The trials of testifying in first person
Awhile back I took a seminar with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer's League of Texas course on writing fiction. One rich portion of his instruction: Point Of View and how to decide which one to use. Whether it's first person told with the "I" or third person that unreels the story with "he" and "she," all POVs have some downsides to observe.
(I'd include second person, you rascally innovators, you. But those novels and stories are still rare out there, and for a reason: It's difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop's members wrote a full scene in the imperative last week, on his own. I applaud his tenacity. It's not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.)
Most first novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn says a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Some other character will need to tell your first person narrator's part of the story. It's difficult to get "objective reality" out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations about the narrator appear in a first person story.
- Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
- People will believe the central character is the author
- If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel pulls this off well.)
- First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and "it seems"
- A narrator, not involved in the story, can lend objectivity. But we'll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they're not involved.
- There's a loss of suspense in first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person's POV. There's some difficulty in reporting one's own death.
- First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that's a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.