Tremendous opportunities exist in first person writing. In short stories, this personal point of view can make work stand out when being evaluated by a publisher. Intimacy is established from the first sentence.
When done well, the first person narrative allows readers to become the ‘I’ character. It affords the writer freedom to indulge in emotional roller-coaster rides and lyrical descriptions of scenes that would be considered overwritten from any other viewpoint.
When the narrator is also the embodiment of evil, a rare occurrence, it is a highly effective technique. In the same way that traffic can become grid-locked by motorists gawking at an accident scene, so too is the reader captivated by the mind of the villain.
We plunge into the story, our disdain growing with each heinous demonstration of flawed character, and search for an answer to how the main character can think or act in such a manner. In a nutshell, the reader wants to know why? However, in order to ensure reader satisfaction, the writer must balance the tale with heroes. We cannot allow the darker side to go unchallenged. The reader wants good to win over evil.
Imagine the story of Little Red Riding Hood written from the wolf’s point of view. The poor old guy is just plain hungry and the forest is his supermarket. The woodsman who saves our little heroine has been chopping down trees indiscriminately, causing the fauna to scatter. The pickings are meager and suddenly, out of nowhere, providence seems to deliver a meal wearing a red cloak. The wolf can’t believe his luck, but understands human prey is more challenging than the rabbits he once devoured. Surely, even a wolf has a right to survive, and so the deception to lure his dinner to grandma’s bedside begins.
The story ends with his tragic death, exactly as written in its original form, but the reader experiences both relief that the little girl survived, mixed with understanding and a sense of sorrow for the hungry wolf. Yes, the wolf must have the last word. The story ends when he dies.
Another rarely used first-person perspective is that of an unreliable narrator. In this case, the writer fools the reader into believing everything the main character is saying, doing and feeling is true, only to discover he is misguided, mentally ill or a manipulator who lies to himself about his own actions or responsibility for the crisis in the story. When used in flash fiction, this point of view can add to the drama when the closing twist is revealed.
The traditional ‘I/ME’ first person narrator is standard in memoirs and autobiographies. When used in fiction, it short-cuts the character introduction by giving the writer an easy and immediate access to the protagonist’s thoughts. While the benefits of this intimacy are evident, two major challenges trip up many writers.
A writer cannot report what is going on in another character’s head. Other characters’ thoughts need to be broadcast using dialogue or qualified by behavior. The main character must explain how he knows something or he must describe an expression or action he observes that allows him to reach that conclusion. Two lines of dialogue that might be used during an argument might look like this:
“I know you’re angry with me,” I said.
“You have no idea what I’m thinking,” John said. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
The writer MUST put words in John’s mouth before the reader is going to accept what his reaction may be.
Everything in the story must reflect what the main character senses, sees or hears. I might imagine what John thinks and am entitled to speculate, but I don’t know. But if John throws his plate across the room or slams his fist on the table, his actions indicate to everyone that John is angry.
If something is happening elsewhere, unseen by the first-person character, it can’t be included unless someone reports the incident. One way to overcome this issue might be worded in a variation of the following:
I wasn’t aware that John was having an affair, nor that we were financially insolvent until rumours began and my best friend told me what she’d seen hours before our fight.
The writer can then go on to detail the information without dialogue, presenting the conversation as fact but, again, it must be filtered through the person telling the story.
Monotony is deadly in any story, but it is a major obstacle in writing first person point of view. The author must avoid the overuse of the word I at the beginning of sentences. On the up-side, the writer’s awareness and conscientious effort to rephrase sentences to avoid this trap usually leads to much better writing.
The intimacy of a first-person story creates a connection readers experience, often akin to being welcomed into the writer's private sanctuary--well worth the added effort. Hero, heroine, villain or interested bystander, the first person point of view is well worth exploring.
N.K. Wagner is the Executive Editor and Publisher of Page & Spine.