Point of View
Part I: First Person Narrative – Into the “I” of the Storm
There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view.
Caveat lector: It’s 90 degrees here with nary a breath of wind and that has a tendency to turn even this Dragon’s mind to mush. So if I meander more than usual, bear with me. In an effort to mitigate such rambling, I thought I’d proceed logically (for a change) from last week’s discussion of tense to a brief exploration of point of view.
What, more choices? Yes, sorry about that. Can’t be avoided, I’m afraid. Writing is all about choices.
At least with point of view the menu is limited: First or third person, objective, limited omniscient, or all-out-dice-with-the-universe omniscient. Second-person POV, though rather common in poetry and song lyrics, is almost never used in fiction. (Personally, I think it is just too difficult to sustain without feeling artificial, but that might just be me. If you are brave and it feels right, by all means go for it!)
Now, originally I had grand plans for today: a full-spectrum exegesis of POV, in all its persons and permutations, but as I started writing, I found it far too unwieldy for one post on a hot summer day. So I’ll be breaking it in two. This week: First Person.
With first person point of view you tell your story with an eye to the “I.” You have a actual narrator whose life is interwoven with the tale, a strand running through its warp and weft. She is an actor on your fictive stage who speaks with the knowledge of someone who actually experiences the events and people swirling around her. While some might see it as superficially narcissistic, first person can be an engaging POV, pulling the reader out of the audience and placing them in the thick of the story at the narrator’s side. It is the narrative mode of memoir and history, of stories that strive to get the reader to identify with the protagonist, to see themselves in her. If the “I” is vibrant and someone you care about, then there is an immediacy to what happens to her. To her story. Ideally, you hear her words, experience her hopes and fears and become invested in her outcome with the screaming urgency of “I!”
Often in a first-person narrative, the protagonist is the storyteller. Who better to relate a tale than the lead player, right? But this is not always the case. A supporting character pulled into the protagonist’s world can serve just as well. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – even Ishmael in Moby-Dick – are examples of this: secondary figures in the star’s orbit yet distant enough to maintain a certain objectivity. They, in essence, become the reader’s surrogate, the wallflower at the party you were not able to crash yourself.
(Some, depending on their point of view, will argue that Ishmael is the lead player. It’s possible, but tangential here. I leave it to you: Go, discuss among yourselves.)
Generally, a story told in first person is restricted to limited omniscience. In other words, the “I” of the tale knows everything about herself, but only what she can experience of other people and events firsthand:
“I am born.” “His syncopated footsteps clacked on the cobbles as he limped ahead of me up the alley.” “A claw tore through the mist and I felt a knot the size of a cantaloupe strangle the scream in my throat.”
Of course, if your “I” is a god or dead (American Beauty and The Lovely Bones come to mind) they are afforded greater breadth of wisdom, but that is the exception, not the rule. So, no rummaging about in another’s mind or emotions without making it very clear you’re engaging in rank speculation, and, even then, base the speculation on something tangible: the sneer on their face or the lilt in their voice. Forget this rule at your peril lest you trespass on divine territory without proper invitation and confuse the hell out of your reader. (Note: Absolute omniscience is for next week’s discussion of third person. That’s when we really get to play god.)
Now, enough for today. Go have fun. Write well. And may the weather deities treat us all kindly.