The Wonderful World of We: First Person Plural

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)

Today we reach the end of our series of posts for the You, Me & a Bit of We anthology, but first a brief comment on the submissions received so far.

Thank you all for the work sent in. The sub pile is shaping up quite nicely and we are impressed with the quality of stories.  Currently we have a rough balance between ‘I’ and ‘You’ pieces.  The theme is open and it is interesting to see the breadth of topics flowing in.

Flash and short stories are equal in number at this stage.  With a view to the overall layout of the anthology, we would like to see more short stories in second person (rather than flash) and encourage stories that may be considered experimental in form.  We’ve had a few submissions structured as letters and would like to see more of these.  We would also like to see more pieces written as journal entries.  Stories that are anthropomorphic in nature (think objects, animals—but no children’s stories please) could also prove interesting. These are just suggestions based on what we have so far and are not meant to be restrictive.  If you are working on a different idea, or polishing a first person singular flash, by all means send it in!

Lastly, we would like to see more stories written in first person plural.  At the moment there is a definite dearth of ‘We’ submissions.  Hopefully the following will inspire and get the juices flowing on this unique perspective.

~

The use of first person plural can cloak an individual voice with the anonymity of a group, or it can represent a number of individuals with a collective voice. Where the reader can identify with the group represented, first person plural offers the reader a place within the story, somewhat similar to second person. It is a complicated technique to master and its use draws on the reader’s ability to identify with a particular group and a natural desire to be part of a crowd. First person plural can also be used to create a kind of us-versus-him/her/them tension within the narrative.  This is particularly evident in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.  Faulkner uses first person plural to narrate the demise of an old recluse in a small town.  The narrator’s use of ‘we’ portrays the townsfolk’s reaction to the increasingly ostracised Emily.  Interestingly, a degree of individuality is evident in the narrator’s voice.  Although he never refers directly to himself, a few observations reveal a misogynistic nature which immediately limits his voice to the representation of the townsmen, if not to a single person.

This is distinctly different from the voice we hear in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  Written from the perspective of a group of boys who grow up fascinated by the Lisbon family and their five daughters, we do not get the sense of one person narrating on behalf of a group.  Instead, a strong collective voice comes through; it could be any one of the boys, or they could even be taking it in turns to narrate.

The book starts with the suicide of the first daughter and follows the subsequent reactions of family and neighbours. The boys watch events unfold from across the street.

We climbed up to the tree house the way we always had, stepping in the knothole, then on the nailed board, then on two bent nails, before grasping the frayed rope and pulling ourselves through the trapdoor…The oblong window we’d cut with a handsaw years ago still looked onto the front of the Lisbon house.  Next to it were five spotted photographs of the Lisbon girls, pinned with rusty tacks.”[i]

After the death of the youngest daughter, the family becomes increasingly reclusive and the four girls withdraw from school.  When the girls attempt to communicate the boys respond by playing records over the phone.

We called again next day, at the same time, and were answered on the first ring.  We waited a moment for safety’s sake, then proceeded with the plan we’d devised the night before…we played the song which most thoroughly communicated our feelings to the Lisbon girls… We could feel them, on the other end, blowing dust off the needle, holding the telephone over the spinning black disk, playing the volume low so as not to be overheard.”[ii]

Ultimately, the remaining four girls commit suicide and the family moves away. Some of their possessions are left behind and the boys scavenge through the trash to retrieve a number of items which they refer to as exhibits throughout the novel.

We, of course, took the family photographs and, after organizing a permanent collection in our tree house, divided the rest by choosing straws.”[iii]

Joshua Ferris also provides us with an example of how well this perspective, when used to represent a collective, can work in Then We Came to the End.  In this case, ‘we’ refers to a group of office workers in a Chicago advertising agency.  Portraying their lives through the economic downturn of the 1990s, Ferris’ exceptional tone and pace quickly engages the reader.

We were fractious and overpaid.  Our mornings lacked promise…Most of us like most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything.  Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.  We loved free bagels in the morning…Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness…Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it.”[iv]

Although told from the point of view of a group of employees, Ferris manages to paint a colourful view of the individuals that make up the collective.   Click here to visit the book’s website.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown uses first person plural to tell the tale of three sisters who—each at her own personal crossroads—return to their small home town in the face of their mother’s illness. An engaging read, it reflects the trials and commonalities of familial relationships.

When asked about her choice of first person plural for The Weird Sisters, Brown explains that while playing around with different styles and voices, she “noticed that people were doing first and third, and even, rarely, second-person narration, almost no one did first person plural…It’s a tricky voice, and I had to devise a lot of rules for how to use it…I chose it because this is a story about family, and one of the ideas I wanted to raise is that we carry our families of origin with us always.  They helped form the way in which we see the world…Even though Rose and Bean and Cordy are not close, they cannot separate themselves from their common history.”[v]

To read or hear an excerpt from The Weird Sisters and for more information on the author, or to read her blog, please visit http://www.eleanor-brown.com/.

Ayn Rand’s short novel Anthem is an incredibly unique and fascinating use of first person plural.  It tells the story of Equality 7-2521 and a remote futuristic world where collectivism rules, to be different is evil, and it is a crime to think as an individual. Equality 7-2521 refers to himself in first person plural.

Our name is Equality 7-2521, as it is written on the iron bracelet which all men wear on their left wrists with their names upon it.  We are twenty-one years old.  We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tallWe strive to be like all our brother men, for all men must be alike.  Over the portals of the Palace of the World Council, there are words cut in the marble, which we repeat to ourselves whenever we are tempted:

‘We are one in all and all in one.

There are no men but only the great WE,

One, indivisible and forever.’

We repeat this to ourselves, but it helps us not.”[vi]

Not only is it a crime to think as an individual, the word ‘I’ has been erased from memory and its utterance forbidden.

There is some word, one single word which is not in the language of men, but which had been.  And this is the Unspeakable Word…sometimes, somewhere, one among men find that word…upon scraps of old manuscripts or cut into the fragments of ancient stones.  But when they speak it they are put to death…We have seen one of such men burned alive in the square of the City.”[vii]

When Equality 7-2521 discovers the unspeakable word, ‘I’, he subsequently discovers a sense of self and the word ‘we’ becomes detestable to him.

The word ‘We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it…I am done with the monster ‘We’, the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.”[viii]

After the discovery, the final portion of Rand’s Anthem changes to first person singular.

~

Consider the typical groups with which people identify.  From school and work to friends and social networks, what common threads unite or separate?  How do aspects such as religion, social status, grief, celebration, team spirit and competition relate to group dynamics?

We challenge you to come up with a short that suits this unique point of view!

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] Eugenides, Jeffrey, The Virgin Suicides, Bloomsbury, (2002), p. 202.

[ii] Ibid, pp. 195-196.

[iii] Ibid, p. 228.

[iv] Ferris, Joshua, Then We Came to the End, Viking, (2007), p. 3.

[v]  http://www.eleanor-brown.com/the-weird-sisters/  The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown, Author Q & A.

[vi] Rand, Ayn, Anthem, Penguin Books, (1995), pp. 18- 19.

[vii] Ibid, p.49.

[viii] Ibid, p. 97.

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