In a previous post I talked about the importance of voice in fiction. Today I wanted to talk more about one particular narrative choice: first person narrator. The big ‘I’.
A choice for beginner writers?
I’ve heard it said that first person POV is often popular with beginner writers.
Assuming this is true, I’d guess it’s because when you start out you’re trying to imagine yourself into the story. To bring the story to life in your mind it’s you who are climbing that mountain, or kissing that guy, or taking that bullet. You’re the hero (or anti-hero, or heroic-oblivious, whatever).
Writing in the first person also means, apparently, that you only have to focus on one character and get to know them really, really well, which might feel more manageable than jumping around viewpoints and needing to see what’s going on in a bunch of different people’s heads.
Danger Will Robinson!
But wait! First person POV is not without its risks, especially for beginner writers.
- You (the writer) might over-identify with your POV character. Then the story isn’t about them, it’s kind-of-really-a-bit-of-all-about you. That might be okay, but it might be awkward to those who know you. Also it can mean that you don’t have the objectivity required to get your story off the tarmac, to give it wings. Just because you feel things intensely doesn’t mean those feelings will be carried by your writing.
- Everything is from your character’s viewpoint. I know this goes without saying but actually it should be said. Because what it means is, that first person voice should be distinctive and engaging. It has to carry the whole story. And whatever is seen or smelled or touched or tasted is filtered through the perspective of character. This can be trickier than it sounds. (I just finished reading a wonderful book, Things to do Indoors by Sheena Joughin, which does this very, very well. Will post a review later in the week.)
- There are limits to what your character knows. This one person is carrying the WHOLE of your narrative. You’d better hope they have strong arms. Writing in first person, you will only be able to portray what they know, experience or learn from other characters or sources. Whatever happens outside of that is in the blindzone.
- The other characters still matter. First person POV doesn’t remove the necessity of writing strong, engaging, authentic supporting characters. As the author, you need to know these characters well and you need to be able to show them through the lens of your narrator’s viewpoint, with the warping effect of their knowledge or ignorance, prejudices or desires.
When it is good, it is very, very good
There are some styles of story that lend themselves beautifully to a strong first person narrator, for a range of reasons. I’ll touch on just a few of them here.
I’m currently battling an expensive addiction to the audiobooks of Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series (on which the TV show Bones is based). Tempe is a feisty, smart and dogged heroine, and the stories are told exclusively through her POV.
This choice of first person works marvellously because you, the Reader, are carried through the experience of uncovering clues and trying to solve the mystery as Tempe does. You only know what she knows at any given time, which presumably will have to be enough.
Reichs plays with the first person format a little bit. Tempe often makes reference to her later self’s view of unfolding events as the Reader is experiencing them (the classic ‘I would come to regret this…’ type of line). This has a dual effect of building tension, by making us aware that something terrible is about to happen, while simultaneously soothing us with the confidence that the Main Character Will Survive to tell her story.
Reichs also sometimes deliberately omits information, particularly at the point where Tempe has some sudden realisation which prompts her to go and do something dangerous. We’re left guessing for as long as possible.
The other reason first person POV works well in this style of fiction is because by their nature, the detective-narrators tend to be observant of all the details of people and places, sometimes a little jaded and cynical (due to the nature of their work), as well as of necessity curious, and driven in some sense to force events to move forward in order to solve the crime.
The conceit of a character keeping a diary has been used by great effect by comic writers in particular. Off the top of my head I think of Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole as unforgettable first person narrators.
The use of a diary format brings a sense of purpose to the voice – they are writing to an audience. Self-consciousness creates an inherent tension between how the narrator wishes to be perceived and the reality of their lives.
A diary also brings intimacy. It is a place for telling secrets, for sharing hopes, for dwelling on things that have taken place. There is often a tone of striving which also (painfully) lends itself to humour – the diary is a format for disclosure, for attempts at self-improvement, for self-monitoring and self-recrimination.
Alone in the face of History
In the face of huge historical forces, the experience of a single individual, told with their voice and from their perspective, is powerful.
I’m thinking of the Diary of Anne Frank as a classic example. I remember that reading it had a huge impact on me as a child. I read it with the heavy knowledge of history, and I met in it a young girl like I was, grappling with the questions and joys and pains of adolescence, in a situation that, without the filter of that individual experience, would have been almost incomprehensible to me. I include this although it is not fiction. It reads with the power of story and has a strong and memorable authorial voice.
Another, though interestingly different, example of this format is The Plague, by Albert Camus. In The Plague, a first person narrator attempts to take on the voice of a third person narrator in order to provide clarity and objectivity to his story of the impact of plague on the town in which he lived. The narrator only reveals his true identity at the novel’s end, once the disease has passed.
Go forth and write!
Whether you’re writing romance or epic fantasy or space cowboys or literary fiction, it’s worth experimenting with voice. First person narrative has an intimacy and immediacy that can be very powerful. It’s a POV that also allows you to play with storytelling – your narrator might be telling their story for a purpose, and the reader might not be certain as to whether they can trust them.
Writing from the perspective of one or more of your main characters will help you get inside their skin and their head. You might even discover a voice that’s unique and memorable, and that has a story to tell.