First Person and Sticky Points of View

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First Person and

In a seminar I had with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on fiction, he expressed a point of view. That’s as in Point Of View (POV) 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 include second person in that list of POVs, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, 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 recently wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most debut novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Keep in mind that some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story — unless they can reflect on themselves in an observer’s manner. The novel The Various Flavors of Coffee (superb book) does this reflection well. The device used is the narrator telling his story from well into the future, prior to the book’s main action. It’s deft and worth a read.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations, genuine surprises, about the narrator in a first person story. As in  The Various Flavors of Coffee, your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. However, there’s a moment in the story where the character says the equivalent of “what I was about to do was a series of blunders.” Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person aspects:

  • 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, however, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel about a club pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed” narration
  • A narrator who’s 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 by using 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.
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