You and I—First and Second-Person Point-of-View (Part 2 of series)
Most, if not all, of you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. (And if you’re wondering why I’ve been mentioning it so often lately, it’s ubiquitousness and broad familiarity are a big part of the reason.) You’ve picked up the book and started and in your mind you “hear” Scout talking to you. Or at least I do.
Maybe some readers simply read books in their own voice, but for me, through some combination of syntax, vocabulary, characterization, and character description, words on a page turn into silent sound. That’s why point-of-view becomes so crucial, because it’s the choice of what “voice” an author wants the bulk of the narrative essence of her story to be told. The choices breakdown as follows.
Second Person - Like stories told in future tense, second hand narratives are rare and usually experimental. We don’t need to dwell on this one. This tends to be a worthwhile POV for essays or journal entries. You agree I’m sure.
First Person – “I” stories. Great Gatsby. Huck Finn. Mockingbird. An example of a multi-narrator first-person account is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. And the ultimate first-person book—Dickens’ David Copperfield, which begins in a chapter called “I am born” with the following, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.” (A right-to-life activist might have an interesting time beginning a novel with “I am conceived.”)
Anyhoo, there’s three main reasons to choose first-person narration. One, you have a wonderfully vibrant character who nearly bounds off the page and want to almost introduce a reader to them as a friend. Huck Finn is a bit like this.
Second, you have a larger-than-life character or event and need a “witness” to tell us what happens. Gatsby was always my archetype for this kind of book as Nick Carraway plays the everyman drawn into the Eden/Gomorrah that is East Egg and Gatsby’s life. A more recent reading showed me that Carraway passes a lot more judgment on the events than I remembered. He’s no silent patsy. Another example is Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises which uses Jake Barnes as a tour guide for a romp through France and Spain.
A final reason (and there may well be others) is to toy with the bond between reader and writer by offering an unreliable narrator. Usually you assume what you read in a novel is “true.” But what if you are being told a first-person story by a liar? One book that springs to mind that uses this and the vibrant character together is Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caufield, though idealized my millions of teens and at least a few assassins over the years, is not a stable or trustworthy narrator. In fact, Caufield is so troubled that this “novel” is actually a rant being given at a psychiatrists office to a silent and invisible counselor. (This is a nice link that examines the narrative of Catcher and has a lot of academic terms I should probably us to make this little piffle more official.)
(A second example of the unreliable narrator is Scout herself in Mockingbird. While truthful, for the most part, it is her youth and innocence that offer a different prism through which we see the story. The hate and anger and awfulness of her world is muted, not in an effort to downplay it, but because, as a child, she can't help but be filled with joy and life. It's poignant and uses understatement to powerful effect. Seriously, if you haven't read this book, do so NOW!)
Yesterday I made the claim that technically, every first-person account was told in the present tense. In the same way, every first-person story is “unreliable.” We in the Christian community have a penchant for being, depending on your mind on such things, either trustworthy or gullible. (i.e., are we courted to early showings of a certain controversial film because of its relevance to our faith or because of our multi-million-dollar market potentiality?) Thus, in most Christian novels, it never even occurs to us that the narrator may be lying. Most aren’t. But nearly all have their own agenda. Ever read a book that has only good guys and bad guys? Why is that? Often, it’s because the bad guys aren’t given a chance to tell their side of the story.
First-person narration offers a great opportunity to mess with readers’ minds. I’m not saying that you should change what you’re writing to do such a thing, but neither should you forget the power is there at your command. If you’re writing a first-person novel, during your reading of your first draft, think about places where your narrator may be hiding information. There’s a tendency to hint at information and then withhold an answer for the sake of suspense, but that needs to be part of your character’s decision, rather than the author’s imposing will.
Finally, one final thing about multi-first-person narration—all your characters must sound entirely different. It’s a very difficult task and one that requires a lot of editing and refining. It’s possible of course (I think the Poisonwood Bible is told this way?), but tends to be the work of an established and talented writer. If you’re starting out, you may want to give yourself a break and choose an easier path.
Next week we’re going to break tradition by not looking at a novel, but by continuing on with this discussion of point of view instead.