Wednesday, February 11, 2009

First Person Point Of View

First person point of view involves using "I" as the narrator of the story. This morning, my alarm went off, I hit the snooze, and I went back to sleep. This is a popular point of view for much of contemporary storytelling, and has been at least partially responsible for creating some of the most memorable characters in history (think Catcher in the Rye or Moby Dick among others.) First person point of view is a fast way to establish a major character in the book, at least usually, and its traditional rules can keep writers adhered to a clear voice and realm of consciousness.

But, even with the first point of view, there are subtle variations within it that writers should be aware of. Consider the differences between these three passages:

A. When the doctor gave me the news, I fell to the ground and clutched my knees. He continued to speak, but I just shook my head and said, "No, this can't be happening." An hour later, I realized I was sitting in the cafeteria, eating a salad covered with beets and kidney beans, two foods I usually tend to avoid.

B. The doctor gave me the news, but his words got lost by the sound of my blood pulsing in my ears. I felt cold and weightless. My muscles lost their strength, and I fell to the ground and clutched my knees -- all I had to rely on now was myself. I lost my awareness of my surroundings for awhile. I vaguely remember hands helping me up and guiding me down a brightly lit hall. My full awareness didn't return until I was in the cafeteria eating a salad covered with beets and kidney beans, two foods I tend to avoid.

C. I realize how ridiculous I must have looked. I was in shock when the doctor gave me the news, and I fell to the ground and clutched my knees like a child. I lost awareness of my surroundings, but a pair of nurses helped me up and led me to the cafeteria. Even though my mind was distracted, my body moved on its own through the food line and to a table. I had fixed a salad for myself, one covered with beets and kidney beans, two foods I tended to avoid. I wasn't conscious of this at the time, but now I realize that I was learning how to take care of myself.

All of them are told from the first person point of view, but other choices give you different versions of the same story. In A. the first person point of view stays right with the character externally and in the present tense. We experience the scene step by step, almost objectively and don't get distracted by internal thoughts that are often vague and difficult to relate to. It brings an immediacy to the story and keeps the pace moving quickly. In B. we are given insights into the character's reactions through internal thoughts. This version sinks into the character's head and gives us more of an emotional perception. In C. some time has passed. This narrator has had the chance to reflect on the hospital experience and provide more intellectual reasoning for the character's behavior. This point of view implies that the speaker has gained some wisdon that wasn't there before.

So, even after you have decided to write a story from the first person point of view, be conscious of the closeness of that point of view to the character and to the action. Do we experience everything from the outside? Do we delve into immediate thoughts and emotions? Do we experience that story after years of reflection? All of these styles are equally valid and can be used to tell equally compelling stories, but the same story can vary greatly depending on the nuances of the first person point of view.

5 comments:

  1. Great post! I love first person :)

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  2. Thanks a lot, Captain Hook. I appreciate the support.

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  3. I remember a conversation we once had about Virginia Woolf and Cormac McCarthy. About "Interior" vs. "Exterior" writers. I wonder if you might talk about that in future posts?

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  4. Good suggestion edithroad, I'll do that soon!

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  5. Great post! I'm currently writing my second novel, and I have been struggling with the first person point of view. This blog entry helps explain the different type of first person pov. :)

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