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January 1, 2014

I often get asked why I despise first-person in fiction, or can’t stand present-tense in just about anything. Well, truth be told, I don’t despise first-person in fiction, though I don’t like it. I can tolerate it under special circumstances. However, I will say I do despise present-tense under any circumstances that I can think of, as I write this. I can’t stand things like head-hopping, sentences that start with But and And, the phrases started to and began to. I also can’t stand to see liberal, if any use of colons and semi-colons in fiction. Back to POV, the combination of first-person present-tense is unreadable to me as well as second-person.
How did I become this way? Why do these things bother me so much? Before I became smarter, a more skilled writer and an editor, there were always things about certain books that bugged me. Some books that were wildly popular I just couldn’t get into. Why? What was wrong with them? When the movie came out, I loved them, yet when I went back to read the book, I couldn’t get through the first chapter, and sometimes even the first paragraph. There was something about the writing that didn’t sit well with me, but I didn’t have the skills to figure out what was wrong.
I honed my chops as a writer, and part of that involved the editing process. My skills grew, and with that, I not only became involved in writer’s groups, but I took on helping others. I started my editing “career.” It really began long before that, when I was in the military. That’s where I really learned to write, mainly on the technical side. Since I was a supervisor, I had to edit all kinds of written material including performance reports. My skills grew in leaps and bounds.
As my writing and editing chops grew, I found what I was most comfortable with in fiction. Third-person, past tense. This point of view provided me with the broadest and most solid palette. I went back to some of the classic novels I was “supposed” to love to see what was wrong with them. I had a huge epiphany. It wasn’t just something vague about the writing, it was specific styles these authors used that made the stories unreadable to me, no matter how great the actual stories were when converted to film. Two examples are Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and War Of The Worlds. They’re great classics, but both written in first-person. Looking at them now, I can’t get through the first few pages. Lord Of The Rings? Awful! Though it’s third-person, it’s omniscient, very flat and impersonal. That’s a huge reason why I could never get through more than a page of The Hobbit, yet I loved the movies.
I’ve done unofficial polls of non-writers just out of curiosity. I’ve asked young and old readers which books they’ve liked, which authors they’ve liked and disliked and why. Many of them can’t tell any difference between styles while others have certain authors and styles they’re not quite comfortable with, but they can’t tell me why. “Just something about them.”
Sometimes it has to do with the story itself or the way the author draws the characters or the author’s voice. However, sometimes the reader loves the story but isn’t comfortable with the writing. Those are the opinions I’m interested in and to which I’m talking about here.
Once in a while, it’s first-person. However, most of the time it’s present-tense. So far, my poll has never found anyone uncomfortable with third-person. I’ve never polled anyone who’s read a second-person book as they’re extremely rare. However, I’ve polled a few people who’ve read poorly written and poorly edited books. I won’t name names but they’re nobody I know personally! I will say that these authors are both nationally and self-published, which may surprise some of you, but doesn’t surprise me at all.
People say I’m limiting myself and am missing out on some great stories. I don’t see it that way. I know what I like and I’ve had a lot of time and learning to figure it out. I save myself tons of money that way.
If the author puts up a barrier with crappy writing, or difficult style, I don’t care how great the story is. I’d rather wait for the movie.
Happy writing!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Peggy West permalink
    January 1, 2014 8:19 am

    I like past tense whether the book is written from first or third person. First person would be quite a challenge. As a reader, when I read first person, I keep asking myself if the narrator can really know that. I am writing a historical romance where the story is mostly from the female heroine’s point of view with an occasional interruption by the male hero’s voice and story. The most challenging thing is getting the heroine or hero to know the things they know when they can actually know them and not a chapter early.

    • January 1, 2014 6:20 pm


      I agree and those are good points! Characters can’t know stuff ahead of time unless there’s a good reason for it. Maybe part of the plot?

      Present tense has always bugged me, like the author is trying to rush me or something. I hate it. There are certain authors that like to use it, regardless of point of view and I just can’t stand to read it, so I don’t. I could name names but I don’t want to bias anyone else. Let them draw their own conclusions. Some present tense fiction is quite popular.

      Thanks for the feedback! You rock!


  2. Peggy West permalink
    January 1, 2014 6:18 pm

    I mean to say that first person would be quite a challenge to write.

    • January 1, 2014 6:36 pm


      It certainly is to me, unless it is non-fiction and biographical. In fiction, it is way too myopic. When I did a recent talk on point of view for my writer’s group, I used the telescope analogy.

      With telescopes, you have eyepieces. Some have a narrow field of view and others have a wide field of view. With the narrow FOV eyepiece, it’s like looking at the sky through a soda straw, where with the wide FOV eyepiece, it’s like looking at the sky through a picture window.

      With point of view, first-person is like telling your story through a soda straw, versus third person, telling your story through a picture window.

      That’s the way I see it. The first-person character can’t know a lot of what’s going on around them because they can’t possibly see or sense it through their eyes and senses. In third-person, the view is isometric, looking down upon the characters and though it’s being controlled by one particular character, the action and view is more open and things can happen around the character that he or she can’t see specifically but can find out about or sense in a less myopic way than a first-person character.


  3. January 9, 2014 3:42 pm

    Very interesting post. I’m in the process of editing my novel (well, technically, I’m taking a break from editing my novel to learn a few more things about craft, but anyway…). I’ve been playing around with person/tense. The most comfortable combination for me to write in is third person/past tense, which fortunately suits the book reasonably well as it’s historical fiction. I have been experimenting with changing all that past tense and putting it in the present, and it does help speed up the story. The jury (of one, me) is still out on whether that’s actually a good thing. But I’m leaning toward sticking with the combo that is most comfortable for me. Writing a novel is hard enough. No reason to make it harder.

    • January 11, 2014 6:21 am


      Good points! You have to stay with what’s comfortable for you. You also have to keep in mind what will be comfortable for your readers and not put up any unnecessary roadblocks to their reading pleasure.

      When you are driven to write and are writing for the love of it, you HAVE to follow your muse. To go a step beyond that and make it something others may like, you have to consider how easy you want to make it for them to read.

      Best of luck to you!

      Great to hear from you!


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