FIRST PERSON– The "I" of the Story
What do I need to think about if I am considering writing in first-person?
First, consider that the first person choice is more restricted by market than the other choices. Limited omniscient, multiple, and single (and the combinations of them) are common to almost every kind of fiction, and none of them will raise too many editorial eyebrows as long as they're done well.
But first-person tends to be restricted to short stories, detective novels, literary fiction, mainstream (usually "women's fiction") novels, and the recently revised genre of Gothics. (Stephen King usually writes in a limited omniscient-dominated third person– but when he chose to do what he called a Gothic romance, Bag of Bones, he chose first-person.) You also see it occasionally in young adult fiction (that is, books aimed at middle-school and high-school students, and no, I don't understand why that's called "young adult" either!), but seldom in children's books.
It's not that first person won't work in other types of books, but you should probably have a great reason to use it as many editors and readers will see it as limiting.
I'd think first-person would be the easiest POV approach. Like you said, it's just letting the character tell the story.
Take it from one who is wrestling with it now– it is much harder than it looks! Then again, I tend to borrow trouble. I get to writing in that "I" voice, and it's going well, and then I think suddenly, "But why is she telling this story? And to whom is she telling it?" That is, instead of just accepting the common convention (that is, the first-person narrator doesn't need a reason or an audience to tell the story), I get existential. But you don't have to do that.
So what are the benefits of first-person narration in the story?
In first-person narration, the reader gets an intimate perspective of this one person's experience and perceptions. The reader identification with the narrator is by the proximity to his/her thoughts and no one else's. The reader's vicarious experience will be more intense, locked into this one perspective.
Voice is another great benefit of first-person. This is the only POV approach where the author's voice must disappear and leave only the character/narrator speaking directly to the reader. So the amusing or illuminating speech patterns come through not just in dialogue but in the narration itself. The narrator's education level, attitude, mood, prejudices, vanities, values, and interpretation can all come through in even the shortest of passages. Here's an example from the impeccably amusing PG Wodehouse:
He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. (PG Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters.)
Bertie is evaluating his friend's tone, and coming to his own conclusion about what it means. But he's couching it in his own inimitable way, naively revealing both his verbal dyslexia ("a certain what-is-it") and an amusing anomaly in the English language. (You can be disgruntled, but can you be "gruntled"?) So we get a sense of a man who perhaps isn't very bright, but is sensitive to the vocal tones of other people. Most important, his language and perspective are distinctive and intriguing. He's not just a "generic narrator", but someone quite specific. (More about voice in "You Ain't Got a Thing if You Ain't Got That Swing" below.)
First-person can also offer some tantalizing plot possibilities. The very narrowness of the narrator's perspective can give subtle hints that things aren't precisely as they might appear, setting up a later plot twist. Here's an example from Poe's "Berenice" (I warn you: I wrote my master's degree thesis on this subject!):
(After his fiancée's death--) In that coffin, he whisperingly assured me, was all that remained of Berenice.... It was impossible to refuse.... God of heaven!-- was it possible? Was it my brain that reeled-- or was it indeed the fingers of the enshrouded dead that stirred in the white cerement that bound it? There had been a band around the jaws, but, I know not how, it was broken asunder. The livid lips were wreathed in a species of smile, and ... there glared upon me in too palpable reality, the white and glistening and ghastly teeth of Berenice. I sprang convulsively from the bed, and uttering no word, rushed forth a maniac from that apartment of triple horror, and mystery, and death.
While the first-person narrator won't quite come out and admit it out loud, he's just seen that his about-to-be-interred fiancée is inconveniently still alive though comatose (she'd broken the band around her jaw, see). This was a passage subsequently excised from the published edition for its "bad taste", but it sets up the teasing suspicion that he is committing murder by omission without quite realizing it. (It's hard to believe it was in worse taste than the last scene, which wasn't excised, where he wakes up and discovers bloody teeth beside him– he'd broken into her tomb and pulled out all her teeth. If you want to know why, you'll have to read my thesis. :)
So the popularity of first-person is understandable– it's almost a conversation between the narrator and reader. It's an interactive approach that works as well in the 21st Century as it did for Defoe in the 18th Century.
What are the disadvantages?
Well, I think there's an existential disadvantage to first-person in that some readers have a visceral antipathy to reading about "I" when it is demonstrably not "I" (that is, the reader). I've propounded on this theory to many writers, most have whom dismissed it as nonsense (I get no respect!). Nonetheless, there are readers who refuse to read first-person stories– and remember, readers seldom consciously notice a POV approach. So there must be something in first-person that turns off some readers.
It could be that "unique voice" that I just mentioned. The very uniqueness of the narrative voice directly addressing the reader could become intrusive. There's a fine line between "unique" and "annoying". Imagine 300 pages narrated by a Valley Girl, for example. In fact, what one reader might find "fresh and contemporary," another might consider "disjointed and vague." So a strong voice can be both a blessing and a curse, especially in the tight quarters of a first-person narration.
Another "voice" problem is the lack of one. Sometimes the narrator sounds just like the author. If you're in love with your own voice (and I do understand– I am quite fond of my voice too), you're probably better off using a third-person narration. First-person works best when the character comes through in the narration, when the very word choice tells the reader something about this person.
This brings up a sensitive subject... fictionalized autobiography. This can be a problem in any POV approach, but is more acute in first-person. If your story is based on an experience in your own life, especially a negative experience, consider avoiding first-person altogether. You need to establish distance between yourself and the narrator, or there's a great danger that the story will come across as one big self-pitying whine. You'll be unconsciously favoring "yourself", that is, the narrator, and that preference will not escape readers. There's an old writer's maxim that the author has to be every character, not just one, and that's going to be much easier to accomplish if you write about your own life in third person.
Well, I’m not writing about my own life. So what else can go wrong in first-person?
A lot! It's a volatile choice, and one that brings up specialized problems that you might not encounter with third-person. These mostly have to do with the tight focus on a single character's perspective controlling how the story is told and what is revealed.
Narrator– But Character First
For example, since the first-person narrator has to perform the difficult task of narrating, sometimes the author forgets she's a character too. (In fact, some authors get around this by having a non-main-character narrator– Dostoevesky's narrator in The Possessed is an example. But that's a rather old-fashioned technique, as it distances the reader from the story.)
So beware of the narrator ceasing to be a character at crucial moments. Especially at moments of high emotion, there's sometimes a tendency to just narrate the action, without any checking back to see how the narrator/character feels or thinks at this point. That works fine in third-person, but can just about ruin a first-person passage.
The narration should always be filtered through this person with emotions and intentions and values. If something emotional is happening, the pov character must react to it and not just narrate (unless emotional deadness is what you want to convey).
Here's an example‑‑ viewpoint character is John's sister; Kristen is his wife:
The guard stopped us and said that John had just been executed. We were too late. Kristen broke down into tears, shrieking and pounding at the wall with both fists. Her hands were raw and bloody. The guard, appalled, pulled her away from the wall and ordered another guard to get her some water.
What happened to the narrator's experience? She's John's sister. She must also care that John has been killed. But she's stopped being a character who reacts to events and becomes just a narrator who narrates them.
Remember that the point of first‑person narration is to give one person's view of events, but also that person's response to events. If she would have an emotional or mental response, you have to show it:
The guard stopped us and said that John had just been executed. We were too late. I stared at him, refusing to believe it, refusing even to hear it.
But then Kristen broke down into tears. I reached out for her, but she was too far away, and I was too shattered to take even one step towards her. She started shrieking and pounding at the wall with both fists. Her hands were raw and bloody. The guard, appalled, pulled her away from the wall and ordered another guard to get her some water. I still couldn't move.
Or you can show her blocking it– I couldn't deal with the pain yet. I had to keep it together for Kristen, to keep her from blurting out where the baby was hidden. Either show the emotion or show the blocking of emotion. This is no time to be objective!
Narrowing the Perspective
First-person can limit the events you narrate directly, because you can show only what the narrator actually experiences. Sometimes that leads to clunky scenes like Millie telling the narrator Billie about an event, and Billie then telling us. So conventional first-person probably isn’t the best approach for a story that involves several major characters in several different venues.
If you have more than a couple major events happening outside the narrator's view, I'd suggest first that you rethink first-person viewpoint. First-person is meant to give the reader one person's direct experience filtered through his/her unique perspective. If a lot of plot action can't be narrated through that perspective, perhaps a third-person approach with several narrators would work better. You could still have the protagonist narrating most scenes, but you could also give the reader a direct experience of the other action through the perspective of a real participant.
But I really want to do first-person, and yet not be completely confined to the narrator. Are there other ways to get around this problem?
An alternative, but one I advise only with caution and consideration, is to use third-person narration for those scenes outside the narrator's view. Detective novels and thrillers have used this technique recently. Look at the James Patterson books and Robert Crais's Elvis Cole series for examples. (I've also seen the main narrative in third-person and only the villain's POV done in first-person, which is one way to conceal the villain's gender– just "I", no "he or she".)
These variations on first-person POV can be confusing to readers, because they end up knowing much more about what's going on than the first-person narrator does. It helps to make a clear differentiation between the sections– the third-person passage might have its own chapter, for example. I've also seen the first-person passages in standard literary past tense ("I chose the first door, turned the knob, and yanked it open") while the third-person passages are in present tense ("The killer grabs the letter from the mailbox and rips it open"), or vice versa.
First Times Four
Another interesting but not-for-everyday variation is "multiple first-person". Multiple-first provides what we now call the Rashomon effect, after the Japanese film that shows an assault four times, once from each of four perspectives. I have done a book like that myself, with a great struggle, alas!
This can be great fun, especially to show how the "reality" of an event varies depending on the perspective. But the dangers are there too. Unless the events are pretty dramatic, and the perspectives distinctive, the reader could be thinking "same-old same-old" by the third go-round. (A good author to read for this variation is Susan Howatch, especially in Penmarric and Sins of the Father.)
More common than the repeating narrative (different perspectives on the same event) is the sequential narrative, where a number of narrators tell the story more or less chronologically, each taking a chapter or so. Faulkner used this technique in As I Lay Dying, the story of a family trying to take the mother's body to town for burial during flood season. More than a dozen narrators (including the dead woman!) combine to tell the story, each in a short passage, each advancing the story one more step. Each narrative passage reflects the perspective and the personality of the narrator, sometimes to the point of obscurity. (One "chapter" I remember puzzling over in my Modern Novel 365 course consisted of this: "My mother is a fish.")
This can also work in popular fiction, as long as the overall story is a strong one so that the reader is carried from one narration to another by the "narrative drive"-- the propulsion of the plot through the story events towards some powerful conclusion. The plot itself has to provide the coherence and connectivity to link all those disparate viewpoints, so this probably isn't a good format for a quiet, contemplative story. I'd use it perhaps when I was writing about a group of characters linked by the plot– perhaps a dozen high school football players who gradually realize that their coach is an alien, or a series of short-lived lieutenants commanding a platoon in-country in Vietnam, or maybe the six wives of Henry VIII. And, of course, each perspective has to be distinctive– but, in a way, they shouldn't be too distinctive. Twelve vastly different voices might be jarring and discordant and detract from the continuity of the story– but then, twelve identical voices might as well be rendered in a neutral third-person. Faulkner's narrators are all southerners and mostly of the same rural lower-class background, so their voices have the same "accent", which softens the discordance of their varying perspectives.
Another use of multiple-third is to tell a story more or less sequentially through a smaller number of perspectives, but with each narrative having its own story arc. Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury used the sequential first-person narrations of three brothers, one after another, with each brother's segment running to seventy pages or so. (A fourth section was done in third-person.) Each brother has an unusual perspective: Benjy is mentally handicapped and unable to speak, Quentin is preparing to commit suicide, and Jason is something of a sociopath. The fewer the first-person narrators, the more distinctive the voices can be without extreme discordance. In this case, they are linked by their family relationship, but also thematically: Each, in a way, is describing the loss of their sister Caddy to vice and corruption. And they are linked by their mental illnesses. But each section has its own plotline, with a beginning, middle, and end, so that each brother's section not only advances the overall plot but contains his own story– Quentin ends up committing suicide, Jason is cheated of his money, and Benji realizes his sister is gone forever.
If you take on challenges like this, it's even more imperative to concentrate on what you want the reader to experience. If your purpose is to show the varied perspectives on reality (Rashomon), then you'll need to make those perspectives quite distinct, with very distinct narrators. If you're using multiple narrators to tell one overall story (As I Lay Dying), then each narrator should probably be used to narrate something only he or she experienced or witnessed. With the multiple stories adding up to one big story approach (The Sound and the Fury), you'll need to focus on the narrators-as-characters, giving each of them an individual journey as well as a part in the overall story.
1. If you're considering doing this story in first-person narration, free-write for a few moments on the advantages and disadvantages you'll face.
2. Which character will be the narrator? What unique perspective will he/she bring? What limitations will this perspective place on the narrative (like maybe "he won't be around for the big scene in Toledo, so I'll have to find a way to have that told, maybe through an email from an eyewitness?")?
3. If you're going to try multiple first-person, what can you do to link the narrations for greater coherence? Will there be a single overarching story that each contributes too, or separate stories, or separate versions of the same story, or....?
4. Think over what you have of the plot. Is the narrator a character too? That is, does the narrator measurably participate in the action of the story, reacting to events and causing things to happen?
Okay, I'm duly humbled. But I'm still interested in first-person. What are some other challenges I might face?
Probably the one I have had the most trouble with myself is what I call retrospective retelling. This is the tendency to relate the story in retrospect, as if it's all already happened.
That is, I found it much harder in first person to make every scene an actual scene, the real-time narration of an event. Instead the narrator seemed to be narrating the story from some vantage point in the future. I found myself using phrases like “I didn’t know then that...” and “Later I understood that”, which detracted from the sense of immediacy. This was especially difficult when I was describing an impression that would later turn out to be mistaken, for instance, when the heroine first started suspecting the wife had committed the murder. During the time of the scene, the heroine would not have known the wife was innocent, but that implication crept through when I used the “retrospective-style” narrative, told from a future where the heroine knows who the murderer really was.
I decided I had to choose one or the other-- either the heroine was narrating the events as they happened (in the standard “literary past” tense), or she was re-telling the experience from the future with all the knowledge of someone who had already lived through it (what I call "future retrospective"). Either choice has its advantages, but I didn’t think I could adequately convey strong emotions like terror and curiosity in retrospect. And it’s not easy to persuade a reader to fear for the narrator’s life when she’s making it clear that she’s survived.
But some authors have fun with this retrospective structure, playing with the anomaly of telling the past from the future as if it were the present. Elizabeth Peters has her narrator directly address the issue early in The Last Camel Died at Noon, starting with a straight-time accounting of the day the last camel died, stranding her, her husband, and her son in the desert:
Let me turn back the pages of my journal and explain in proper sequence of time how we came to find ourselves in such an extraordinary predicament. I do not do this in the meretricious hope of prolonging your anxiety as to our survival, dear reader, for if you have the intelligence I expect my readers to possess, you will know I could not be writing this account if I were in the same state as the camels.
Marcel Proust's 3400-page first-person epic (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu/Remembrance of Things Past) uses future retrospective as a way to foreshadow what is coming in the book. It's a linking device to hold together a sprawling narrative that spans decades (and three volumes!) and add an extra dimension to the character of the young narrator. Here's a typical foreshadowing passage:
What the chauffeur wished was to avoid, if possible, the dead season. I have said– though I was unaware of this at the time, and the knowledge of it would have saved me much unhappiness– that he was on very friendly terms with Morel, although they showed no sign even of knowing each other in front of other people.
Proust's technique works because his story is very much a reminiscence from an older and wiser perspective. The title (Remembrance of Things Past) makes that retrospective approach clear. Notice how his foreshadowing creates conflict (always a good thing) by letting the reader know that the chauffeur and Morel are being deceptive. It also gives weight to what otherwise might seem like a trivial incident (a chauffeur taking his car and going back to Paris). He delineates the two time periods with his tenses– "I have said" is coming from that future perspective, while the simple past ("he wished") denotes the time of the story.
If you're working in first-person, this is a decision you should make early, whether to have the narrator be narrating from some point in the future, or narrating the events more or less as they happen. Either method, or a combination, can work. What probably won't work, however, is telling each scene as some sort of historical record, as that will make the narration seem slow and detached. Try, as Peters does above, interjecting "future time" (for example, "I've been down that road since, and it's all changed. Now it's the most generic of suburban highway strips. But back in 1982....") and then descending into the actual time of the story– "straight time".
Harper Lee, in her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, deals with the awkwardness of a child-narrator by telling the story from the retrospective of the adult Scout. From the first page, she makes the approach clear:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.... When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
But while the voice is adult throughout the book, the action following this is narrated more or less in the time of the book. The reader gets a sense of the distance between the narrator's current life and the events of the book, but once the story actually begins, the scenes are told as they are happening.
When you're doing this future-looking-back method, the clearer the time references, the better. Use future markers like "When enough years had gone by..." or "Now I know better, but back then...." to delineate the passages which have the narrator looking back. Then when you descend into the past, show the transition with another time marker, like "That summer I turned forty, and lost my job," and try then to narrate it directly, as it happens– "My boss McDougall called me into his office and sat me down. 'We're going to have to let you go,' he said as he wrote out a check in his big green check register."
Here's how Harper Lee descends into the past:
That was the summer Dill came to us.
Early one morning as we were beginning our day's play in the backyard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford's collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy– Miss Rachel's rat terrier was expecting– instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn't much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:
"Hey yourself," Jem said pleasantly.
"I'm Charles Baker Harris," he said. "I can read."
The "early one morning" and the specificity of detail (Miss Rachel's rat terrier. the collards) place us very definitely in a particular moment in the past, and the dialogue enhances the sense of immediacy. We're no longer in the future looking back; we're now watching the initial encounter with Dill play out as if it is happening in front of us.
To increase that immediacy, I'd also suggest aiming for the most active prose you can create without being obnoxious. Go for strong but common verbs– that is, verbs that your narrator would use, nothing fancy, but the stronger the better. "I shoved open the door" would be stronger than "I opened the door." Envision the setting and provide the sharp details and sensory aspects that will anchor the scene very much in the moment.
One contemporary technique in first-person is to narrate the story in present tense, as if the narrator is narrating it literally as it happens. Brad Meltzer crafts most of his thrillers (First Counsel, Millionaires) in this fast-paced style.
This technique definitely increases the immediacy of the events, and eliminates the awkwardness of future-retrospective, but irritates some readers. One told me it was like listening to her teenager describe his day: "First I get up and eat my cheerios, and then I go to the mall, and I meet this hot chick, and she says, like, you know, could she have my phone number, and I go, you know, well, sure, and...."
Now the present-tense doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I suspect it aids the author in keeping the first-person account sharp and active. It's hard to slip into "retrospective" when the action is unfolding right in front of you. It allows for a more stream-of-consciousness narration, including thought and feeling as it they happen:
Now that lunch is over, most of the pews are empty... but not all of them. A dozen or so worshippers are scattered throughout the rows, and even if they're praying, it only takes one random glance for one of them to be crimestopper of the week.
Hoping for a something a bit less crowded, I glance around the sanctuary. When a church is this big, there's usually– There we go. Three-quarters down the aisle, along the left-hand wall, a single, unmarked door. Trying not to be too quick and noticeable, Charlie and I keep the pace nice and smooth. There's a large creak when the door opens. I cringe and give it a fast push to end the pain. We rush forward so quickly that I literally stmble into the stone room, which is just big enough to hold a few benches and a brass votive stand filled with burning candles. Otherwise we're the only ones in the private chapel.
The door slams shut, and Charlie is still silent. "Please don't do this to yourself," I tell him. "Take your own advice. What happened with Shep, it's not my fault, and it's not yours!"
Collapsing on a wooden bench in the corner, Charlie doesn't answer. His posture sinks. His neck bobs lifelessly. He's still in shock. Less than a half- hour ago, I saw a co-worker get shot.
Brad Meltzer, The Millionaires
The There it is interruption is what gives this passage its "right-there-right-now" feel. The present tense allows more of a running commentary of the event. This can be a lot of fun, or it can be tedious. Concentrate on making the narrator's experience and perceptions vivid and entertaining, with plenty of emotion and conflict. In the example above, he's not just noting the worshippers in the church; he's thinking of them as potential adversaries, "crime-stoppers of the week," who might turn him and his fugitive brother over to the police. He's not just walking down the hall; he's trying to keep anyone from noticing that they're trying to hide from the police. He's not just trying to buck up his brother; he's begging him not to fall apart. Lots of conflict, lots of emotion, and presented in an urgent, immediate way.
If you decide to try this, remember it does alienate some readers. There are always trade-offs, especially with radical techniques like this. So your best bet is to exploit the benefits of the method to the max, and make it worth the possible irritation that comes from reading something that isn't quite the comfortable common style.
A suggestion– these sorts of first-person maneuvers (like first-person/third-person, or future-retrospective, or present-tense narration) are complicated enough. It might be easier for the reader if you avoid any other narrative complexities, like jumping around in time, or narrating events out of chronological sequence. A clear linear narrative will make it easier for the reader to follow the occasional first-person distraction.
So if you’re going to work with this approach, spend some time on creating a voice and then, as you write, on structuring the narrative.
Each author has a voice as unique as her fingerprint. But unlike the fingerprint, the author’s voice can be enhanced, refined, modified, stripped, and polished. The problem is, that voice isn’t usually appropriate for first-person narrative, because the reader needs to hear the narrator telling the story.
But that means the first-person narrator, more than any other kind of narrator, has to feature a "voice"-- some particular way of telling the story or seeing the action. If a first-person narrator is as neutral or bland as a limited-omniscient narration, you're probably wasting the potential of first-person and boring the reader by forcing her into very tight contact with someone talking nonstop... and in a monotone!
So if you're committing yourself to a first-person narrator, get to know that character and create the voice. Think not only of how this person would sound, but how she would perceive the world around her, and how her attitude, biases, and values would affect her interpretation of events.
You're probably already used to creating character voices because you do it with their dialogue. First-person narration will resemble that character's dialogue, but you might want to add a little more depth or texture. For example, a character might speak carefully, enunciating each word, using perfect grammar, to conceal her lower-class origins. But maybe her narration will feature more casual diction, more slang, more color– and be a lot more fun than her stiff and straight dialogue. The contrast will show us something about who she is and might make us wonder why she's projecting a different persona to the world.
There's more about creating a narrative voice later in this book, but what's most important with first-person is... attitude.
You Ain't Got a Thing If You Ain't Got That Swing
Attitude is what first-person is all about.
The first-person narrator can be sassy or angry or contemplative or ironic or insane. The only thing the first-person narrator can't be is boring. The narrative has to reflect the narrator's attitude or you might as well be writing third-person. (Attitude is also useful for third-person narrators– just not quite as crucial!)
So what's attitude? It's the unique worldview of this person, mixed in with self-image and mood and intention.
Here's an example from John Mortimer's Rumpole series, about a defense attorney in London whose own wife just called him an "Old Bailey hack":
Hilda, I thought, had gone too far. I'm not exactly a hack. I've been at the work for longer than I can remember, and as is generally recognized down at the Old Bailey, there are no flies on Rumpole. After all, I cut my teeth on the Penge Bungalow Murders. I could win most of my cases if it weren't for the clients. Clients have no tact, poor old darlings. No bloody sensitivity! They will waltz into the witness-box and blurt out things that are far better left unblurted.
I suppose, when I was young, I used to suffer with my clients. I used to cringe when I heard their sentences and go down to the cells full of anger. Now I never watch their faces when the sentence is passed. I hardly listen to the years pronounced and I never look back at the dock....
.... "Before you were born, Jo. Before ever you were born, Mr. Rumpole was crucifying the police," Winter told him proudly.
Poor old Winter. The gullible old sweetheart believes that the customer is always right. He can't tell a dodgy car salesman from the unknown political prisoner. -- Rumpole and the Confession of Guilt
Let's try each of those elements on old Rumpole:
Worldview: What do you sense is the narrator's view of the world? Is he optimistic or pessimistic? Naive or cynical? Suspicious or trusting? Does he view the outside world as a puzzle, a prison, an oppressor, a mark to be conned, a lover to be seduced? Does he see life as a comedy or tragedy? Does he have a political outlook or religious faith that colors his view of how the world works?
Rumpole is a cynic, but in the special sense of the failed romantic. Politically he's something of a liberal, as he's protecting the rights of the accused, but he no longer has any idealistic illusions. Life for him is a comedy of the darker sort: "It hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry." He doesn't trust fate, or his clients. But... he's always secretly hoping to be proved wrong. Look at his joking use of positive terms like "poor old darlings" and "waltz" and "gullible old sweetheart" to take the edge off his despair.
Self-image: More than any other POV approach, first-person explores a character's self-image. After all, he is creating himself in the way he's narrating this part of his life. (Yes, yes, I know that the author is creating him creating himself. It's magic, I tell you!) He is presenting an image to the world, and inadvertently revealing something of his inner self as he does it. When it comes to self-definition, what he denies is as important as what he declares.
With Rumpole, we see a man who struggles with a disconnect between what he wants to believe of himself and what the world sees in him– he thinks of himself as an expert with special skills and knowledge, but even his own wife dismisses him as "a hack", and somewhere inside he worries that a hack is what he's become. More significant, however, is his insistence that he doesn't care anymore what becomes of his clients, that he is hardened to their plights and feels nothing, especially not guilt, when they are sentenced. This actually sets up the story's praxis, or emotional action, as Rumpole proclaims his hardheartedness early on, but ends up taking a risk that a client really is innocent, and gets him off. So his actions in the story undercut his self-assessment. That's good– self-image, as revealed in first-person narration, is always more interesting when it's slightly wrong.
Mood: Rumpole is angry but trying to hide it– angry at his wife for calling him a hack, angry at himself for suspecting she's right, angry at his clients for being stupid and guilty and unsympathetic. Always jocular, he's filtering his anger through humor, hence the ironic "poor old darlings". At this point in the story, anger will create that edgy, steely attitude.
Intention: This is sort of tricky, because the first-person narrator doesn't always seem to be completely aware that he/she has an audience. (Sometimes– see Frame Story below– there's an actual recognition that there is an audience.) But with first-person narration, there's always some implicit intention behind the narrator's words in a particular passage. He's trying to explain something or prove something or hide something. In this case, Rumpole is trying to prove to the reader/audience that he's hard now, that he isn't vulnerable to his clients' despair, that it's just a job to him. What's fun, of course, is that his very insistence on this point makes us realize that he's trying to convince himself.
Another example, this time from poetry– My Last Duchess, one of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues. This is especially interesting because it's a mystery story in verse. The duke is entertaining the emissary from his future father-in-law, preparatory to signing the marriage documents. He's pointing to a portrait of his last wife (it's implied that he's had several before her) and explaining that her democratic friendliness displeased him. Here's the cold, casual way he describes what happened then:
...She thanked men, -good; but thanked
Somehow -I know not how -as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -(which I have not) -to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark' -and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
- E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, Sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
Let's see how this first-person voice parses:
World-view: The duke lives in a world he absolutely rules, and he never questions his divine right to determine fate for others. In his world, his nine-hundred-years-old name counts for more than his wife's happiness or her life. Other people (including his future wife) are just utensils.
Self-image: The duke's self-image is imperious and impervious. He is, after all, the holder of an ancient name, a patron of the arts, a rare catch on the marriage market. He's so grand he need only "give commands", and know that they will be followed. He is, in fact, so entirely sure of himself that he confesses to murder without the slightest qualm. Who, after all, can tell him he doesn't have the right to do away with an unsatisfactory wife?
Mood: As the poem opens, the duke's mood is one of joviality, as he welcomes the envoy and shows him around the castle, pointing out his art objects and boasting of his fine taste. But as he gazes at his wife's portrait, he grows increasingly grim. We can almost hear him biting off the words as he describes her smiles as a form of promiscuity, and the cool satisfaction with which he recalls her fate.
Intention: My Last Duchess is a wonderful example of a first-person narrator intending one thing and accomplishing something else. The duke wants to impress the envoy from the future father-in-law and snow him into recommending a big dowry to fund more art purchases. So he's doing his best to flatter the envoy with his princely condescension and impress him with how great it will be to be associated with such ducal might. But instead, he's revealing precisely how bad a husband-prospect he is.
So how do you create attitude? First, I suggest, you discover it. Think about who your narrator is, and how she's feeling about the world and herself at this point. Free-write in her voice– not the narrative of the story now, but rather answers to prompts like: "So, Jane, how are you feeling now? Why can't you be more candid about this event? What do you mean to have happen now?" Immerse yourself in her reality for a few minutes before starting to write her narration of a scene.
Then, as you revise, watch for the tone that your first draft revealed, and see how you can enhance it, without getting obnoxious. Here's an example of a conventional first-person tone, one of arch irony:
To the readers who have encountered my distinguished husband in the flesh, or in the pages of my earlier works, it will come as no surprise to them that he reacted to the camel's death as if the animal had committed suicide for the sole purpose of inconveniencing him.
Elizabeth Peters, The Last Camel Died at Noon
Everything in that passage, from the complicated sentence construction and the ornate language to the amused pride in her arrogant husband, creates that ironic tone, one that establishes a connection of shared superiority with the reader. That's great attitude, and while I can't say for sure, I'll bet you it didn't happen on the first draft. "Revising in" tone is the mark of a sophisticated writer.
So get to know the character's overall worldview and self-image and how they might change during the course of the book, and at every narrative point spend a moment or two thinking about what her agenda is and what her mood is. Then let that perception guide your writing of her narration.
What are some specific tricks I can do to show attitude?
One of my favorites is "the aside"-- those snarky little side comments that the first-person narrator makes –not in dialogue, but inside his head.
While this can be done in third-person too, it's more sassy and direct in first-person. In fact, this is a good reason to use first-person, so you can convey that subversive experience of the narrator/character actually talking to the reader.
This technique is actually controlled stream-of-consciousness. We're in the narrator's head, but the thoughts are in response to what's going on outside. It's not as claustrophobic as real stream-of-consciousness, and more coherent, but still has the freshness of real thought. It's almost a secret conversation, because the narrator seems to assume that the reader will understand what the other characters aren't allowed to hear.
So when would you use an aside? Whenever the narrator would think one. Usually these take place during dialogue– that is, these mental comments are "aside" the actual spoken conversation. They might correct or amplify or reinterpret something said aloud– but what's important is, the other character isn't privy to it.
PG Wodehouse's Bertie frequently uses asides to explain himself: "Oh, I'm not complaining," said Chuffy, looking rather like Saint Sebastian on receipt of about the fifteenth arrow. "You have a perfect right to love who you like."
"Whom, old man," I couldn't help saying. Jeeves has made me rather a purist in these matters.
The last line in bold is the aside, addressed to the reader and explaining why Chuffy's minor mistake elicits such a correction from Bertie. (Bertie is not known as a bright light of intellect, though he has a certain sophomoric linguistic capacity.) The humor comes from his focus on grammar rather than on his friend's annoyance, and from the contrast between his slangy speech ("old man") and his ornate asides ("rather a purist in these matter"). The aside, more than his correction of Chuffy, tells us that he feels just a bit superior to his Jeeve-less fellows.
A good aside tells us something about the character, something that perhaps he wouldn't express freely in open speech. Sometimes it provides a counterpoint to the surface-level conversation, expressing what he's really thinking. Here's an example from Brian McGrory's political thriller, The Incumbent (a particularly good example of an in-your-face first-person narration). Jack Flynn, a newspaper reporter, is a witness to an assassination attempt, and returns a call from an FBI agent– a beautiful one.
Next, I dialed up Stevens. Ends up, she had left me her pager number, which was interesting. Even worried FBI agents don't give their home telephone numbers out to key witnesses whom they have an enormous crush on.
Okay, so I made up the part about the crush. But it wasn't one minute before the telephone rang.
"Jack, Agent Stevens."
Agent Stevens. Isn't that precious beyond words? Perhaps I'd like to be identified herein as Reporter Flynn, or Journalist Flynn for all you National Public Radio types.
The narrator directly addresses the readers– "all you National Public Radio types." He thinks in italics when he emphasizes a word. He uses slang like "Okay" but the also high-falutin' legal-type word "herein", and confesses to fantasizing about the crush. He doesn't mind ending a sentence on a preposition; though I bet you he wouldn't "write" that way in a newspaper article, that's the way he "talks". He mimicks a snob with his "precious beyond words" verbal sneer. There's a real person in there, a smart-mouthed secret romantic who doesn't appreciate elitism even from a beautiful woman.
This sort of attitude is what makes first-person so much fun to write and read. Now of course, not every first-person narrator would be so sassy and slangy. Jack is clearly a contemporary, urban man, and his asides reflect that– they're irreverent, a bit self-absorbed but also self-amused. If the same conversation were being narrated by a man of the old-school, someone who looked and thought and talked like, say, the dignified and erudite editor William F. Buckley, you can imagine how different the asides would be.
Later the reporter and the FBI agent are having dinner. This isn't a date-- each is trying to pump the other for information about a presidential-assassination attempt. Jack's thoughts, however, stray again into forbidden territory:
"I don't really know any journalists, professionally," she said. "I don't know if I'm supposed to do this, or if this is wrong, or what."
You have a crush, I said to myself. You've developed a crush on me, and you don't know how to tell me. Just let it out. You'll feel better. Just let it all go.
She said, "I wanted to ask you about that story you had in yesterday's paper that you ended up killing for the later editions."
Notice the cues that let us know we're in his thoughts– the present tense, the "I said to myself", the addressing her mentally as "you". And consider how barren and boring the passage would have been if all we had was their dialogue without his anticipatory inner commentary.
EXERCISE: Author voice and attitude.
1. When the book opens, what is the narrator's worldview? How does he/she perceive the world? Is there a dominant religious or political philosophy?
2. What's the narrator's self-image? How does this differ from the persona he/she presents to the world? How does this color how he/she presents the narration? (For example, someone who thinks of herself as persecuted will interpret an accident as something aimed at hurting her in particular.)
3. Is the narrator past-focused, present-focused, or future-focused? How will this affect the narration?
4. Choose one event, just as an example. Jot down a few notes on the character's worldview, self-image, mood, and intention, at this moment in the story.
5. Now write the narration of that event, using what you've learned about this character's POV. Try your best to let the character do the writing here! Once you're done, read it over and try to revise in a couple "asides" that reveal the internal thoughts, feelings, and interpretations.
Okay, I'll try for more attitude. What other tricks can I do with first-person?
Again, keep in mind that the narrator is a character, not just the mouthpiece. But first-person adds in the element of intentionality– that is, the narrator/character is able to manipulate the narrative to achieve some effect. So while in third person, a deceitful would be cheating, in first-person, it's allowable. That is, the first-person narrator is allowed to lie– sometimes even expected.
We are seldom really honest about our own emotions, for example, even to ourselves. We tell ourselves we're angry when we're really scared. We think that we're being helpful when we're really being controlling. That's why deception "feels" so right in first-person, because we know we do it when we narrate our own lives. (Most of us!) Narrator deception and self-deception will deepen the narrative and add subtext.
(Subtext is what's going on, consciously or unconsciously, under the surface text. Think of a flirtation, where the man and woman are discussing their favorite hats and caps, and underneath that surface banter, there's a whole secret conversation going on. This is a common type of subtext, but the sort that shows up in first-person narration lets the reader know something the narrator doesn't mean to be expressing– such as the Poe narrator who thinks he's doing a great job telling how much he loved his wife, while the reader is getting the suspicion that narrator loved her to death.)
In other words, first-person narrators get to lie.
I the Lie
Now does this mean the "lie" has to be something serious, like how that wife got buried alive in Poe's story? No, and it doesn't have to be willfully deceptive. It can be an effort to "spin" reality to better suit the character's purposes or make him appear in a more favorable light. It can be the subconscious suppressing of some important fact or the wishful-thinking interpretation of some event. The "unreliable first-person narrator" is at least as old as Laurence Sterne (18th Century), and is something you might want to exploit as you craft your narrative.
This is one option that really isn't available in third-person. Readers expect that a third-person narrative will be more or less true when it describes the action of the scene. For example:
He inched forward and just tapped the car ahead of him. To his shock, the other car's bumper collapsed like a sheet of tin foil.
The reader will generally assume that the narrative is correct, as far as it goes, that the character really did just tap the other car, and its bumper must have been defective. But with first-person narration, the reader will be skeptical:
I inched forward and just tapped the car ahead of me. To my shock, the other car's bumper collapsed like a sheet of tin foil.
Yeah, right, the reader will think.
Now just to make it more fun, think about how the first-person narrator might embellish that to be more "persuasive".
I inched forward and just tapped the car ahead of me. Really. Just a tap. I couldn't have been going more than 2 miles per hour. I hardly even felt the impact. To my shock, the other car's bumper collapsed like a sheet of tin foil. But it was one of those foreign cars, and everyone knows they don't use the same materials we do here in the US. The cop asked if I'd been drinking, but those idiots define a single beer hours earlier as "drinking". Anyway, the Colts lost later that night, and....
Now don't you just know the truth, that he jammed on the accelerator and rammed right into the other car?
Most people have built-in lie detectors, and that gives us an advantage. We can be subtle and still guide readers to doubt our narrator's objectivity and honesty. They don't need many cues, but you do want to provide at least one. Here's where your real-life "reading" of other people comes in handy. When do you know that people are lying or fudging or exaggerating or spinning? Some of this will be body language and tone of voice, which won't be easy to replicate in first-person, so concentrate on the language and sentence construction. What are the signals of deception in the way they explain themselves and their actions?
Methinks he doth protest too much is one technique– emphasizing something just beyond the point of plausibility. Liars usually take things one step too far, and thus alert us to their deception. First-person narrators might be deceptive, or they might be self-deceptive, but when they deceive, they usually reveal it through an excess of sincerity.
Look again at the Rumpole passage about the hardness he has achieved with maturity:
I suppose, when I was young, I used to suffer with my clients. I used to cringe when I heard their sentences and go down to the cells full of anger. Now I never watch their faces when the sentence is passed. I hardly listen to the years pronounced and I never look back at the dock.
Read that aloud and listen to your voice, listen to what you instinctively emphasize, what rings hollow and unconvincing, what sounds excessive.
I suppose– hear the attempt at offhandedness, casualness?
I used to... I used to– the repetition makes this almost sing-song.
Now I never... I hardly... I never look back.... He sounds insistent, as if he's trying to persuade himself. He never looks back. He hardly listens. Clearly what he claims he doesn't notice is precisely what eats away at him– that he can't win them all, and when he loses, someone's life is ruined.
Or he'll provide just a bit too much information, especially information that's on the other side of relevance. Or he'll attempt to divert the blame ("It was a foreign car") or switch a bit too clumsily to a new subject ("Anyway, the Colts lost...") or quibble about a term ("those idiots define a single beer as..."). (For more training in this essential art, watch those press conferences where a politician or a football coach or other public figure tries to squirm out of some jam.)
So aim for just a tiny bit of excessiveness if you want to show a first-person narrator is being deceptive. But be careful here. Readers like being teased, but not outright tricked. The narrator can lie, but the author can't. If the narrator, for example, is the murderer, the author has to provide clues, however subtle, that this is the case. The narrator can lie about what has happened, but the attentive reader has to have enough evidence to suspect that something in the narrative is hidden or incorrect.
And the narrator can't completely leave out important events in order to keep the secret. Maybe the narrator can say, "And then I lost consciousness," when a straight narrative might go on to describe him beating the other guy to death... but the narrative can't skip the whole event and give no sign that it ever happened. Consider revising if you find in the end of the book you're having the narrator say, "I didn't tell you, but in between that trip to the grocery store and the drug store I did tell you about, I stopped at the hardware store and bought the hammer that was the blunt instrument that caused Tom's death." Try something like "After the grocery store, I stopped off at the hardware store and picked up a few items for my toolbox." That's enough to keep from cheating the reader.
Well, it's nice to have permission to lie! Or at least my narrator does. What else can I do to take advantage of first-person?
Remember when I mentioned that existential problem of the purpose of this narrative? Why, after all, is the narrator telling the story? Usually there's just a tacit agreement between author and reader that no reason is necessary– we just accept that this narrator just decided to tell this story, without any purpose in mind.
But it can be fun to imagine that the narrator actually does have some purpose, some plot reason for telling the story. That can actually deepen characterization and make the narration not just a telling of the story but part of the story itself.
A famous example is Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. For 99% of the story, the reader can only assume that Portnoy is holding forth for no real reason, but then comes the last line:
So (said the doctor). Now vee may perhaps begin. Yes?
So all 270 pages are just a long prelude to an initial therapy session. It's a clever device that is consonant with Portnoy's excessive personality, but also shows that he has ended up seeking help for the problems he's so amply demonstrated during the story.
This technique of putting the main story inside another story is called "framing", and can help anchor the first-person narration within a context.
The Frame Story
Portnoy is unusual in that it saves the frame for the punchline. Usually the frame story is set up very early in the story, in the first couple pages. Here's an example from a thriller featuring a narrator whose sister married a serial murderer then helped him escape from prison:
It's quiet in the house in the morning, what with everyone gone. I have lots of time to tape my report. I call it a report, but really it isn't anything so clearly defined. It's more a series of reminiscences, although the police have asked me to be as specific and as orderly as I can, to be careful not leave anything out, no matter how insignificant something may seem. They will decide what's important, they tell me.
Joy Fielding, Missing Pieces
The reader can envision this narrator sitting at the kitchen table, the breakfast dishes stacked in the sink. She's taping her recollections of the events for the best of reasons, to provide evidence to the police. Now this frame affects the narration in several ways. For one thing, she says she's been urged by the police to be "specific and orderly", so narration to follow shows her trying to organize her thoughts even as she records them. Her purpose evolves, however, as she gets into the story. At first, she's just doing her civic duty, helping the police out, but then she comes to value sorting through her memory and searching for meaning in the tragic events.
She also is clearly speaking from a future beyond the main story, so she knows the "ending". It's a tragic ending, and her mood is somber even as she tells of the happier times before the serial murderer entered her sister's life.
The frame has an ending, too– that is, after the main (serial murderer) plot resolves, the narrator also closes the frame story of making her taped report to the police:
I think that's everything. I'll probably edit out some of the more personal revelations before I hand this over to the police. I'm not sure that any of this is what they were expecting. But I've tried to provide substance, context, explanations. I've searched my memory and bared my soul. I'm sure there are still some pieces missing. But I've done my best. Hopefully, it will be of some use. At any rate, it's time to pick up the pieces. And go on.
If you're going to work with a frame story, determine if the frame itself needs some resolution. In the Joy Fielding book, the frame story allows the narrator to explain the consequences of her cooperation with the police:
And so the police can now indisputably link Colin Friendly to the disappearances of six more women. Six more cases closed....
What are some other plausible frames?
A common sort of frame for a first-person narration is the narrator introducing her journals or diary. Elizabeth Peters does this in The Last Camel Died at Noon:
Let me turn back the pages of my journal and explain in proper sequence of time how we came to find ourselves in such an extraordinary predicament. I do not do this in the meretricious hope of prolonging your anxiety as to our survival, dear reader, for if you have the intelligence I expect my readers to possess, you will know I could not be writing this account if I were in the same state as the camels.
Another frame is an old person dictating his memoirs to a secretary or a reporter, as in Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire and Thomas Berger's Little Big Man. Sometimes, in this case, the "frame" is done from another person's POV– the reporter or secretary.
In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the frame is in the first-person POV of the voyeuristic psychiatrist who is supposedly editing the first-person diaries of the prison inmate Humbert Humbert.
In Cold Fire, Nabokov re-uses the "editor" frame, only this time it's a pompous professor editing and footnoting the epic first-person poem of a colleague. The irony is that the reader is aware that the colleague's poem is about his daughter's suicide, while the egotistic editor/professor instead assumes it's all about their departmental rivalries and his own exalted career.
A famous Poe story (A Cask of Amontillado) features a murderer later in life confessing the crime to his confessor. Browning's poem My Last Duchess uses a similar frame: A wife murderer is explaining what happened to wife #1 while trying to make a deal with the representatives of the woman he hopes to make wife #2.
Another frame might be a child happening upon an old cassette tape while going through a deceased parent's possessions, and finding that the tape contains an account of why the parent deserted the family.
Or maybe a couple in marital discord are renovating a house and find the journals of a 19th-Century occupant. Perhaps her account of how she and her husband survived separation and danger during the Civil War might help the present-day couple survive the lesser conflict of home remodeling.
Or an adult can be looking back on a particularly important childhood event, like the summer polio came to her small town.
A frame story could also be used to coordinate several different first-person accounts of the same event or experience. Think of how the frame in the film Citizen Kane works– a reporter seeking an answer to "what did Kane's dying word 'Rosebud' mean?" (frame story) gets interviews from several of Kane's friends and colleagues (the first-person narratives).
No matter what, I suppose, with a frame story I need a purpose for the narrator to be telling this story.
Well, I'd say it would certainly help. By using a frame, you're bypassing that polite convention that allows first-person narration without any real purpose. So a narrator purpose like "vindication" or "revealing the long-hidden secret" or "righting a wrong" or some other requirement for explanation would add force to the frame story.
Here's an example of the purpose of "setting the record straight," set out in the first paragraph of the book:
Many stories have been told about me, all of them wrong. The dime novels call me a Heroine of the West; the newspapers make me out a whore and worse. I'm not a heroine and I'm sure no whore, though I admit it runs in my family.
Ellen Recknor, The Boys and Me
The frame, in a way, makes the narration part of a larger story. I'd just suggest making the larger story matter, however "narrow" the frame. That is, come back to it in the end, and close it out, resolve it, show that the "framer" is somehow changed by the experience of framing this first-person narration.
So first-person POV isn’t as easy as it looks (though probably not as hard as I make it seem). Actually, it’s easy to do badly, and hard to do well-- so you can’t just fall back on what feels right, because that will probably mean your voice predominates and the narration is retrospective. If you don’t have to work at all at crafting the first-person narration-- I’ll be blunt-- you’re probably not doing it right.
EXERCISE: Lying and Frames.
1. How is your narrator going to lie, shade the truth, hide something from the reader? Why?
2. Have you given the reader a hint that there's some deception or concealment going on? How does this show up in the narrator's narration?
3. Would a frame be appropriate for this story? (You don't usually need one, of course.) If you use a frame, how does it "enclose" the main narrative? Who is the main character of the frame? How does the frame story resolve? (You don't necessarily need very much– but it does help to close it in the last chapter.)
Well, there you have it-- more than you ever wanted to know about first=person narration. If you're interested in learning more about The Power of Point of View, well, I wrote a whole book with that very title. You can buy a signed copy here.