First-person perspective is kind of like cheese: some people love it, some people hate it, and when it's poorly done, it grates.
Sorry for the pun.
I personally love first-person point of view, and it is my joy to share one simple, quick writing tip that can help your first-person perspective writing shine: cut the filter words.
First of All, What Is Point of View?
What the heck is a filter word, you ask? Before I answer that, let's tackle some definitions for point of view.
“Point of View” (POV) is the writer-ly term for the perspective through which you tell your story. It usually breaks down like this:
This means telling your story as “She did” and “He said,” never “I.” There are three kinds:
- Third-Person Narrator or Omniscient Narrator POV. In this perspective, you—the storyteller—are everywhere and know everything. You can be in anyone's life, around any corner. A leaf fell in the park, and none of your characters saw it? You did, and you can write it down. There are no limitations to this viewpoint, though it can be difficult to make it feel personal.
- Third-Person Multiple POV. In this perspective, the author uses the viewpoints of a particular set of individuals. This one's a lot easier to work with for one major reason: your reader only knows what these characters know, allowing your plot to unfold naturally. There's no outside knowledge, no Unbeknownst to everyone, the water main broke beneath the garage and began to flood the driveway. If your characters didn't see it, then the reader won't know about it until somebody steps in mud. This perspective is told through the eyes of that pre-set group of people in “He/She did it” fashion.
- Third-Person Limited POV. This is where you follow one person, but this still one step removed from the personal nature of first-person. This is still told as “She,” not “I,” and it's challenging. The temptation is to slip into narrator mode and describe something happening outside your character, but to do this right, you have to limit the story to what that character knows, sees, hears, and thinks.
Very few effectively use second person narration (though now that I've said it, I'll bet several of you will jump to the challenge). Essentially, it's telling the story like talking to yourself. “You went to the fridge and slid the frosted drawer free, but to your amazement, it was full of beans. You had no idea what to do next. You expected avocados.”
You. You do this and that; not he, not I. You.
This is usually reserved for instruction manuals and other non-fiction essays (like this one).
Some fiction writers can really pull this off (I'm looking at you, Choose Your Own Adventure series). I am not one of them. On we go.
First Person POV
First-person perspective is essentially told like a journal entry, a personal narrative, or a running commentary of thoughts. The reader is not watching the story unfold from the outside, but through this character's eyes. We see what they see and hear what they hear. If the character is wrong, we won't necessarily know, because their perspective is all we have to go on. There is no distance between the reader and the character's thoughts.
First-person point of view generally gets split up into two types:
- Present tense. This is where you write, I go to the door and scream at him to go away, all in present tense, putting you in the action at the exact time the character experiences it. It's challenging; it's also fun. Slipping into past tense, however, can make it pretty clunky.
- Past tense. This is more popular (and a lot simpler to write): I went to the door and screamed at him to go away.This one always feels more like a story being told, and is a good place to start for first-time first-person writers.
So what makes first person perspective so wonderful in some cases and so terrible in others?
There are plenty of factors such as:
- Pacing (the timing of incidents in the story, including what's kept in and what's left out);
- Voice (everyone's thought patterns won't sound the same; I adore Joss Whedon's shows, but everybody can't be that witty all the time);
- Reliability (how truthful/accurate your narrator is); etc.
Now that you know the different types of point of view, let's move on to that one tip that can help you write better first person point of view. Here's the tip: eliminate filter words.
What Are Filter Words?
A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character's experience. Let's look at an example to get a better sense:
This was magic school? I stood and stared at it; I thought it seemed to be set up to depress us. I saw the green hill rising from the earth like some kind of cancer, and I could hear the voices of students on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.
Not sure what to look for? Here it is with the filter words removed.
This was magic school? It seemed to be set up to depress us. The green hill rose from the earth like some kind of cancer, and the voices of students carried on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.
What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.
How to Spot Your Filter Words, with Examples
Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.
“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You're watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you're seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.
I'm going to give you one more example from my own work. Here it is with filter words added:
I watched the box blow apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside, I saw a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.
A dragon. On my kitchen counter. I heard it squeak at me, which I thought could mean absolutely anything, and I watched as it began to preen itself like a cat.
I saw mother-of-pearl scales gleaming all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. I stared at the wee round-bellied body, resting on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. I noticed its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.
I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.
And with filter words removed:
The box blew apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside sat a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.
A dragon. On my kitchen counter. It squeaked at me, which could mean absolutely anything, and began to preen itself like a cat.
Mother-of-pearl scales gleamed all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. The wee round-bellied body rested on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. Its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.
I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.
The second example gives you Kate's point of view through her eyes and ears. The first one forces you to watch her seeing and hearing—and takes us away from her experience.
Are Filter Words Ever Okay?
Because I love ya, I will state that there are plenty of valid exceptions. There will be times that your first-person perspective uses those filter words to great effect.
For example, “I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don't see the scissors,” expresses your character's frustration, which is more important than the counter and shelves he's seeing. It's a matter of emphasis and where you want the reader's thoughts to go.
Filter words can be stylistic, largely tied to voice. I have one character from the deep south, for example, who tends to use them as part of his storytelling: “And then I look over there, and what do I see but that damn fool, makin' off with my breakfast.”
There will always be times to use filter words, but it's crucial that you only use them when you're aware of it, not by accident. If you're ever in doubt, just ask yourself this question: where do you want your reader's eyes to be?
How about you? Which point of view do you write in most? Let us know in the comments.
It's time to take what you've learned about filter words and first-person perspective and apply them to your writing.
Write for ten minutes in first person, using as many filter words as you can. (Need a prompt? Here's one: “I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don't see the scissors.”)
Then, for the next five minutes, remove all the filter words.
Share your two versions in the practice box. And don't forget to leave feedback for three other writers!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.