It’s All About Me: First Person Singular

Update 15/12/2013

The following blog post was originally written as part of a call for short story submissions. The resulting anthology, You, Me & a Bit of We: A Celebration of Writing in First and Second Person, is now available. If you enjoy this blog post why not check out the paperback or Kindle edition of You, Me & a Bit of We? 

You, Me & a Bit of We is showcase of 42 stories written in either second, first or first person plural point-of-view. Through a selection of flash fiction and short stories, readers are invited to discover their favourite seat in a story. Is it front row centre, in the midst of a crowd, or from a more personal vantage point? Where second person thrusts the reader into an active role, first person offers experience through the eyes of an individual or group. Written by an international cast of authors, this collection includes a broad range of themes. There are tales of transition, conviction, lost love, grief, conflict, domestic strife, tragedy, second chances, and stories about letting go and moving on. There are worlds where it is rare to be sighted, skin tells a story, past lives haunt, deadly viruses and parasites threaten humanity, and death is personified. From the poignant to the fantastical, dark, witty and uplifting, each story in this anthology is original, thought provoking, and reflective of the versatility of perspective as a literary device.

View the full TABLE OF CONTENTS here.

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(Original post)

Following on from my previous post on second person perspective, I thought I’d take a brief look at first person singular.  Then, in a separate post, I’ll focus on the unique first person plural point of view.

Singular first person narrative (I) is a versatile point of view that can be stretched well beyond autobiographical and memoir use.  It offers the opportunity to conflate storyteller and character.  Where second person thrusts the reader into a seemingly active role and third person allows for detached viewing, first person perspective engages the reader in an almost conspiratorial role.  As privy thoughts are revealed, the reader experiences a personal view through the eyes of a character directly involved in the story.  This interesting perspective can play out in a variety of different ways.

Often the narrator is the main character who tells the story either in hindsight or in real time.  This method is used well in mystery and horror; the reader discovers facts through the limited view of the narrator.  As the main character cannot, realistically, experience all events, the narrator’s narrowed view can lend an additional layer of suspense.  When told in hindsight, we can be swept along to a final outcome or solution with the knowledge that the character survives the tale.  However when told in real time, the suspense can be drawn out to the very last line and we experience the character’s fate alongside him/her.  This is seen in stories that come to an abrupt halt as doom ultimately catches up with the main character: a frequent technique of H. P. Lovecraft.   His short story Dagon opens with the main character hastily scrawling out his tale and ends with his demise. In this case, the suspense is somewhat tempered by the opening line in which he asserts his final plan.

I am writing this under appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more…I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below.”[i]

The story delivers its promised end when, in response to a slippery body lumbering outside the door, the character leaps from a nearby window.

Novels that meld main character and narrator are common and are, by no means, limited to mystery and horror.  Although they offer the perk of a more intimate viewpoint, such books can be a challenge to write. The writer must manoeuvre well in order to avoid overtly contrived situations and the story must remain compelling throughout.  Too much internal dialogue may distract or put off the reader.  Voice and dialect can also be difficult to maintain.  The character’s voice should project strongly—it can be all too easy to slip into the writer’s own voice.  On the other hand, rich and diverse language combined with first person perspective can make a character incredibly unique and genuine.  Consider the distinctive voice of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.  Neither would be as striking if written in third person.  The following draws us in to a very personal account.  We experience it first-hand.

This crystal book I had was very tough-bound and hard to razrez to bits, being real starry and made in days when things were made to last like, but I managed to rip the pages up and chuck them in handfuls of like snowflakes, though big, all over this creeching old veck, and then the others did the same with theirs…we began to filly about with him.  Pete held his rookers and Georgie sort of hooked his rot wide open for him and Dim yanked out his false zoobies…[ii]

Now, imagine it written in third person.  Replace the ‘I’ and ‘we’ with ‘he’ and ‘they’. The dialect is still interesting but it removes us from the immediacy of the scene. In third person we experience it second hand, through the narrator’s rather loud voice.

First person perspective also raises questions of reliability.  Can we believe in the veracity of the characters’ world? Perspective can be tainted by a particular bias or belief that isn’t always consistent with character or narrative.  Stories of childhood can be told through the eyes of a child or an adult looking back. When told through the child’s eyes, care must be taken to prevent adult language or an adult perspective from slipping in—a tricky challenge when the story still needs to be told in language that appeals to adult readers.

Some writers apply first person perspective to a secondary, rather than main, character.  Such works can allow for a broader view.  The narrator is still firmly rooted in the story but takes an observational, yet still active, role.  Further nuances for interpretation may be developed through a secondary character/narrator. Classic examples include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Other notable forms of first person writing include stream of consciousness, journals, the layering of viewpoints—multiple characters all told through first person but divided by chapter or section—and works that set a story within a story, such as Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.  As a stage play the element of framing the story within a story is introduced. Click here for a video clip.

Epistolary novels, written through a series of documents, often take the form of letters and can offer multiple first person perspectives.  The use of this form gained popularity in the eighteenth century in novels such as Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, and Clarissa by Samuel Richardson.  More recent examples are The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Nichola Barker’s The Burley Cross Post Box Theft.  The latter revolves around twenty-six undelivered letters stolen from a village post box.  Modern extrapolations on the letter theme are Tobe Hooper’s Midnight Movie, which uses email and tweets alongside other text, and Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door, a novel told entirely through a series of emails.

First person narrators can also sit outside the story and adopt an omniscient view.  They are all knowing and able to report on thoughts and feelings of all characters.  This motif is less common than other forms of first person but can offer a very unique approach. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is the story of a young girl who watches over her family after she is murdered.  We learn of her fate from the outset.

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.  I was fourteen when I was murdered…My murderer was a man from our neighbourhood.  My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer….on December 6, 1973, it was snowing, and I took a short-cut through the cornfield back from the junior high.”[iii]

In The Book Thief, the narrator is death itself. The following is a quote from the opening chapter.

I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary.  You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables.  It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible…You will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up).  You will be caked in your own body…a scream will dribble down the air.”[iv]

First person writing allows the narrator to be anyone or anything.  An interesting twist is the use of anthromorphism—giving inanimate objects, or animals, human attributes.  Consider the following passage from Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, a touching tale told through the eyes of a dog that, after watching a documentary set in Mongolia about what happens to dogs after death, decides he is ready to pass on so as to be reincarnated as a man.

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.  And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly…I have no words I can rely on…”[v]

And finally, first person perspective can also be alternated with other points of view.  Margaret Atwood uses this technique in The Edible Woman.  To reflect her protagonist’s growing sense of detachment, Atwood starts the novel in first person, switches to third part way through, and changes back to first for the last section of the book.  Similarly, Rebecca Miller in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee uses first person for the middle section of her novel, framing it with third person.  William Faulkner is also known for using multiple perspectives across many of his works.

Our You, Me & a Bit of We anthology remains open to submissions until 3rd April 2012.

We are looking for flash fiction and short stories written in I, you or we POVs.

Please see submissions page for further details.

 


[i] Lovecraft, A.P., ‘Dagon’ in The H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2 Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, HarperCollins eBooks, Kindle Edition, (2010).

[ii] Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Classic, New Edition (2000), p. 7.

[iii] Sebold, Alice, The Lovely Bones, Picador, 6th Edition (2003), pp. 5-6.

[iv] Zusak, Markus, The Book Thief, Black Swan, Reprint Edition (2008), p. 14.

[v] Stein, Garth, The Art of Racing in the Rain, HarperCollins (2009), p. 1.

 

 

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