Making the Most of First Person Point of View

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Point of view, the way a story or novel is narrated, is one of the most powerful tools at a fiction writer’s disposal. It dictates which of your characters will tell your story and how it will be told. It also determines whether readers will enjoy a friendly intimacy with your characters, be tightly enmeshed in their lives, or maintain a comfortable distance. It is powerful, and it’s frequently misused.

We’ll discuss common point-of-view problems in manuscripts in another article–for now, let’s chat about using first person point of view. It’s easy to spot because the narrator is introduced as “I.” It’s often as if someone is telling you a personal story. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

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In epistolary novels, we’re given a peek at personal letters or journals. Bram Stoker’s brilliant classic tale of vampire lore, Dracula, begins with this unprepossessing line, as the protagonist makes notes on his travels: “May 3. Bistritz.– Left Munich at 8:35 p.m., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late …”

Other authors use first person present tense to create the sense that, instead of listening to a storyteller, you’re immersed in the character’s mind, experiencing her life along with her.

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Katniss, the narrator of The Hunger Games, begins:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold,” “My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth…”

However you choose to use this point of view, consider the wealth of opportunities it presents you as an author.

Six Opportunities First-Person Point of View Presents:

1. Create Immediate Immersion:

First-person point of view readily creates a vicarious experience for readers, pulling us into a character’s mind. Sometimes we enjoy living in that character’s mind and miss his company when the book ends. At other times, as when reading one of Poe’s short stories–narrated by a character who assures us he’s definitely not crazy–the experience is confusing or deeply unsettling. And often, as when immersed in the beginning of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s brilliant satirical thriller, we have the uneasy feeling that our narrator isn’t telling us the truth… or is she?

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As the author, you control which kind of ride the reader is on, one of enjoyable intimacy with a flawed but likable narrator, a dark, squirmy experience, or a story that raises more questions than answers. When done right, this kind of immersion is powerful and creates a memorable experience for the reader, with whom these characters linger long after the book is finished.

2. Exploit the Power of Character Voice:

Focusing on a first-person point-of-view character, whether your novel has one narrator or alternates among multiple points of view, gives you the opportunity to create a narrative voice that’s memorable and engaging. This is often used to humorous effect. For example Mark Watney’s sense of humor shines throughout Andy Weir’s The Martian, beginning with the apt and memorable first line: “I’m pretty much fucked.”

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In a similar way, in Josh Bader’s urban fantasy Frostbite, the narrator’s sense of humor pulls you right into the story:

In an era of quick status updates, where everyone can define themselves by a short list of labels and in 140 characters, my status depends greatly on the perspective of the person describing me… The ones that have floated back to me are “world traveler,” “professional vagabond,” “dabbling wizard,” or “lunatic-just-short-of-civil commitment.” My dad once used the phrase “career criminal” when he thought I was out of earshot.

Examples of narrative voice I’ve fallen in love with run the gamut from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn to Gillian Flynn’s paradoxically cynical and sheltered Libby Day in Dark Places.

Part of the power of narrative voice is that virtually everything the narrator relates and describes is part of the fabric of the character. All of us filter our perception of the world through our own attitudes and experiences, and the possibilities for building a vibrant, multi-dimensional character are virtually endless.

Does your character describe a crowd as a varied, energetic group of people, an oppressive, somewhat frightening mass of humanity, or a herd of cattle? When a stranger offers a random act of kindness, does it spark joy and gratitude, invoke doubt about his motives, or single him out as a mark to be conned?

The better you know your character, the more natural it will be to add shades of her perspective to scenes you create, and this will help make her a living, breathing person in the eyes of readers.

3. Develop Subtext:

Few of us are unfailingly honest with ourselves, and we don’t always fully understand the events unfolding around us. So it isn’t surprising that what well-crafted first-person narrators tell us is often inconsistent with the truth, or they aren’t telling the whole story. When the narrator’s version of events differs from what the reader sees, it creates subtext.

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Scout, the young narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, gives us insight into her world as she gradually becomes aware of the virulent racism permeating the society she lives in. This, in turn, is filtered through the words of her father, whose perspective is limited by his being a white man of his generation. This makes the story richer and more nuanced.

Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant novel The Poisonwood Bible is told in the alternating voices of five first-person characters. In the early chapters, Reverend Nathan Price’s mission in the Congo is explored through the eyes of his four daughters.

Kingsolver masterfully creates each voice reflecting the age, knowledge, and attitudes of the character. Rachel describes the banquet the tribe held to welcome the Prices, focusing on relatively superficial details such as the unpalatable food. Leah describes Nathan’s efforts to create a “demonstration garden” to educate the poor heathen natives, filtered through her fierce devotion to and admiration for her father.

But in each case, readers readily glean the truth about the good reverend, unraveling a grim, infuriating story of cultural ignorance, racism, religious bigotry, and imperialism. Kingsolver’s narrative choices add a layered, nuanced quality to this harsh, powerful, and all-too-realistic tale.

4. Experiment with an Unreliable Narrator:

What does your narrator want readers to know? Is it the truth, or is he deliberately misleading us? The unreliable narrator is a fun convention to experiment with. Misguiding readers can lead to a rewarding twist or cast the character — and the story — in an interesting light.

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An author typically plays fair by tipping off the reader, in a subtle way, that this narrator is not to be trusted. Vladimir Nabokov’s narrator in Lolita is selling his story to a jury. Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, in The Heart of Darkness, lets us know, right from the get-go, that he likes to spin a good yarn. And Patrick Bateman, in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, is a psychopath, unlikely to have any affinity with the truth. Yet, as we all know, these slippery narrators end up revealing much more than they intend to.

5. Contrast Perceptions of Reality:

Barbara Kingsolver wrote, in one of her novels, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” No two people remember an event in exactly the same way — this is a fascinating topic to delve into in fiction. It’s sometimes called The Rashomon Effect, after a 1950 Japanese film that explores four different accounts of a brutal crime.

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Another movie that uses this approach is Hilary and Jackie, a British biographical film about two sisters who are gifted musicians. Each woman’s memories of their intertwined lives plays out on screen, telling two closely related but very different stories. The “facts” explored in the movie have been disputed (creating a third version of events), but it’s an excellent film.

Experimenting with multiple first-person narrators telling the same story can be fascinating. Even if each of these characters is doing her level best to tell the truth, how might their accounts vary? Knowing your character as you do, what will he choose to include in his telling of the story? What will he leave out? Based on his age, maturity level, attitude, and emotions, how would a certain event appear to him?

Even if your narrator isn’t intentionally lying or manipulating readers, human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially when relating traumatic events. This is often used, in literature, to excellent effect. Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver recalls her son’s life, from conception to the horrific events that shattered her family and community, in a way that stretches credibility. The unreliability of her narrative, in itself, tells an interesting story and raises though-provoking questions. This facet of the story is also effectively conveyed in the film adaptation.

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The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks are both excellent examples of exploring the potential of multiple points of view of the same events through first-person narrators. Also, take a close look at Briony’s perspective in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement by Ian McEwan. Is she lying? Is her intention malicious? Or is she simply revealing what she’s perceived through the lens of her youth, immaturity, and confused, troubled emotions?

6. Surprise the Reader:

In his recorded lectures at Brigham Young University, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said, “If a first-person narrator lies, he’s a jerk. If a third-person narrator lies, you’re a jerk.” Essentially he’s saying that when you mislead readers using third-person point of view, you run the risk that they’ll feel you haven’t played fair. With a first-person narrator, you have a lot more freedom.

If you want to withhold information from readers, to surprise us later, you have a great deal of latitude with a first-person narrator. He may be misleading us, or maybe he simply doesn’t know. This has been used effectively with a plethora of first-person sleuths in mystery novels. We pick up the clues as the sleuth does, and–together–we learn whodunnit. As a confirmed mystery addict, this convention never gets old for me. 🙂

What are some of your favorite first-person narrators?

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2 thoughts on “Making the Most of First Person Point of View

  1. I love novels with good first-person narrators. I struggle with first-person present though. For some reason, it takes me longer to immerse myself into the narrator’s world. I notice every present-tense verb too much. My favorite first-person narrator is hands-down Mark Watney. I can’t imagine the novel in any other format other than through his eyes with his humor and sarcasm and intelligence. The movie tries to do it and only partially succeeds.

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