1st Person Present POV–Should It Be Used?

The use of first person and present tense together has been a strongly debated topic in the writing world. Some writers/readers are strongly against it, and others prefer it over all other POVs and tenses.

It seems that the main argument for first present is that it’s intense. First person keeps the readers close while present keeps them on their toes. The combination of the two makes for a unique experience for the reader.

One downside of this intensity–it can mentally exhaust readers, especially those who aren’t accustomed to first present. I’ve started several books and not finished them simply because the first person POV and present tense was taking my attention off the story, and I had to work to get back into it.

Another complaint against first present is how narcissistic it can seem. It can begin to feel like the narrator is showing you around his or her house while narrating every. Single. Thing. They. Do.

“I pick up my brush and run it through my long brown hair. I put the brush down and go into the kitchen. I make myself a sandwich and eat it. I am reminded of how my father used to make sandwiches for me.”

That’s not to say that first person present shouldn’t ever be used. Like most things, there’s a time and place. Here’s my take on when and how it should be used–

First vs. Third Person

This is widely a matter of preference. I prefer to have my suspense novels in first person and my thrillers in third. The close, on-your-toes, I’m-not-really-sure-what’s-going-on nature of first person adds suspense to the novel. 

In thrillers, however, the emphasis is weighed more heavily on the action side rather than on the suspense. There’s probably not going to be as many elements of mystery as there is in suspense novels because thrillers are so fast-paced. The reader needs to know exactly what’s going on; there’s no time to slow down and speculate as to who the killer is. The limited point of view could hurt the story.

As to the problem of seeming narcissistic, that can be fixed by focusing less on your main character and focusing more on his or her surroundings. Try to take out as many “I” pronouns as you can. I know that sounds like you’re making the voice passive, but in reality, you’re getting deeper into the character’s head to see things from his or her POV. That’s good.

Let’s rearrange the example I used above.

“My hair frizzes when the brush touches it, popping with static. I put the brush down and go into the kitchen to make a sandwich. The first bite is a tangy mixture of pickles and peanut butter. Dad used to make me sandwiches like this when I was five.”

See how taking out several of the “I” pronouns makes it seem less narcissistic? Magic.

Present vs. Past Tense

Here’s my opinion.

Present is for poetry. Past is for stories.

Okay, but I’ve read many good books in present tense where I actually liked it in present tense. What made the difference?

These books focused heavily on themes, symbolism, and other elements that are also elements of poetry. Several were allegories. A book that focuses heavily on plot and more on entertainment than on enlightening the human race (like adventure/action novels) might do better in past tense. It’s just more natural for stories. 
Again, point of view and tense are both largely matters of preference. However, I do believe that there are circumstances in which one story would do better than another with a certain POV and tense. Don’t just pick a POV and tense because it’s popular. Make sure it fits your genre and story. 

I’ve also read a few stories that didn’t follow the rules I set up here and were better off for it. Very few, admittedly, but they exist. The authors took command of the POV and tense and made the POV and tense add to their stories rather than distract from them.

That said, if you think first person present fits your story, go for it! I’ll be rooting for you louder than anyone else.


Book Review: I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak is probably best know for his #1 NYT bestseller, The Book Thief, which I thoroughly enjoyed (despite the tears and the massive headache which may or may not have been brought on by too much fangirling). I decided to venture into some of his earlier works. The first one I encountered was I Am the Messenger (alternatively titled The Messenger).

I Am the Messenger is “the story of down-and-out teenage cab driver Ed, who receives cryptic messages via playing cards that direct him to help strangers in need.” (Chicago Public Library) The novel starts off in a bank in Australia, where a gunman is keeping Ed and his friend Marvin hostage as he attempts to rob the place–

The gunman is useless. 

I know it. 

He knows it. 

The whole bank knows it. 

Even my best mate, Marvin, knows it, and he’s more useless than the gunman. 

The worst part about the whole thing is that Marv’s car is standing outside in a fifteen-minute parking zone. We’re all facedown on the floor, and the car’s only got a few minutes left on it. (Zusak 1)
The thing that struck me as soon as I began reading it was how different it was from The Book Thief. I opened it expecting sickness and death. What I got was Ed.

According to pretty much everybody (including himself), Ed is worthless past, present, and future. He’s illegally driving a taxi. The one girl who cares about him has stuffed him into the dreaded friend zone. His father died an alcoholic, and he’s stuck delivering coffee tables to his not-so-lovely mother. Depressing, I know, but I still found myself laughing and nodding along with Ed. 

Ed is hilarious in the self-depreciating sort of way that many millennials are. Through all the humor, I did sense the underlying theme of depression, which was remarkably well-done and touched me deeply. Zusak’s voice and style are incredible.

There was a bit of an info dump at the beginning, but it wasn’t too much of a sore thumb. The book was fast-paced, and it would’ve been hard to give out information and background about the characters as the plot progressed and quickened. So, forgivable.

Clichè? Perhaps a little. There was a little bit of the “chosen one” trope lingering among the pages, but I think Zusak may have done that on purpose–we realize as the book progresses that there isn’t anything special about Ed. Ed’s never really been on a journey to save others, anyway… he’s on a journey to save himself.
As to the target audience, I wouldn’t recommend it to elementary kids because of references to sexual abuse and, you know, “doing the do” in general. Also language. It’s not erotica, though, so it should be a safe and comfortable book to discuss in an older teen or adult book club, for example.

The story has elements of action, adventure, suspense, romance, and humor. It’s sweet, bitter, sad, happy, angry, and deep… something for everybody. It’ll take your emotions on a roller coaster ride, but it’s so worth it. If you’re looking for a page-turner that makes you both laugh and cry, I highly recommend I Am the Messenger. 4.5 stars out of 5 from me.

Until next time.


Zusak, Markus. I Am the Messenger. Knopf, 2006. Print. (ISBN: 978-0-375-83099-0)