First person point of view: why I hate surprises
This article first appeared as a guest post I wrote for www.naughtyninjas.net au. You should visit the ninjas sometime – we’re full of great trivia and we write awesome books!
I’ve been thinking about POV (Point Of View).
My first two books were written in third person point of view, but my newest release, Fairway To Heaven, was a first person story. I don’t know why, exactly. I don’t think it was a conscious decision. There was just something about Jenn’s story that made me begin it with an ‘I’.
Romance is such a popular genre because it allows readers to get deep (really deep) in the lead character’s head and emotions. Because of this, I think authors have to be really careful to get POV right.
For example, I recently read a story which I quite enjoyed, where the heroine was a bar tender and the hero a rich businessman. The heroine was fierce about her independence and resented any efforts by the rich hero to make financial decisions in her life, to the point of wanting to pay her share, not be bought expensive gifts etc etc.
My problem came when at about 70 or 80% into the book, the hero (who was at the heroine’s house alone) answered a phone call from a hospital where the heroine’s mother (now deceased) had been treated.
We learn in this phone call that the heroine has a $50,000 medical bill that she’s paying off for her mother’s treatment. (It’s the first time as a reader that we’d heard about the $50k bill).
In other words, we were in first person POV throughout the book, and three-quarters into the story we hear of the heroine’s big medical bill. We’re thrown a huge surprise.
Now the hero decides to pay this bill for his leading lady, and this sets up the last conflict in the book. Heroine throws a royal wobbly at hero’s arrogance in paying this bill for her…
I don’t have any problem with that (excuse me, zillionaire heroes, please come and pay my bills) but I did have a problem with finding out three-quarters of the way through the book that there’s a $50k bill hanging over the heroine’s head.
If I had $50k hanging over my head, I’d think about it all the time. And there’s the rub. If you’re in first person POV, supposedly providing deep insight into what makes your character tick, there shouldn’t be any big secrets by the last quarter of the book. The heroine may not have told anyone else about her $50k debt—and she certainly doesn’t have to tell the hero—but the reader needs to know because the heroine should most definitely have thought about this at least once or twice in the many hundreds of pages that have gone before.
Every time she thinks about whether she can or can’t afford a new pair of shoes, or a glass of nice wine, or a weekend away, it would follow that her thoughts went to the $50k bill she must pay first.
In the example above, if the reader knew about the $50k debt, we would then have anticipated the hero finding out about this secret. We could have learned more about why the heroine didn’t want the hero to know she owed the money, and her motivations in keeping it quiet could have been much more upfront. As the reader, we still would have enjoyed the moment where the hospital administrator confides details of the bill over the phone, and we could have anticipated the heroine’s reaction when she learns the hero pays this bill on her behalf.
So sometimes, keeping a surprise can make your reader feel robbed.
In Fairway To Heaven my heroine (bless her) has what she terms, “a dodgy vagina”. She’s developed physical problems with her lady bits after the birth of her son. Jenn’s vagina is front and centre of her mind throughout the book, because she blames it for the breakdown of her relationship, and she worries when she wants to rekindle a love affair with her childhood crush, that her ‘dodgy vagina’ might be the downfall of another beautiful friendship. Plus it darn well hurts, a lot of the time.
So the word ‘vagina’ comes in the first paragraph of Fairway To Heaven because it’s always on Jenn’s mind.
Moral of the Ninja craft: if you’re deep inside your character’s head—and you should be—don’t keep secrets from the reader. This doesn’t mean dump everything in chapter one, but it does mean that as the character thinks about something that’s important to her (certainly in the context of the plot of your book) reveal it.