Using First-Person POV for Characters With Attitude

Using First-Person POV for Characters With Attitude

If you have a main character who’s articulate and has plenty of attitude, then first-person narration has more sizzle and sparkle than a more neutral third-person viewpoint.

Why? Because a first-person narrator can tell their tale with passion and conviction. This is quite hard to do with third-person narration.

One of my stories starts like this:

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

That’s Jen. She has a sharp tongue and a soft heart and her storytelling gives the reader both barrels.

But your viewpoint character doesn’t have to be verbally aggressive. Another of my first-person narrators, Flavia, is more genteel but has plenty of attitude in her own way:

He was a handsome boy of about fourteen, a year older than myself. He was tall for his age, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I don’t get along with my fellow children.

The Idea of the First-Person Narrative

A traditional first-person narrative works like this: The viewpoint character sits down and deliberately tells their story in their own words and in their own way.

In short, you get into your viewpoint character’s head and write down the story from their perspective, just as they would have written it.

This is a naturalistic form of storytelling and it’s easy once you get the hang of it. If you have a suitable story and a suitable character, you’re home free.

A Suitable Voice

Generally speaking, your first-person narrator should be as articulate in their own way as your third-person narrator, but less objective and more … something. Excitable, or maybe enthusiastic. Or depressed, funny, extravagant, or elegant. But definitely colorful. In short, different, but in a way that helps carry the story.

The narration isn’t the story, though: the story is the story. Letting the story grind to a halt while the narrator holds forth on random topics is hard to pull off successfully.

Framing the Story

Stories have an implicit frame. As I’ve already mentioned, the traditional frame for a first-person narrative is that the viewpoint character wrote down the story after the adventure.

You don’t have to mention this in the story itself, but it’s important to set the timeline in your head. There are a few choices here:

  1. The viewpoint character wrote down her adventure shortly after it ended, when she was still the same age and had the same attitudes as she did in the story. This is my favorite. It allows her attitudes and opinions to be the same whether she’s wearing her in-the-moment hat or her narrator hat. This maximizes intimacy (well, probably).
  2. She wrote her adventure years later, when she sees her actions from a more mature perspective. This distance is often used as a framing device in films (Titanic, Little Big Man), but I don’t really see the point in prose fiction unless you want to evoke the sadness of an era that’s lost forever, as in True Grit. It adds narrative distance; almost as if she were writing in third-person.
  3. She seems decoupled in time from her adventure, sometimes near, sometimes far. I’m not sure how to use this effectively. I only do this by accident, myself.

First-Person, Past Tense?

When we have a narrator with a foot in two different time streams (the time when the events occurred and the time they’re written down), the situation cries out for a past-tense narrative. When our first-person narrator uses the past tense, she’s using the timeframe of the story. When she uses the present tense, she’s talking about things that are still true when she tells the story, as in “Paris is the City of Light.”

For example, when Jen opens her story, “My boyfriend is a real piece of work,” he’s still a piece of work as she writes her story.

You can do the whole thing in present tense. This is especially appropriate if your story is set after present-tense narratives became common, so it’s more plausible that people would write true stories in that mode. I recommend Ben Aaronovitch’s What Abigail Did That Summer as an example.

Why Do Past-Tense Narration at All?

Jen sets the stage for the first scene like this:

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay.

Because Jen wants her readers to understand her story, she does deliberate framing, explaining things to her readers as necessary. Every time she does this in a way that isn’t purely factual, it reveals something about her character.

It allows her to use the benefit of hindsight any way she likes. She can describe action happening elsewhere as, “I didn’t know it at the time, but …” and “I learned later that …” She can also use as much foreshadowing as she likes: “This would turn out to be the last mistake he ever made.”

Our first-person narrator can also go off on tangents, tell the reader jokes, express opinions, and basically indulge in anything a real storyteller might. She can even talk directly to the reader if she likes:

You might think that Frank’s tragic past is romantic. You do, don’t you? You’re an idiot. It was 100% iron-clad board-certified Grade A bad news.

Whether this is a good idea or not is a topic for another day.


Write Like You Talk. No, Seriously!

Lots of great talkers are terrible writers. Put a pen in their hand and they become dull and inarticulate. Why is that?

I’ll give you a hint: I saw a TV program once that showed kids selling goods at a farmer’s market in Brazil. They made change effortlessly and with near-perfect accuracy. But when researchers asked them to use the arithmetic they’d been taught in school, they became slow, hesitant, and inaccurate.

It’s the same with writing. In school, we’re taught a cumbersome approach that cuts us off from our existing skills as completely as the guillotine cut off Marie Antoinette’s head. That isn’t a good look!

Why do schools do this? Not my problem. This isn’t about fixing the educational system: it’s about you.

It’s the same thing with public speaking. People who are fascinating when you talk to them at lunch become awful if you put them on a stage. But we’re not going to fix that one today.

If you can tell an interesting story without having your audience run away three times out of five, you already have what it takes to be a writer.

Any halfway decent talker can be an interesting writer. You just have to write as entertainingly as you speak. The “making stuff up” part of fiction writing is less of a problem. Channeling a lifetime of telling whoppers into writing comes more naturally.

I admit that you’ll eventually need to learn all the nuts and bolts of the written word: how to place paragraph breaks non-randomly, for instance. But the things you were taught in school that still give you that deer-in-the-headlights look today aren’t that important. Some were never important in the first place. The others you’ll pick up soon enough. In writing, the main thing is to get your story written at all, because you can’t fix it until it exists.

Surf the Colloquial Wave

The trend in writing over the past hundred years or so has been informality. These days, professional writing (and especially fiction) has its tie missing and its sleeves rolled up. It’s been a long time since the button-down look has been fashionable.

Not that beautifully articulate formal prose can’t be wonderful: it can. But it’s no longer fashionable, which means it’s not worth your time.

For example, you’ll notice that I, a professional writer, use sentence fragments. A lot. I’ll boldly split infinitives where no infinitive has been split before and I figure that a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence on. (Sorry, Mrs. Rosendahl.)

What I’m saying is that if you pretend that you ain’t never been taught no grammar, you’ll end up with prose that, paradoxically, is more likely to win you the Nobel Prize in Literature. Your odds go from “zero” to “so close to zero that it can’t be measured”—an improvement of infinity percent!

Write Like You Talk. I Mean It.

Here’s the deal: if you write down a story the way you’d tell it to a friend, it’ll be livelier than if you told it any other way. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. Liveliness isn’t everything, but where there’s life, there’s hope. Dead prose is hard to resuscitate.

Here’s the mindset to use:

  1. Imagine that you have a story you really want to tell and an audience who really wants to hear it.
  2. Imagine that your audience is by invitation only. No Negative Nancies; no Teachers from the Crypt with Red Pens of Doom. Just people who are interested in your story.
  3. Tell the story to your audience. (That is, write it down. Don’t just imagine telling it!) Tell it all the way through.
  4. Celebrate. You deserve it.
  5. After the celebration comes the cleanup. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ugly First Drafts

Many successful authors write first drafts that are so bad, you wouldn’t believe it.

Terrible first drafts are normal, even for the most successful authors. Don’t despair because your work isn’t as good as theirs, because neither is theirs.

They know the secret: you can’t fix it until you write it down. A story’s hard to work with when it’s still in your skull—it’s dark in there. So they bring it into the light and finish it in the second, third, or umpteenth draft. You can live down to this standard!

Ready, Fire, Aim

People who should be writing spend too much time preparing to write. Don’t do that.

When I get interested in something, I’m the King of Research. I read everything I can get my hands on, I watch YouTube videos, I listen to podcasts: the works. But I get my hands dirty at the same time. “Ready, Fire, Aim” is how I roll.

Let’s face it: the idea that you should sit in a classroom for years before you use your learning is what got us into this fix in the first place. As soon as you start writing your first story, you’ll have one relevant and meaningful question after another. That’s a good time to look for answers.

Be careful who you listen to! The best advice on fiction writing comes from published fiction writers. I’m especially fond of James Scott Bell’s books (and audiobooks) on writing fiction.


Here are some questions and answers to get you started, though:

  • Do I have talent? Sure. I don’t believe in talent. I believe that practice makes perfect. By leveraging your existing skills, you put your best foot forward.
  • Should I wait for inspiration? Never wait for anything.
  • Do I need to read a lot of fiction first? See my answer to the previous question. You’ll probably want to read more fiction once you become interested in the nuts and bolts of prose fiction.
  • How do I pick a title? No one knows! It’s typical to pick a working title and change it later.
  • How do I open a story? How do you do it when you tell one to your buddies? Maybe like that. The opening introduces the rest of the story, so if you haven’t written down the rest of the story yet, you can’t tell whether you have the right opening. So don’t lose any sleep over it. Look at examples from books that drew you in right away, too.
  • How big should my story be? How big a story do you tell your buddies? Bigger than that, probably, but not vastly bigger. We’re leveraging your existing skills here. Don’t write something as big as Game of Thrones as your first project unless you absolutely can’t resist.
  • Novels or short stories? One of those, yeah. Or both.
  • What point of view and tense should I use? How would you tell this story around a campfire? I’m a big fan of the first-person yarn, where the storyteller is the main character and presumably wrote down the tale after the events are over. It’s a very human mode. If that doesn’t fit your project, I recommend the much-maligned third-person omniscient mode, since it’s the other natural, traditional storytelling mode, used in everything from fairy tales to nonfiction histories.
  • How do I become rich and famous? When you find out, let me know. Part of it is “keep writing,” though. This is a craft. You’ll keep getting better as long as you keep working at it.

So now go write something.

Deep POV is Way Too Shallow

Hey, let’s kick around so-called “Deep POV” for a while. It’s fun! Beating it up is almost too easy, but let’s do it anyway.

The idea of “deep POV” is that if you take a stream-of-consciousness narrative and clean it up so it isn’t too unbearable, you’ve got something uniquely wonderful. (People usually define it differently, but then, they would.)

Now, with stream-of-consciousness, you have an inherently shallow point of view, reporting on the viewpoint character’s surface thoughts and immediate impressions as if you were a brain recorder. Nothing deep about it.

Deep POV is exactly the same thing, but while stream-of-consciousness tends to use lots of self-interruption and sentence fragments to maximize its own tedium in the cause of “realism,” deep POV tends to use complete sentences to make the story marginally less ghastly.

Part of the problem with deep POV is that it assumes that the inside of the viewpoint character’s skull is far more interesting than it really is. Let’s face it: it’s dark and wet in there.

This error is compounded by deciding that only the stuff the character is experiencing in the moment can be described at all. All the things that the character knows but isn’t actively thinking about are kept secret from the reader. Thus, if you want to give some background information, you either have to contrive a scene where somebody talks about it or force the character to ponder it, hopefully in a non-random-seeming way.

In an ordinary story, the narration is done by the narrator. Take a traditional first-person story. The author pretends that the viewpoint character first lives through his adventure, then sits down and tells his story as best he can. Narrating his own story, in other words. This lets the author tell the story in a straightforward way, explaining things the audience needs to know as needed. You know: the way human beings tell stories. This isn’t allowed in deep POV. Strangling the narrator is the defining feature of deep POV.

Why would anyone bother? Admit it: you’d rather gnaw off your own leg than read a stream-of-consciousness novel. You’ll never read one unless you sign up for the wrong English class. Thus, the popularity of deep POV is a mystery to me. I assume that it’s a literary fad that affects authors rather than readers.

I’ve noticed, though, that a fondness for deep POV occurs side by side with a second literary spasm: the superstition that “an omniscient narrator is ipso facto a head-hopping narrator.” This belief is drilled into the heads of aspiring writers in spite of its obvious silliness. Omniscient narration is a narrative form; head-hopping is a beginner’s blunder. It’s equivalent to defining a manual transmission as “stalling the car by letting the clutch out too fast.” Nope. Not even close.

What is my favorite narrative form, you ask? It’s the first-person yarn. For example, Robert A. Heinlein starts his classic Have Space Suit, Will Travel with the paragraph

You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way:

From the very first line, we know that the story will be told as a personal anecdote, entirely different from the brain-recorder approach that deep POV uses.

In one of the novels I’m writing at the moment, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen makes it clear from the first paragraph that she sat herself down after the fact and told her story in her own words (and with no attempt to restrain her teenaged attitude):

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

This entire paragraph would be impossible in deep POV, since it frames action that hasn’t been related yet, and that’s verboten. Nor would the next paragraph be permissible in deep POV:

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay. I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line. He was new and we’d never spoken, but we had a few classes together and I knew his name.

Only the sentence “I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line” would be allowed in deep POV, since Jen isn’t consciously pondering the date, the Top Forty, or the list of things she knows about Frank during that particular moment. In short, in deep POV, there’s no framing, no scene-setting, no nothin’.

As you can see, I use first-person narration when I want to take full advantage of the viewpoint character’s voice and attitude. I only use it for highly articulate characters. With characters who aren’t as verbally flexible, I use third-person. That way, I’m limited only by my own verbal ability. While there are exceptions where a not-so-articulate character can be a fascinating first-person narrator (Flowers for Algernon leaps to mind), it’s an awfully tough row to hoe.

Does deep POV have any advantages? I haven’t found one: everything claimed as a unique advantage of deep POV is something I’ve been able to do with other viewpoints.



Robert Plamondon’s Fiction

I have one complete novel out and several stories in the works. This site talks about my stories and also about fiction writing in general.

Silver Buckshot: Magic, Mystery, and a Most Aggravating Boyfriend

Serial Fiction on Kindle Vella. Read the first 3-20 episodes free. Discuss them here.

Read the first episodes free on Kindle Vella.

Thirteen-year-old Princess Flavia has endured a lot recently. Polio crippled her legs and killed her mother, her father is sunk in grief, and her servants veer between negligence and cruelty. She takes refuge in her books and never complains. But she draws the line at being murdered. She enlists fourteen-year-old Frank Barron, fresh from the California side of the gateway and the world’s most aggravating boy, to conceal her when the coup attempt begins. Things get interesting after that…

This is a Ruritanian romance, or, if you prefer, a romantic fantasy thriller with teen characters but aimed at adult readers.

As of this writing, four episodes are available. A new one is posted every Sunday.

One Survivor

Available now in paperback and on Kindle.

Order on Amazon.

When was the last time you enjoyed a science fiction book where teenagers put an alien ship back together? One Survivor is the kind of old-school SF adventure you love, with competent, strong-willed characters, believable technology, fast-paced action, humor, mystery, murder, betrayal, and a touch of the supernatural, all set against the backdrop of the ruined Terran Empire.

One Survivor will remind you of Heinlein’s early work, but with a depth of background more like Jack Vance. It pits fifteen-year-old Beverly di Mendoza against her parents’ murderers, on a backward planet whose inhabitants owe her nothing. With the help of two other teenagers and their battered spaceship, Beverly survives the initial onslaughts and soon moves to the offensive.

One Survivor is my first novel. It’s available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.


Dad Swore Every Word Was True: Plamondon Adventures with Everything from Circus Acts to Moon Landings

Starting soon on Kindle Vella.

Family anecdotes as told by my father, grandfather, and other upholders of absolute truth when it didn’t get in the way of a good story.

Wolf in the Manger

Starting eventually on Kindle Vella.

The other novel is Wolf in the Manger, set in 1957. Seven-year-old Louisa Maréchal is one of six children attacked by the same werewolf on the same night. She becomes a werewolf, along with three of her fellow victims. Abandoned by her family, she’s taken in by an old man who has also adopted two vampire children.

Links to My Other Sites


Banter: Swimming the Snark-Infested Waters

I grew up in a family of compulsive storytellers and conversationalists who engaged in constant verbal one-upmanship, so I have an advantage when it comes to snark.

People ask me sometimes how one writes banter-filled dialog.  I think it works about like this: it would be the same as an argument if it weren’t for the laughter. Like an argument, banter is competitive. But it resembles flirting because it’s cooperative at the same time. It’s a game, though often with enough seriousness that a misstep will turn it into an argument. That soupcon of danger helps make it good.

In fiction, characters who are attuned to each other can say almost anything to each other and get away with it because they understand what the other person means. In my in-progress novel, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen says “I hate you!” to her boyfriend Frank almost every day. By which she might mean almost anything.

I guess the main thing with banter, as opposed to, say, Spider-man mouthing off at people who don’t have the skill to hold up their end of the conversation, is that it takes two to banter. Some of the old screwball comedy movies, especially the Thin Man series, do very well with this. You also see good (if zany) examples in Duck Soup and other Marx Brothers movies, not to mention somewhat less ancient offerings like The Princess Bride.


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