse when it happens within one paragraph. As Virginia Farmer says:

The Big No-No’s! Don’t change view points within a paragraph. It’s confusing to the reader. And a confused reader will often put the book down. And when in the midst of a scene, use great caution when switching the POV. Make sure the shift moves the scene, and that your transitions smooth and clear. Remember, every change of viewpoint disturbs your reader, so choose them carefully.

My first novel, Kings of Infinite Space, is an epic fantasy and there are several main characters. However, only Hrana, the vampire, has the first person voice. All other characters who get POV get the POV in third person (not present tense) for a whole chapter. The only exception is when the true narrator (Hrana speaking, as always, in first person present tense) interrupts briefly, and even then this a clearly separated section.

With Suzie and the Monsters, in trying something different, I may have scored an own goal…

First Person

First person is very intimate and very real – it feels like a real person telling a real story. However, it creates a lot of problems and dangers for authors, and here are some.

On the subject of (only) first person narration, Virginia Farmer says:

The pitfalls — this POV are that the character can come off as self-centered, (it’s all about them). Also, the view point character can’t describe himself/herself without using the old cliché of mirrors, windows, pools of water or the bottom of shiny pots. Another pitfall — the reader doesn’t know what’s going on with other characters in the book, and readers are nosy people!

Two of the comments to this post by Peter G. Pollak make interesting points. Ron Donaghe says:

I just finished editing a novel where, at the end, the narrator is in a coma, and yet the narration continues from that comatose narrator’s point of view. It’s an existential logic that defies the “I had an experience and this is what happened” part of narrating a story. We have to assume that the first-person narrator is sitting somewhere telling her story after it is over.

Well, there are stories like this, and there are even stories where the narrator is actually dead by the end of the story and is telling the story from some spiritual afterlife. It can be done, but needs to be done carefully. The reader needs to be treated with respect. Annie says:

My question is, if you are writing in first person past tense, can you/should you switch to first person present tense when discussing ideals, values, attributes that have not changed.

This is something that bothers me a lot, especially when reading first person. An example (from something I’m currently reading on-and-off):

The law system in this stupid country was flawed to the extreme. So much of it was crippled by corruption.

The events of the story may be past tense, but the narrator exists at the time of writing. Is the implication of the above quote that now (at the time of writing) the law system of this stupid country is no longer flawed to the extreme, and no longer crippled by corruption?

Let me indulge in a quote from Kings of Infinite Space:

Within hours the city was in an uproar and the hunt was on for a white-skinned blood-sucking demon. Needless to say, I left immediately with my figurative tail between my legs. (Sometimes life is just so unfair!)

I am one of a kind. Of all the vampires I am the only one with skin this colour.

The unchanging facts are clearly stated in the present tense.

Another danger of writing first person is explained by Lane Diamond in The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs!

Let us call them “I-Bombs.”

Almost every first-person narrative to cross my desk has languished beneath a series of I-bombs: I did this. I went there. I thought this. I felt that. I heard another thing, and I did that other thing. I, I, I, I, I, I, I…

Most first-person narratives, laden with I-bomb after I-bomb, devolve into a telling, boring, look-at-me-world bit of torture that causes many readers to scramble.

One of my favourite passages in Kings of Infinite Space exhibits this problem:

I look at Sier and I see her beauty with new eyes; I smell her delicate fragrance that reminds me of cherry blossoms and times long ago, before the Creation; I feel her warm, smooth skin with my fingertips as they caress her cheeks; I taste her exotic blood in the air – the vampire in her is latent but I could awaken it so easily, and the temptation to do so is very strong.

I lean forward and taste her lips; she draws back in confusion. I sense Stellar Tara’s indecision behind me.

That is an unusual point in the story, however, and the sense of self deliberately strong.

Problems, problems. So, why use first person? I like this explanation by Ivy Blossom:

I’ve tried to write in third person past tense lately, and I have to tell you: I find it deeply unsatisfying. I have questions about it that can’t be answered. Like:

Who is this person telling the story? Why were we never introduced? Why does no one mention him, or recognize him? Who are they in this universe, what perspective do they have? What is their motive in telling the story? How can I parse what the narrator is saying if I don’t know what he wants and who he’s routing for?

Once you start writing in first person, you ask yourself these questions all the time. Your character is part of the story, and you as the writer do not exist in their universe. Your word choices aren’t your word choices anymore; they’re your character’s word choices. Every sentence has meaning because of the way the character chose to frame it. You’re not just painting a scene for people to look at; the construction of that scene is part of the story.

Present Tense

Present tense for me only works in first person. Third person present tense is not something I can relax into, and second person any tense is just weird. But before diving into first person present tense, here are a couple of interesting articles focussed on present tense.

Editorial Ass has some very quick thoughts on the present tense, including:

In the present tense, you’ve already chosen the importance of, well, the present, which makes it much more difficult to escape artfully from the many boredoms that pad the interesting parts of our day-to-day life. This means that unless you are very, very skillful indeed, the format of your narrative may force you to include content that bores your audience, either directly or gradually.

It is a worry. Oddly enough, one of my goals in writing Suzie and the Monsters was to emphasise (some of) the normally omitted mundane reality to ground what is essentially a fantasy. One of my biggest gripes with urban fantasy is that all the day-to-day details are simply ignored, or handled in entirety by a cast of mostly off-screen characters. That may be good for the pacing of the story, but it divorces the characters from reality – which is fine, I suppose, for a purely escapist plot. Suzie and the Monsters may be fantasy, but it isn’t escapist.

In this article in The Guardian, Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense, the point is well made that present tense, when used sparingly, can provide vivid connections with the reader:

The present tense plays a big part, but again the effect of it derives from the contrast between the wide-ranging, all-seeing, intensely cinematic narration of the present-tense passages and the closely personal tone of the past-tense passages.

What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

First Person Present Tense

Talking specifically about first person present tense, Peter G. Pollak says:

First person present tense also creates problems of the pace of the story. Writing about the minutia of daily life bogs the story down and distracts the reader from the plot. It takes so long for the story to unfold that the reader is tempted to put down the Kindle and turn on the TV.

My feeling is that first person present tense works well when events are tightly clustered. The Hunger Games suits it very well, but in the sequels the story is spaced out over a much longer period and the present tense narrative suffers as a result, making Katniss seem frustratingly vague and disconnected.

The pros and cons of writing in first person present tense, by Anita Chapman, illustrates one of the technical benefits:

An advantage of writing in the present tense is it’s easier to refer to what happened before as the past tense can be used to do this. When writing in the past tense, referring to what happened before can be tricky.

This is certainly one of the things I like about it. I have the main story developing in the present tense, with memories of past events narrated in the past tense. I think it feels very natural.

Another major reason why I like first person present tense is that the narrator does not know what is going to happen. There is no certainty that the narrator will be safe, unharmed or even alive in a few pages’ time. And there will be no foretelling – I hate when authors say things like, ‘I turned left. It was the worst decision of my life…’

In conclusion…

Some readers dislike first person narration, and some readers hate present tense. We have grown used to third person past tense. It’s familiar and comfortable. It may not make much sense logically, but who reads fiction expecting perfect logic?

First person present tense is a difficult thing to write and get right, but there are times when it does work. I don’t think there’s any point in arguing over which narrative style is better. The choice depends on author, character and plot.

The reader chooses whether to read.

About Frank

A Sci-Fi & Fantasy author and lyrical poet with a mild obsession for vampires, succubi, goddesses and Supergirl.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Kings of Infinite Space, Suzie and the Monsters, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to First Person, Present Tense and POV

  1. Tilly Slaton says:

    This post is fantastic! I’m half way through your book, and I must admit .. WOW! I’m enjoying your writing very much, and if not for the exhaustion… I would not be answering the beckong pillow 🙂

  2. Yes, Frank…I had to read this after that lead line (thanks for the mention, by the way!)
    Although I like the present tense I I sometimes wonder how much of a ‘fashion’ it is? And I agree with some of the blogs you’ve quoted, in that if the reader is confused – then it’s not working.
    Do you think it’s a case of traditional vs modern or simply a matter of taste? As for POV, I really like to use the third person, limited omniscience which allows you to dip in and out of the protagonist’s thoughts.

    • Frank says:

      I think a lot of new writers embrace it without really stopping to consider how appropriate it is. The tenses used are often incorrect and the ‘now’ of the narrator unclear – and for first person especially this is critical.

      Funnily, the biggest problem I have as a writer is when writing dialogue because suddenly everyone is ‘I’ – it’s similar to writing lesbian erotica (for example) where all the shes and hers can get confused into an inhuman game of Twister.

  3. Well researched and explained Francis.
    Thank you.
    It has me thinking.

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