How many times have you been encouraged to get out of your “comfort zone?” I’ve heard it at writer’s conferences, in church, and at summer camp countless times. Shy and reserved? Get out of your comfort zone and take a public speaking class. Is your thing teaching Sunday school to churchgoing kids? Take a leap out of your comfort zone and extend an invitation to worship service to a friend who doesn’t go to church. It’s all about getting out of that comfort zone.
First person point-of-view was my writing comfort zone. I’d published seven books for middle-grade and Young Adult readers, and they had all been first person point-of-view. That had been partly out of necessity–five of the seven were part of a series which I’d started off in first person, and it would have been bizarre to switch to another format mid-series. YA is often written in first person, so I was also sticking to industry trends.
But I’ll admit . . . I had chosen first person POV mostly because it was in my writing comfort zone. First person uses “I,” “me,” “we” and tells someone’s story directly through his or her eyes. The reader (and writer) is in the character’s head, seeing what she sees, thinking what she thinks, believing what she believes.
This has always been an easy way for me to tell a story. After all, we live our lives in first person and have had a plethora of practice using it. Every time we answer the question, “What did you do today?” at the dinner table, we’re practicing telling a story using first person narration.
I’ve always found first person to come more naturally to me than third person point-of-view. It’s easier for me to persuade readers to care about my protagonist when I’m using her own thoughts and feelings to convey who she is and why readers should turn the page to find out what happens to her.
I’ve also found humor much easier to write in first person. My books are set at a Christian summer camp, but it’s not all roasting marshmallows and holding hands, singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire. I tackle tough situations such as divorce, death, church politics, and changing friendships. I don’t want my books to be downers, so I work hard to make sure there’s a certain level of comic relief in there, too. Nothing makes me feel happier as a writer than when a reader tells me he or she laughed and cried through a scene in one of my books.
Abby, the main character of my series Abby’s Camp Days, is a shy, quiet, tender-hearted girl. She also has an inner monologue that occasionally turns just a touch snarky in the way she describes people and her camp experiences (especially camp rules and jerky counselors). More than a few readers have pointed out many LOL Abby moments that come from her “I’m-just-pointing-out-what-everyone-is-actually-thinking” narration, and I’m sure her camp friends and counselors don’t suspect half of what this sweet girl is telling readers.
It’s been easy for me to balance Abby’s nature and actions with her thoughts through first person narration, and Abby is a much more interesting and relatable character for it. Abby, as well as the entire tone of the series, would be very different if I had chosen to write the series in third person. In fact, I originally did, but after struggling through several drafts of Camp Expert (the first in the series) that didn’t work, I finally switched to first person. Then the book and five more flowed, no problem.
I was comfortable with my writing format and saw no reason to mess with it.
Then a fresh, new idea for a fantasy trilogy came to me this fall. It didn’t have anything to do with summer camp (well, it kind of did, but only on a very basic level . . .) but this story took place in my own invented world that’s closest to the Medieval time period in our culture. My work-in-progress includes a large cast of characters and a saga that spans fifty years and three generations, rather than one week of summer.
First person POV just wasn’t practical, given the scope of the story, so I took a deep breath and dove into the world of third person limited.
“He,” “she,” and “they” became my new pronoun friends. I chose limited POV because I was afraid of falling into the head-hopping trap of poorly-written omniscient narration. When it’s done well, omniscient view point can be marvelous. But my last attempt at third person POV of any kind had been high school fan fic (Star Trek and North and South but heavily influenced by my Young and the Restless watching days . . . oh, boy, I think you get the picture, and no you can’t read it unless I’m looking for a new “most embarrassing moment”). Third person was already a big leap for me; I wasn’t ready to go bigger.
With third person, there were no inner monologues to slip comic relief into, no direct hopes and dreams and wishes to help get readers on the protagonist’s side. It involved getting to know all my characters inside and out from children who were catching their first glimpses of this magical kingdom to kings who had ruled the same kingdom for several decades.
And it involved planning. Lots and lots of planning. With outlines and charts and spreadsheets and erasers.
When writing from a first person perspective, there’s no thought involved in POV once you’ve chosen your narrator. The POV of every scene is from that character. No further planning needed in that area, unless you get fancy and write multiple first person POVs (which I did once with my book Super Counselors).
This was a whole new ball game of decision making. Which character’s experience should begin the story, and thereby set the tone for the entire trilogy? Who should be present in the final scene? Whose POV would be best for which climactic scenes? Which characters would appear in the book but never as a POV character?
I messed up a lot at first. I’d start the scene following one character’s POV and end up hopping to another character’s by the end of the scene–that dreaded head-hopping rearing its ugly head (or would that be heads?). Then I’d have to decide whose POV was more crucial to the scene and fix the whole thing. And the hardest part for me: any humor had to come from the characters’ actions and interactions themselves, not comedic asides from the narrator delivered directly to the audience.
At first it was frustrating. I thought I was going to fail, that it was going to be the worst fantasy book in the history of fantasy books. But I kept plugging away, and as more ideas came to me and things started to fall together plot-wise, I hit my third person stride.
I now find third person POV very freeing. I can follow any character anywhere and offer readers a more comprehensive view of the plot and setting. I’m not limited to one person’s beliefs and biases. I can show two sides of a disagreement. Time can go by and characters can die or move on in life, yet my story can continue.
I write differently in third person. My voice is different. It’s my voice, rather than my character’s. I’m sharing the world I created, telling the tale of my world, not simply allowing a character to show readers her world.
I still love first person narration, and I have four more Abby books to write using that POV. They will be deliciously snarky and full of comedic relief. But I feel I’ve grown as a writer over the past several months, and the majority of that growth is a direct result of tackling a new style of POV.
It’s so important as a writer to try new things. It helps you evolve. The more ways a writer can tell a story, the more versatile he or she will be.
What are your writing comfort zones? What can you try that will help you grow as a writer?
Fellow writers, share in the comments. I’d love to discuss!
Jenifer Brady is a mom, photographer, and the author of the Abby’s Camp Days series, set at the fictional Camp Spirit. Her current work-in-progress is a fantasy trilogy. Find out more about her books at http://www.jeniferbrady.com or her Amazon Central page: http://amazon.com/author/jeniferbrady.