by James R. Preston
First person is alive and well in the twenty-first century.
For those of you who are newer writers, I'll start off with a brief review of the four types of Point of View with some examples of first person POV, historical and modern, as well as the limitations (myths) — perceived and real — of first person. And finally, a trip into uncharted territory where we look at the most modern iteration of first person.
Defining Point of View
“You talkin’ to me?” Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver fame stood in front of the mirror and asked that over and over, and it’s a question you’ll have to consider for your story: Who does the talking?
Who tells your story? Well, you do, of course but there are at least four major ways of speaking to your readers. They’re easy to tell apart because of the pronouns.
- First Person — usually, but not always, your protagonist tells the story. “I suspected she was trouble the minute she walked into my seedy office, reached into her purse and pulled out a large, rusty machete.”
- Second person — The pronoun is “you.” Second person is rarely used for fiction, but fairly common in nonfiction, particularly self-help books. “You must always watch out for hostile women with large handbags.”
- Third person — the pronouns are “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” “She looked at the woman with the rusty knife and said, ‘Put the knife down before I have to hurt you.’”
There are two flavors of third person — limited and omniscient.
In the first case you follow only one character around, describing what they see and what they think about it. “She looked at the other woman and said, ‘Put the knife down before I have to hurt you.’ She knew she could get to the loaded Glock 14 in its holster hidden under her desk, but she wondered — was she prepared to shoot?”
Using third person omniscient we also look inside the head of the blonde with the machete.
“The only thing she could think of was that she had a chipped nail. Oh, well. The machete would distract the other woman from the bad manicure.”
This example illustrates not only third person omniscient but also a trap you want to avoid: getting inside too many characters’ heads in the same scene. For more on what is called “head-hopping” use the Search box. Several Writers in the Storm contributors have posted excellent essays on the topic.
I’ve read that editors don’t like first person. Maybe that's true, but they sure buy a lot of it. This POV goes back a long way — all the way to Moby Dick — and continues to draw in readers. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, author of The Martian, is one of the best (IMHO), This recent best-selling novel is in first person.
Does the narrator have to be the protagonist for first person? No. Usually they are, but remember Dr. Watson, and the narrator of Stephen King’s brilliant Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption are not the main characters.
Myths About First Person
Once you’ve picked first person you must stick to it all the way through.
Nope. It is true that most first-person stories stay that way from beginning to end, but that’s not a rule. Faulkner uses multiple narrators in The Sound and the Fury. Think of Stephen King’s Christine, where the first third of the book is the protagonist talking, then the middle veers off and follows several characters, and the last part is first person again. So, it can be done, but as I type those words, I think it’s one of those “Don’t try this at home,” things. King is unquestionably some kind of mutant genius; he made it work, but I don’t think I could.
First person is so confining. I’d like to use it but I feel like it’s a straightjacket.
Well, yes. Following one person around for 100,000 words can be a bit claustrophobic, but there are alternatives. Slipping in a journal entry or an email that your hero finds, allows another voice. And of course, dialog unstraps that straightjacket.
Serious literary books are never first person.
I am a confirmed genre writer, about as far from literary as possible, but I would suggest The Henna Artist by Alia Joshi, as thoughtful and well-written a first person story as any I’ve read in years. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished it, but, wow, this woman can write!)
Picking a Point of View
And now for the most important question:
How do you choose the POV for your story?
I could offer a bunch of questions to ask yourself like:
- How long the story will be?
- How many important characters are there who want to talk? And so on.
I’ve got a simpler way to at least get an idea — just look at your bookshelves.
Do you like huge novels with a hundred major and minor characters? If James Clavell’s Noble House is one of your favorite books, you probably lean toward third person.
Or do you love fast-paced thrillers like James Lee Burke’s Another Kind of Eden, where the hero tells you what happened? Then first person may well be for you.
I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and it jumped out at me watching the Olympics, where the announcer said that 3x3 basketball had been invented for young people with short attention spans.
Give me a break. Old people have been complaining about kids since Plato. The generation gap is the theme of “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Modern kids’ attention spans are the same as yours and mine. I know because they love first person stories. Long, complex, first person stories.
I give you the uncharted territory of computer games. There are a lot of them, but Halo is the example I’ll use because I’ve played it (with a lot of help from a twenty-something gamer friend). It’s called a First Person Shooter (FPS) and if you think all computer games are simply running and shooting monsters, think again.
In a FPS you actually look out through the eyes of your character. It’s as if you were inside Sam Spade’s head — literally — watching as the events of The Maltese Falcon unfold. And if you talk to gamers like I do, you will hear over and over what makes a good game.
Not slimy aliens.
Its story. One common denominator between almost every award-winning, best-selling computer game is the tale it tells. You’ve got to have a good, complex, story with complex characters (the artificial intelligence named “Cortana” in Halo comes to mind) if you want to find an audience.
Halo is set in the far future, where a super soldier called the Master Chief is created — think Steve Rogers being rebuilt into Captain America — and then later put into cryogenic storage.
Hundreds of years after that he’s thawed out because humanity is fighting some nasty aliens called the Covenant. Then a really nasty alien parasite called the Flood attacks both Covenant and humanity, which results in an uneasy truce because the Flood eats anything — human, alien, pets, you name it. Master Chief makes friends with a Covenant alien, all the while knowing that someday he might have to kill him. It’s way, way more than running and shooting despite the FPS categorization.
It’s a story, one that you see literally through the eyes of the Master Chief.
Story is what has made this game and its sequels bestsellers. It doesn’t look like a novel, but it has chapters, dialog, characters you root for, and ethical decisions that have consequences.
Attention span? I’ll give you attention span.
Another twenty-something gamer friend got a new game — the story is too complicated to go into here, but it’s post-apocalypse, set in the subways under Moscow — and got to the end after seventeen hours straight. That’s right. You start at 6:00 pm and at 6:00 am you’re going strong.
I’ll close by adding a word to your vocabulary. When my friend was guiding me through Halo, much of our dialogue was,
“James, look behind you!”
In gamer talk, he was my Sherpa, like Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary. It’s called Sherpa-ing.
Side note on Sherpa-ing... That’s what Writers in the Storm does. We Sherpa new writers and each other as we navigate the landscape of the writing world.
Fun suggestion: Find a gamer and ask them if they’ve Sherpa’d anybody lately. They’ll be impressed.
Do some research. Look into games like Dead Space, or my personal favorite, Half Life. Arma III is excellent, but I advise against playing this one if it’s your first game — it’s hard! All these games have great stories. I’m not listing some others that my friends don’t play because “the stories suck.” Those developers needed better writers. Hint, hint.
Experiencing first person in this new world might inform your own writing, or at least you’ll have something to talk to twenty-somethings about. (If you are a twenty-something, you probably already know all this.)
Search Writers in the Storm for Point of View. There’s a wealth of information.
For games, check out www.steam.com.
Ok, it’s your turn. Tell us what point of view you used in your current manuscript and why you chose it. Have you ever had to change your POV part way through the book?
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James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.”
Top image is a Semmick photo via Shutterstock.