From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

January 12, 2009

First Person

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
I will defend the honor of three things above all else:

• My significant other
• First person POV
• My haircut

…and yes, I am being slightly facetious about that last.

The charges against first person point-of-view are basically two; that the reader may get sick of the first-person narrator, or that the writer may get sick of the first-person narrator. We stick a few different lampshades over these same old bulbs—"first person restricts the author's freedom to move between characters," or "first person denies the reader the ability to understand the other characters" (which is blatantly untrue for several other reasons)—but it all comes down to first-person narratives making everybody sick of a character.

But isn't that true of third person?

It's true, I've gotten sick of reading many first person narrators. But I've gotten just as sick of just as many characters seen through limited—and even omniscient—third person. If the character is well-written, three-dimensional and believable, it doesn't matter if I'm hearing about him through his own words or from his next-door neighbor or from the Mouth of God him/herself. And if a character is flat and boring, I'm going to hate her no matter whose POV I'm seeing her from.

Another comment—I won't call it a complaint, because I'm not complaining—about first person frequently mentions the difficulty of not having the narrator know everything. To which I answer—huh? How is that a problem? If it was possible for me to simply switch characters and give the reader all the information, where would the fun be? True, there may be some necessary information that is just isn't possible for my narrator to know through first hand experience; at that point, I either find a way for him/her to learn it or pick another narrator.

Having dealt (flippantly and superficially, it's true) with the criticisms of first person POV, I ask you to now turn your attention to its advantages.

1. Better developed characters. And I don't just mean the viewpoint character, though of course first person requires that s/he be as fully operating as possible. The way characters are perceived by a viewpoint character says just as much about them as…well, actually, it says more about them than anything you could get from third person POV. When the reader is intimately attuned to the viewpoint character's personality, s/he can learn more about non-POV characters from the way the POV character views them than from only their actions and dialogue.

2. Better developed voice. While third person narratives also demand a voice, it is, to a large extent, only a minor concern. But when your entire short story—or your entire novel—comes from inside one character's head, you sure as heck better make sure that character is thinking consistently.

On a similar note, first person voices simply feel more natural to me—probably because most of us go about our lives thinking in first person. That's not to say your viewpoint character must, or even should, share a thought pattern with you. It simply means that, if your characters were real people, they would be thinking about your story in their first person. Since you're probably plunging into their thoughts anyway, why not give the reader the full unadulterated package?

3. The ultimate problem with third person narratives is that it makes the characters sound juvenile. Truly. It's like sitting in a waiting room with a proud mother and her three children, when instead of letting the kids talk for themselves, mommy needs to narrate their entire weekend to you. Why can't your characters tell their own story? When you, the author, tell us that Character X is beautiful, or clever, or heck even ugly, it lacks the authority of Character X telling us that Character Y, whom they interact with on a daily basis, is beautiful as daylight or smart as cinnamon or ugly as a fish in drought.

...and there's the end of my rant, she typed.


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