Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Person Point of View

First person narrative seems to be very popular at the moment, and I wonder why this is. For me, it raises several issues that I have been wrestling with for some time.

When an author chooses to write a novel in the first person, they are committing themselves to maintaining the voice of that person throughout the entire story. This may be difficult to sustain. Failing to do so leaves the work seriously flawed. However, succeeding may not lead to great results either. As the reader, I may become bored with the tone, bored with the character, bored with this single point of view.

With first person narrative the reader only gets to see, hear, know and experience what the narrator sees, hears, knows and experiences. It is sometimes argued that this is a good thing in thrillers and mysteries, and it may be so. First person involves us directly in the story, seeing it as it unfolds for the narrator, experiencing it as they do. The disadvantage, however, is that it is not possible to say something like this: 'Behind him, the figure moved from the shadows.' Unfortunately, he can never see what is behind him. For the reader I would suggest that seeing something the character does not see actually adds to the suspense.

Sometimes I also like to write detailed descriptions of a new scene. When this is done in first person, it always seems somewhat artificial, as people seldom observe things so closely. It is also nice to be able to describe the actions or appearance of characters in a way that they would rarely do themselves. Consider a passage such as this:

His eyes darted from side to side. He fiddled nervously with the toggle of his jacket, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

How would I write that from a first person POV and reproduce the same effect? This simply does not sound right:

My eyes darted from side to side. I fiddled nervously with the toggle of my jacket and beads of sweat formed on my forehead.

It is difficult to imagine a person thinking about themselves in this way.

Finally, I wonder, sometimes, whether first person narrative is used to cover poor writing and poor grammar. When using first person I can blame these things on the narrator. I can claim that it is an integral part of their character. Effectively, the entire novel becomes direct dialogue, and so the stylistic rules that apply to this must apply to the narration too. How do I, as an editor, know when to correct bad grammar in a story with first person narration? Perhaps this is just the way the narrator speaks. The flip side of this is that as a writer I am limited by the character's knowledge and abilities. I can't write: 'The street was lined with Dahlias' if my character has no idea what a Dahlia looks like. 

It may be that these issues simply mean that it is a greater challenge to write using first person narrative, since the story has to be told well and effectively within these somewhat narrow restrictions. Perhaps I have not yet mastered these skills. On the other hand, I believe that all of the advantages of first person narrative can also be achieved by creatively using third person POV. I certainly feel that third person POV gives me much more freedom and scope as a writer. I would love to hear from others about which point of view they prefer to use and why. I would also love to hear people's opinions about why first person narration seems to be so popular at the moment. 

1 comment:

  1. First person, it seems to me, is a love-it-or-hate-it thing. My favourite books are in first, so I obviously love it, although I agree that 'loving it' hinges on the character and the author's ability to hold my interest. But enough authors can do this for me to have developed a strong preference for first.

    Yet many readers actively dislike first person POV. I did some research on readers' pet hates a few years ago and 1st person was high among them. You can read my post on the topic at