Imagine reading a history textbook about the events leading up to World War II and being totally baffled by the blatant Nazi sympathies. Then flip to the imaginary cover of the book, where you will see that it was written by Adolf Hitler.
Now, that’s a very extreme example of how the perspective of the writer can influence his or her writing, but the point is valid. The point of view is very vital to the way in which a story is expressed and experienced; thus, the choice of which point of view to choose for each piece of writing is a crucial consideration. I will discuss in a series of “Point of View” blog posts the pros, the cons, and the in-betweens of each general point of view. This first post, “From My Point of View,” will take a look at first person (the way things are seen through the eyes of the narrator).
So, what are the pros of using first person? Here are a few:
- A heightened sense of reality—We as humans experience our own worlds from our limited points of view. Never do we quite know what others are thinking. First person gives us this very real sense.
- Connection with the reader—First person creates an intimate connection with the reader. The telling of the story is much more personal.
- Clear voice and personality—In first person, your protagonist’s voice is the very voice with which your story is written and is thus evoked simply by your putting words on the page. It is much easier to bring out the personality of the protagonist in this way.
- Compelling character—To have an entire story related by one character, that character sure as hell better be interesting. A successful first person narrative will always feature a complex and interesting narrator.
But then, are there cons? Yup, lots.
- Me, me, me, I, I, I—Seeing the same pronouns pockmarking the page can get a little annoying, or at least make the reader think you’re a little full of yourself. It can also lead to a lack of variety in sentence structure and style.
- Lack of external knowledge—There is no way to convey the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of other characters as a narrator (unless he or she is a mind reader). Only dialogue can reveal these, and you never can fully trust what another character says (they can lie just like real people!). First person also limits your readers to the actions and experiences of the narrating character. Any scenes that your narrator is not involved in can only be related, again, through dialogue.
- Physical description and name—How the hell are you going to relate to your readers what your character looks like, or what his/her name is for that matter? Scrap any ideas of having your character checking himself out in the mirror and seeing “those Hershey’s Kiss eyes regretfully staring back,” because the mirror thing is way overdone. Instead maybe your character is flipping through a photo album from the trip to Alabama from last fall and “I noticed for the first time how gray my hair had become, how my breasts now swung from my chest like pendulums on a very antique grandfather clock, how not even an iron could save my cheeks from the zigzag wrinkles that lined my face.” And don’t even think about just saying, “My name is Ned.” Instead, have a character address Ned by name within the first page, or maybe Ned “proudly pinned my ‘Hello my name is Ned’ badge to my vest before clocking in for the day.”
So what are the in-betweens? What I have labeled as in-betweens are what are seen as pros by some and as cons by others. These considerations are important and can ultimately help lead you to your decision.
- Introspection and opinions—First person runs the danger of filling up the pages with nothing but the ramblings and inner monologues of the narrator. This can be avoided if you as a writer focus on the action and refrain from allowing your narrator to give too much of his or her own thoughts. Or you could not avoid it all together if the thoughts and introspection of the narrator are exactly what you are after.
- Too much of the author—When writing “I” statements for your narrator, it is very easy—and tempting—to turn them into “I” statements for yourself. Thus, the entire story can become overwhelmed with your own feelings. A careful writer knows how to avoid this as well or will not avoid this intentionally, as the main character may share the same views as the author.
Before choosing any point of view, really consider what reason you have for choosing it. Do you like the limitedness of first person? Is the introspection it offers something you’re after? Are you seeking a deep intimacy between the protagonist and the reader? Do you have a strong voice for the character you plan to write with?
Next time we’ll take a look at second person point of view and why anyone would possibly ever consider using it for a story.