Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When you think about it, the first person seems the most “natural” voice for you to use in your story craft. It is after all how we talk to each other and how we relay our everyday experiences.
But when you’re writing a novel, you’re not telling someone about what happened to you, you’re writing about the fictional experiences of fictional people. In fact, the default position for relating events that have never happened to you is actually the third person. You wouldn’t say “I did it” if you haven’t done it.
So, why would you use the “I” voice?
1. To establish intimacy
If you decide to tell your story from the first person point of view, you are giving your readers an open invitation to develop a deeply personal relationship with your viewpoint character. Writing in the “I” voice gives your reader an intimacy which the more detached third person will never quite achieve.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye is a great example of how the “I” voice invites readers into the viewpoint character’s world and, in the case of Holden Caulfield, his head. Right from the start, Holden shares his thoughts and perspective on his family and childhood using “I”:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.
Holden’s very raw and honest account of his family simultaneously achieves two important things. On the one hand, his choice of words, “David Copperfield kind of crap” and “that stuff bores me”, gives the reader a good indication of who Holden is.
On the other hand, Holden’s candid description of his parents signals to readers that they are privy to some very personal information, a secret even. Because of this, the reader feels invested in the story and willingly participates in it.
2. To create suspense and intrigue
Although a first person narrator could legitimately get to see everything and tell the whole story (e.g. they’re a harmless nonentity who tags along wherever the action is, or they’re more than one person), using the first person point of view enables you to introduce very realistic suspense and intrigue.
This device is effective in concealing the twists in the plot, the discovery that someone is not at all who you think they are. It means the reader will be asking the same questions as the narrator, creating a bond and empathy, and as the story progresses and the truths emerge, the reader will be as surprised or bewildered as the narrator.
To take a classic example, Henry James’s gothic novella, The Turn Of The Screw, is built almost entirely around elements of the unknown. The story advances as the governess attempts to make sense of the world of secrets she is cast into, and we as readers naturally become intrigued on her behalf.
A sighting of an “unknown man in a lonely place” leads the governess to wonder, “Was there a secret at Bly – a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unexpected confinement?” Here the governess’s direct question to herself and the reader not only adds to the suspense, but it also involves the reader in the mystery.
3. The narrator’s motives will move the story along
When deciding whether to use the first person point of view, ask yourself why the narrator personally wants to tell his/her story. The narrator’s motives will tell the reader more about their personality, of course, but they will also structure the story. As your character reveals only what they are comfortable with, you can keep things from the reader which you don’t yet want them to know.
A useful illustration of both these points is Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. In this example, Eva’s seemingly unusual motives for doing what she did adds complexity to her character.
It isn’t very nice to admit, but domestic violence has its uses… For two seconds I’d felt whole, and like Kevin Khatchadourian’s real mother. I felt close to him. I felt like myself — my true, unexpurgated self — and I felt we were finally communicating.
Eva’s motives also allow her to conceal information which, although vital, Shriver does not want the reader to know until later in the book. Because Eva is the viewpoint narrator, she talks about things in an order and with a level of detail which makes sense to her. This in turn makes Eva more realistic as a character as she is making sense of her world in a natural way, even if it is not the right way.
The first person point of view certainly has its positives, but it can also subtly lay traps for unassuming authors to fall into.
Don’t fall into these 3 traps
1. It’s easy for your viewpoint narrator to be self-involved and boring
If you were to meet somebody particularly dull, you probably wouldn’t make an effort to see them again. The same applies to a first person narrator; your reader needs to feel the narrator is worth spending time with.
To do this, you need to make sure your narrator is likable and engaging. A dose of wit never goes astray either. A good example of an instantly engaging narrator can be found in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity:
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order … These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliation and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering.
But being engaging is only one part of it as you need to make sure that your viewpoint narrator is not too self-indulged to be likable. When writing the experiences and adventures of your narrator in the first person, it is easy to fall into the trap of making the story very “I” oriented, filling it with how the narrator thinks and feels, which will give the impression that it is the only thing that matters. This can become very boring very quickly.
One way to get around this is to make the narrator talk about other events and characters. Dodie Smith does this very effectively in I Capture the Castle through her first person narrator, Cassandra Mortmain:
I suppose it was her sheer despair of ever meeting any marriageable men at all … that made [Rose] suddenly burst into tears. As she only cries about once a year I really ought to have gone over and comforted her, but I wanted to set it all down here.
2. Describing physical appearance needs careful attention
To avoid sounding gratuitous, the character needs a reason to describe him/herself if you want your readers to have a clear picture of them. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, for example, exists in a circle of vain, shallow people to whom appearance is extremely important, so it makes sense for him to talk about it:
I’m tense, my hair is slicked back, Wayfarers on, my skull is aching, I have a cigar — unlit — clenched between my teeth, am wearing a black Armani suit, a white cotton Armani shirt and a silk tie, also by Armani. I look sharp… (American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis)
Where Bateman spends the book showing off his looks, his clothes and his expensive cosmetics, self-conscious characters can describe themselves by taking the opposite tack: through criticism of their appearance, either by themselves or others.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise sees Jack Gladney being told by his employer that he needs to develop a more commanding appearance, giving him the opportunity to tell us he “had the advantages of substantial height, big hands, big feet, but badly needed bulk” and that “glasses with thick heavy frames and dark lenses were my own idea, an alternative to the bushy beard that my wife of the period didn’t want me to grow.”
3. If your character can’t see it, how do you tell the reader?
To describe events that your viewpoint character can’t possibly know about, you have to switch viewpoints. This is more awkward to handle than a single viewpoint as you have to alert your reader to the fact that you’re doing it. It’s certainly not impossible — different chapters could be told by different characters — but it is more complex.
The more convoluted the plot, the more you’ll have to leap between narrators, and a confusing story told in a confusing way runs the risk of becoming an unreadable mess.
Should you use the first person point of view?
If you feel that you want to, that’s a good start. It’s your book after all. If you have a complex, multilayered character who the reader needs to understand, it’s going to be very useful. If the story allows you to do it without becoming contrived or confused, you’re probably onto a winner. If you can make it believable and interesting while avoiding self-indulgence, then absolutely, yes you should.