I happen to like the first person point of view. Many of my schoolgirl scribblings were in first person, and so were my favorite novels.
But somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that first person wasn’t ideal. It was kid stuff, it was for amateurs, it was a bit narcissistic.
So, I started working with tight third person. I kidded myself that it was practically the same, and I got along OK with it, most of the time. Then I started thinking that a single third person POV was also too baby-ish. I wanted to try working with multiple POVs. And that’s where my muses went on strike. Oh, everybody inside my head agreed that multiple POVs, alternating every chapter or some other mystical and complicated schema, would be a grand idea. A rococo drawing room of an idea, full of interesting insights and various opinions.
But when it came time to turn the idea into words on paper, it was all so stiff and awkward.
It made me miserable. I knew it could be done; I thought it should be done. And a series of bad novels exacerbated by first person poorly done convinced me that I needed to do it.
Novels told in the first person POV can be very whiny. First person also severely limits what your readers can see – they are looking through “my” eyes, which means that events that don’t happen in front of “my” face theoretically aren’t available to the readers. The writer must work harder to be clear about the plot, and the reader must work harder to read between the lines – especially if “I” am a young, naive or otherwise unreliable narrator.
I spent quite a few years working with third person, and two or three years toying with multiple third person.
And then, this month, I read My Antonia (link to Amazon for first pages) by Willa Cather, and was blown away. Cather writes a prologue in first person, introducing the narrator, Jim. The rest of the story is from Jim’s first person perspective. Cather broke a lot of rules good and hard in this story, but I was still entranced, for several reasons.
Jim acts as almost an omniscient narrator. He interacts in the story quite a bit with the heroine, Tony, but he’s also privy to the gossip of adults and the reflections of some of the characters after they grew up and moved away from Black Hawk, Nebraska. It’s a distant first-person, told by an adult looking back upon his childhood, so it’s both warm and nostalgic, but seasoned with a lot of cold logical hindsight.
Jim, our narrator, is an adult telling another person’s story, so there’s very little “oh woe, poor me” in this story. Jim is secure in his adulthood. He has a good job and a wide social circle. So, the hardships of childhood can be viewed not as “why is this happening to me?” but as “ah, well, it was all for the best, probably.”
A first person POV, or even a tight third person, from Antonia’s position in realtime would have been quite harrowing. It may have made fine literature, but it wouldn’t have made a good read, per se.
The Lovely Bones (link to Amazon for first pages) by Alice Sebold also does this distancing trick. The story is told from the perspective of a girl who was killed and went to her own heaven. Susie Salmon has processed the experience, so we don’t have to be murdered along with the character. It’s an extremely difficult book, but it doesn’t jerk you around.
So, I’m giving in to myself, and giving first person a try again. So far, I’m getting some good words on the page. My subject matter isn’t as harrowing as Antonia’s or Susie’s experiences, so I’m doing it in realtime. The reader will be a lot closer to the events, which I hope will be thrilling, but not devastating. I’ll state my heroine’s hardships in simple facts, and let the readers add as much “oh, poor girl!” as they want to.
And we will see what we will see. Do you have any first person favorites? Have you written in first person? Did you like it?