Once you’ve found your character, the next decision you’ll make regards narrative point-of-view. Think of your favourite novels. Do you favour 1st person (“I”) or 3rd person (“he/she/it”) books? Chances are, you’ll write more comfortably using the type of narrative point-of-view you prefer to read.
Today I’d like to blog about using the first person narrative point-of-view. If you chose the “I” narrative, or first person, your tale will be viewed through the eyes of one of your characters and events will be expressed in that character’s language and should reflect this character’s perceptions and opinions.
The first person can be very intimate and often allows access to the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, which is a helpful method of hooking the reader.
On the negative side, all that “I, me, my” can be akin to listening to a monologue – and may bore the reader, if you’re not careful. Additionally, you are limited as to what you can tell the reader, as you can only “know” what your narrating character “knows”. Finally, littering the page with “I”s – neither looks nor “sounds” appealing. For the above reasons, the first person is often more suited to short stories rather than novels. Having said that, there are wonderful first person novels out there and if you are determined to use a first person narrator, you really ought to read great examples of this narrative point-of-view to get a good handle on it:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemmingway
Also, a first person narrator could be a minor character observing a major character, which may remedy some of the pitfalls outlined above. Examples of this type of narrative include Sherlock Holmes and Wuthering Heights.
The Unreliable First Person Narrator
My personal favourite first person narrator is the unreliable variety. It has great comic/tragic potential. With an unreliable narrator, the story is told by a character that doesn’t really “get” what is going on. The reader guesses the true state of affairs, however, and the narrator becomes the butt of the joke. An unreliable narrator is often a child or a naïve or foolish person who does fully comprehend how the world works (think Forrest Gump). The resulting book/play/short story can be quite funny and/or very moving. See the following examples:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding
September 7th, 2011 at 19:21
My last WIP, a YA, had a very unreliable narrator. But she had multiple personality disorder, so was actually reporting things EXACTLY as she remembered…and so did her alters.
Very fun, yet very difficult piece to write. And you’re right, tragic it was.
September 7th, 2011 at 20:07
Wow Cat, that does sound like a challenge to write – though very interesting. What’s the story with the piece now?
September 7th, 2011 at 20:34
It currently sits in the hands of my Awesome Agent. Hopefully my execution of it is as good as I feel it in my heart and see it in my head. Sometimes getting things to work on paper are a bit tricky!
LOL. I can only hope he loves it as much as I do. Or even a fraction would be nice!
September 7th, 2011 at 22:42
Songwriters do the same. Here’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, singing from the point of view of a town, “I Am a Town.” I’m a town in Carolina / I’m a detour on a ride / for a phone call and a soda / I’m a blur from the driver’s side… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnSHWGdiBrk
September 8th, 2011 at 06:12
I used a cat as a 1st person narrator in a short-short once. Not exactly reliable, especially where dogs were concerned.
September 8th, 2011 at 19:45
September 8th, 2011 at 12:40
I found that using a reliable first person narrator, the story needs to be fast paced with a lot of interaction, either through dialogue or through information coming through radio, tv or internet-things.
Otherwise the story can become a puzzle and confusing quickly. Which can be interesting.
September 8th, 2011 at 19:43
Hi Paul, absolutely – dialogue can jazz things up.
Otherwise in some hands it can become interesting, in others, less so.
September 8th, 2011 at 19:47
True. It takes a special craft to write things without much dialogue. I would imagine that this could lead to a lot of inner dialogue though, as perceived by the first person.
September 8th, 2011 at 18:13
The other problem with first-person narrators is that you can’t kill ’em off at the end! (unless they’re dead at the beginning e.g. The Lovely Bones.)
September 8th, 2011 at 18:35
Sure you can. As long as you write the story in present tense. 😉
September 8th, 2011 at 19:40
September 9th, 2011 at 18:21
I love writing about Father Time, Mother Nature, spring, summer, Autumn, jack frost..old man winter. and letting them talk..
September 11th, 2011 at 14:36
I’ve been reading a great deal lately about the unreliable narrator… still not sure I get it but thank you for providing a list of works that fall into this category – it is definitely making more sense to me now. I think some consider Pi in Life of Pi to be unreliable… the verdict is still out on that one for me.
September 11th, 2011 at 22:17
I used to dislike writing in first person because I personally felt I couldn’t write good dynamic characters in first but now I’m writing in first more often than third.
September 12th, 2011 at 00:34
I found this very helpful. I was struggling with my current short story until I realsied it was begging to be told in first person; now it is coming along nicely. And I am using a minor-ish character as the narrator, as I don’t want the reader in the head of the protagonist. I was thinking of Sherlock Holmes style while writing it; my narrator is basically the sidekick of the protagonist.
September 13th, 2011 at 00:53
I love urban fantasy, and first person is popular in those novels because it makes the story more immediate. I especially like Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series–a brilliant use of first person. Faith Hunter uses first person for her Jane Yellowrock series, too. Only knowing what the protagonist knows adds a lot of tension. It’s great for building suspense.