January 25th, 2017

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First-Person POV

Continuing my writing post series on point of view, I’m going to dig into first person POV today.

First person POV is when the narrator is a character in the story, so the parts where the narrator talks about him/herself are in first person — “I did this, this happened to me, we went there,” etc.

Usually, the narrator is also the protagonist or the main character, but not always. Dr. Watson is the first-person narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, reporting on the adventures of Holmes, the main character. You may also find first-person narrators in framing stories, something fairly common in 19th century novels — the narrator relates a story told to him by someone, and once the story gets started, he’s no longer a participant. An example of this is Wuthering Heights. Sometimes the narrative ends up getting rather nested, as in Frankenstein, in which the book is a series of letters relating stories told to the narrator by someone he encounters, and within those stories is yet another first-person narrative.

The story may be straightforward narrative — a story the narrator just happens to be telling to some undefined audience — or there may be some purpose or particular audience. The story might be the narrator’s testimony, it might be a series of journal entries (as in Bridget Jones’s Diary), or it might be letters. In the case of letters, there might be two first-person narrators who each tell their side of the story as the letters go back and forth.

One strength of first-person narration is that it showcases the narrator’s voice, which can give the book a very strong voice. This is a big reason this POV was popular for the chick lit genre, with its breezy and very contemporary voice, and why we often see it in young adult fiction. Or that voice can very firmly ground the story in a particular time, place, and culture, as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I find as an author that a book written in first person tends to flow more quickly. It’s almost like channeling the character and just letting her talk. On the other hand, you do have to be careful to stay in character and not let your author voice seep through. Anything said needs to be something the character would say, and stated the way the character would say it.

One challenge with first person that can be either a strength or weakness is that it can be rather limiting, since your narrator has to be present for every story event you want to dramatize. If your narrator isn’t present to either witness or participate in the event, you have to resort to having someone else tell the narrator about the event, which is less interesting for readers. That means you have to choose your narrator carefully. This character needs to be someone who is likely to witness and participate in the major story events. Once you’ve committed to a narrator, you’re limited in what events you can show.

But this can also be a strength, and is a reason this POV is popular for mysteries. If readers can only see and know things the narrator sleuth sees and knows, they get to be on the same page and solve the mystery with the narrator. There’s no opportunity for the reader to watch the villain at work, run across evidence the sleuth doesn’t know about, or hear conversations among suspects when the sleuth’s back is turned. This doesn’t mean that the narrator necessarily puts all the pieces together. You can have the narrator note but not interpret something, and clever readers may be able to do the math that the character isn’t inclined to do, so they figure out what’s going on before it occurs to the narrator.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of first-person narration is the fact that the narrator is aware that he or she is telling a story. That means the narrator is choosing what to tell and how to tell it. This is another factor in choosing your narrator wisely. If you want to write a steamy story and your heroine is the sort of person who has to spell the word “s-e-x” and blushes furiously when doing so, she’s not going to make a believable first-person narrator because that character wouldn’t tell anyone about the intimate details of her life. You have to stay in character with what the narrator character would be willing to share, what she’d think about, and what she’d share about her thoughts.

This makes first-person narration probably the best way to tell an unreliable narrator story. With third-person narration, in which the reader is eavesdropping on the characters, who are unaware that they’re in a story, it’s difficult to pull off a big twist about who a viewpoint character is and what their true motives are while still playing fair with the reader. With first-person narration, the character might be lying or withholding information. Your narrator might not share that he’s a secret agent whose real agenda is messing up the operation until he’s ready to reveal himself if he knows he’s telling the story. If you’re just eavesdropping in his brain, you’d think he’d be thinking about his mission and making plans. If you want your viewpoint character to keep secrets from the reader, first-person narration is the way to do it.

On the other hand, there is some loss of suspense with first person, since if the character is telling the story, that implies that the character survived the events and is looking back on them (unless, I suppose, you make it clear that the character is narrating from the afterlife but don’t make it clear when the character died). I have read at least one book in which the first-person narrator died—the story cut off abruptly right before the character headed off to the final confrontation, and then was picked up by someone else who talked about finding the journal that recorded the previous events, then told what he’d learned of the fate of the person who wrote it. I don’t know how many times you’d get away with that gimmick, though.

There are probably more limits to writing first-person narrative than you find with third-person, but those limits can be used to your advantage. Next, I’ll talk about third-person narrative.