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Mistake 31: Not Understanding the Limitations of First Person POV

70 Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by Bob Mayer, from The Writer's Digest Writing Kit

Why this is a mistake: Many novice writers drift toward first-person POV because they think it is the easiest, when in reality it is the most difficult voice to write in.

The solution:
First person means you use the word I quite a bit. It is giving the camera to one character and letting that character film a documentary while doing a voiceover.

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The advantage of this POV is that it allows the narrator to tell his own story. The major disadvantage is that the reader can only see and know what the narrator knows. The narrator can be a witness or a participant in the story. You, as the author, are absent in this mode, thus you surrender part of your control in writing. Remember, the first-person narrator is not you the author, but rather the character in the story.

Note there are certain genres that fit first person very well, most particularly mysteries/detective stories. That’s logical if you understand the advantages of first person: By using this mode, you can bring the reader along for the ride, disclosing clues as the narrator discovers them.

Another major disadvantage of first person is that your narrator has to be present in every scene. Because of this, many writers make their narrator the protagonist. The narrator will then be a critical part of the plot and have many things happen to and around him. Will he be able to react realistically while still telling the story in a coherent form? Will he be able to continue narrating in the face of an emotionally overwhelming event?

Can you get your narrator to all the key events in order to narrate them? Inexperienced writers can create very convoluted and unrealistic plots in an attempt to do just that. If the narrator isn’t present at these important scenes, then he has to find out about them by other means, which can reduce suspense and the immediacy of the action in the story.

Some authors use a narrator who isn’t one of the main characters—a detached narrator. The detached narrator is more of an observer. This has some advantages. Think of the Sherlock Holmes stories—who is narrating? Watson. Why? Because this allows Conan Doyle to withhold
what Holmes is thinking from the audience.

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