Convincing First Person Narrative

Kathleen from the VISION writing group has asked for an insight into first person narrative*, particularly in the area of conveying emotion.

(*First Person — I did this, I did that).

Deciding which Point of View (POV or VP) to use might sound like a no-brainer, but it can make a big difference to your book. Why do you think mysteries are often told in first person VP?

Because the reader only knows what that narrator knows, and this heightens tension as the mystery unfolds. So if you want to drip feed information, or even mislead the reader with an unreliable narrator you could use first person. (See here for an explanation of unreliable narrator).

Many children’s books are written from first person VP because it is so immediate and the reader can connect with the narrator. Another good reason for writing in first person. Deep point of view draws a reader in. (You can use third person but make it deep point of view by treating third person more like first person).

I like to use first person when the character is not human. The English language is very limited. Say you have an AI that is neither male nor female, but obviously intelligent, what gender do you use? I have come across books where the author invents a non-gender specific pronoun and uses it. But I find this jars each time I read the invented word. It feels mannered. (For a look at female writers of the 70s who challenged gender have a look at my KRK blog.)

So there are very good reasons for using first person narrative. Richard Harland has a section on Point of Viewin his writing tips, which covers the basics. He also has a section on conveying emotion here.

Trent says:

‘All my books are written in first person.

I think first person is all about voice. If the voice isn’t distinctive or important to the story you might as well write in a close third person. To get that voice you really need to know your character well, look at the world through their eyes, think about how they perceive things, what they feel, the lies they tell themselves. And you have to think about this in how they express themselves. What are they going to see when they walk in a room, what are they going to miss? Are they conceited or self loathing, do they think the world is against them, or they against the world.

Education, and vocab are important too. Do they have any verbal tics, that might be reflected in their thinking or, conversely or do they stammer, but their thought processes are clear. How do they think. There’s so many variables that you can consider. And you don’t need to consider them all, but you do need to be brave and make strong choices – it can even come down to repetition of phrases, or a certain rhythm in the way that character describes things like Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

As far as great first person novels go I think the best, with multiple first person points of view, is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Every voice is distinctive, and clear. It’s a book worth studying.

As is any short story in first person by Raymond Carver, Angela Carter, or John Cheever. “Reunion” by Cheever is amazing, and only a bit over a thousand words long. As is “Fat” by Raymond Carver. There’s plenty of more recent stuff, and a lot of spec fic with wonderful powerful first person narratives, but sometimes it’s good to look at the techniques of writers working out of the genre. And I reckon Margo is fabulous at creating distinctive 1st Person POVs.

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” by Mark Haddon is all about voice, a child with Aspergers, and what is heartbreaking are the things that he sees but doesn’t understand. The tone is measured, confused, but logical – he sees the pain in those around him, but can’t comprehend it. Oh and “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a marvellous evocation of voice too.’

And there are the authors who mix first person narrative with third person.  Lian Hearn did this in ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’. Dickens did it with Bleak House, Esther was told in first person. ‘Veniss Underground’ by Jeff Vandermeer uses first, second and third person narration.

Holly Lisle talks about using first person VP and how to handle time. After all, if you think about it, the narrator must be telling you what happened ‘after’ it has happened. She goes into great detail about how long in the past events have happened to the first person narrator. She says:

‘Time is an essential part of any story, but with stories told in the first person, it takes on unique characteristics as a gatekeeper of knowledge and the controller of suspense. If you’re writing in the first person, take the time to think about time.’

There are a of lot very useful writing tips on Holly’s page.

According to Tansy, if you’re looking for good examples of authors using first person narrative and making the narrative voice distinctive  look up Sarah Monette’s Melusine books, and Cherie Priest’s sub press novella Dreadful Skin.

Voice, first person, time and emotion. Have you read any first person narrative recently that impressed you?

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