Point of View, Part 2: First Person

In the first part of this series, we took a look at the many different elements that combine to create the point of view from which your story is written. In this installment, we’ll take a look at first person perspectives and what to watch out for using this POV. Research Triangle PublicationsFirst person POV offers an intimacy and authenticity that is more difficult to create with third person, but it also has some important limitations. Specifically, the reader can only see or know what the narrator knows. If you want to describe a murder that has no witnesses, either your murderer will have to narrate the scene, or your victim will have to tell the tale from the Great Beyond–not that that hasn’t been done! Furthermore, your reader will only have insight into the thoughts and feelings of narrating characters. A narrator may describe what he infers the other characters are thinking or feeling, but the only authentic thoughts and feelings will be his. Consider the passage below, which is told in the present tense, with a character narrator, and lots of inner dialogue:
Jeremy and I walk hand-in-hand along the shore. It’s cloudy today, and cool, so even in my favorite old sweats, I feel chilled to the bone. I wonder how much farther he’ll let us go before finding an excuse to turn around. He’s never been one for taking time out to relax and smell the roses, or in this case, the salty sea air. I steal a sideways glance at him. His face is drawn and tight. I know he’s impatient with my insistence on us taking this little stroll, but I decide not to let it bother me and try to enjoy myself anyway.
The reader knows what’s going on with the narrator–she’s wearing her old sweats, but she’s chilled to the bone. She’s concerned that Jeremy will cut the walk short, and she’s struggling to enjoy herself despite that. The reader can’t know, though, what’s going on with Jeremy and will have to take the narrator’s word for it. Jeremy’s face is taut–that’s a clue–but maybe he’s perfectly happy to be walking with her and is just suffering from a toothache. As the writer, you will have to use conversation or other physical cues to let the reader know whether or not the narrator’s assessment of Jeremy is accurate, if indeed you want the reader to know! Research Triangle PublicationsAnother tricky aspect to first person POV is the need to convey details that the narrator wouldn’t naturally observe or think to comment on. For example, suppose you have a solo narrator who is an attractive, popular, high school football star, but you need your reader to know something about the shy, nerdy sophomore girl who is madly in love with him. Odds are, he barely knows she’s alive, so how can he tell your reader anything about her without falling painfully out of character? You can accomplish this, but you’ll have to be creative. Here’s one way you could do it:
“Troy! ‘Sup, man?”
I spun around at the sound of Billy’s voice. “Dude! Where you been?”
Billy stopped, unwrapping his arm from around his girlfriend’s neck to high-five me. Then he grinned, saying, “We had a few ‘errands’ to run.” His girlfriend–Lisa, I think–started giggling, and he re-wrapped her neck.
“You kidding? If you get caught leaving campus again, Coach will put you on suspension for Friday’s game.”
Lisa spoke up, “We won’t get caught.” She started giggling again.
“Whatever. Look, I’m late. Gotta run.” I turned back in the direction I’d been going, only to practically run over some little squirt who’d been coming up behind me. “Geez, uh, sorry, kid.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her up, and then all three of us helped her pick up the books she had spilled all over the place. Billy handed her back her glasses, and she shoved them on her nose and ran off like we were on fire. Didn’t even say anything. I looked at Billy and Lisa, “What’s her problem?”
Lisa gave me a look like I was an idiot. “Duh! That was Casey McCoy.”
“Casey McCoy. Sophomore.” She sighed impatiently. “She’s got a mad crush on you, Troy. The whole rest of the school knows that, don’t you?”
I looked past them to where the girl was still rushing down the hall, trying to get all her stuff back in her backpack. Short, skinny, kind of frumpy-looking, but not exactly ugly. She had a crush on me? No, I didn’t know that. Fact is, I couldn’t remember ever seeing her before.
Since Troy lacks the observational skills necessary to bring Casey to the reader’s attention on his own, have another character help him or do it for him. As in this scene, create a situation where the subject comes up naturally, so that the information exchange doesn’t seem forced. This example brings up one final but critical point about first person POV. If you’re going to go that route, and particularly with a single narrator, make sure that character and his style of story-telling are likable enough for your readers to want to hang with him for the duration. Not that it hasn’t been done, but bringing readers along for two or three hundred pages with a vitriolic old crone or a three year-old child is certainly going to be more of a challenge than having an intelligent, thoughtful, and amusing narrator at the helm.
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