|Image by Joel Montes de Oca|
a) first person singular,
b) third person limited, and
c) third person omniscient1
Each of these options affords a different range of narrative possibilities. To start off this series of posts on narrative voice, we’ll be considering the pros and cons of writing in first person.
First person is the most subjective of the three angles of vision cited above. This subjectivity makes it an especially popular choice among writers of middle grade and young adult fiction.
For one thing, writing in first person is more economical in terms of word count than the other two options.
For another, first person narration gives the reader direct access to the thoughts, emotions, discoveries and experiences of the focal character. This access enables younger readers to identify closely with the speaker on short acquaintance.
Thirdly, even when word count isn’t an issue, first person narration readily accommodates non-linear modes of storytelling by mimicking the discursive nature of human thought processes.
Now for the challenges.
In first person narration, the speaker is the reader’s one and only source of information. I.e., all plot-relevant disclosures and discoveries must be channeled through the central speaking character. From the writer’s perspective, this poses a number of challenges when it comes to exposition. If there are Big Things Afoot outside the realm of the character’s immediate experience, it takes dexterous story-boarding to bring important facts to light without compromising your narrator’s intelligence.
Another issue has to do with endowing your first person narrator with a narrative voice that expresses his/her distinct personality. The tools at your disposal include diction, syntax, speech mannerisms, social/ethical outlook, and cultural referencing. By way of demonstration, below are two contrasting passages written in first person.
1.There was no possibility of taking a walk that day [and] I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
In the first instance, the formal diction and gloomy outlook denote a downtrodden little girl in unhappy circumstances. In the second instance, the colloquial grammar and quirky attitude toward conventional morality denote a robust semi-literate youngster from the rural American south. Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or Huckleberry Finn, the mode of discourse employed by each speaker provides a clear index of their respective characters from the outset. Writers of first person fiction should aim for a similar standard of performance in terms of narrative technique.2.You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he mainly told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.
1 Several years ago, I had a student who successfully experimented with writing a novella in second person (“you”). The result was technically interesting, not least because the relationship between speaker and audience is reflexive: they are one and the same person. But fiction written in second person is a rarity.
See also Terry Odell's post last month on Deep Point of View and Diana Hurwitz's recent posts on Interiority
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.