Getting Around First Person POV Limitations

This post was inspired by a question from Debbie B., one of my editorial clients, and her critique group. First person is great. A lot of people use it. It lends a sense of immediacy and accessibility to your work. The logic is that it’s easy to connect to a protagonist when you’re intimately involved in their interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). But first person POV has a lot of limitations. (Plus it’s overused, and some writers avoid* it because of how common it is.)

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

Perhaps the biggest character-specific limitation is that you don’t have access to anyone else’s interiority. In close third person, you don’t really, either, but in omniscient third person, you can “head hop” to your heart’s content and access any number of characters. First person limits you. For example, you cannot say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, feeling annoyed.

Since Susie is not our protagonist, we can’t now her inner landscape. So how do you get around it? Instead, you can say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, annoyance in her voice.

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, as if I’d asked the most annoying question ever.

Or like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, and she was probably still mad at me for being late.

It’s up to you how much to use these techniques. I would suggest to limit the guessing and let Susie’s action and dialogue tell the story. The hard and fast rule is that the one thing you can’t do is tell the reader what’s actually going on in Susie’s head. That crosses POV lines.

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit! But, they are the narrator. So if they’re not there when the murder weapon is found and planted in their locker, they can’t narrate it. So the reader can’t find out about it. And it doesn’t get on the page.

How do you get around this? I’m less able to prescribe a solution because a lot depends on what you need to narrate. Here are some common workarounds, though do be warned that some of these are cliché at this point:

  • Eavesdropping (they can overhear key information)
  • Clues (they can find clues to key information)
  • Direct confrontation (not everything has to be hidden, sometimes you’ll solve problems by revealing your secret sooner because the ramifications are actually where the drama is)

How else do you get around these issues? Are you grappling with any particularly hairy POV-specific questions? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

ETA: I didn’t meant that agents and editors reject a project just because it’s in first person, I meant that some writers avoid it and try third person because they don’t want to use such a common POV. I have to be careful about the word “reject”! Thanks, Chris!

6 Replies to “Getting Around First Person POV Limitations”

  1. First person can be so engaging when done right. I know my teen readers love it, and have scolded me when I revert to my more comfy third person POV. Oh well, not all stories can be told in first. That’s what I say to those upset teens.

    Thanks for this post. It helps to know I’m not the only one who needs support while telling a story from such a limited perspective.

  2. Thanks for the post, Mary. Interesting about how first person POV stories are sometimes rejected outright simply because they are so common. I believe that’s the first time I’ve heard that. It alarms me a bit, as I write almost exclusively in that POV. It just seems to fit the stories I tell (as far as I know). I wonder what the percentage of people who outright reject first person POV stories are…?

  3. What about physical descriptions of either the main character or people they are close to (like good friends or family members)? For example, even though the POV character can see what her mom looks like, she’s so familiar with it that it feels off for her to think “I came downstairs to find my petite, red-headed mom making a sandwich.” In your opinion is it better to skip this info and just let the reader imagine what people look like, or is it better to find some way to squeeze it in (more artfully than my example above)?

  4. I’m wrestling with this at the moment! I *feel* like I have a pretty good handle on some aspects of it – working in small bits of character description organically, letting other characters show what they’re thinking/feeling, etc – but I’m having a real problem with my main antagonist. I know her story, what she’s doing and why when she’s not onstage, but I’m getting hung up on how to show this when the narrator doesn’t even realize she IS the antagonist until halfway through the book…

  5. One of the challenges I find with first person in middle grade is that you have to stick with the vocabulary of a middle grader. Sometimes the exact right word would never come out of the mouth of a kid that age. You also have to be cognizant of what a kid would notice in any particular scene. I’ve tended to write third person in MG for those reasons, though the intimacy of first person is tough to beat.

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