In my last post, I wrote about getting details and subtleties across when your narrator doesn’t actually take note of them. It’s a much bigger issue for a novel or story written in the first person than a piece written in third person – which has me thinking about the pros and cons of writing in first person.
How do you decide what perspective to use for telling your story – especially a novel, where your commitment is long-term?
With The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I had very strong reasons for telling the story directly from Erica Flynn’s point of view. With the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo this November (working title as yet undecided), I have just as many reasons to write from third person perspective.
The first deciding factor, for me, is whether the main plot is one person’s story. Of course, each of your characters thinks it’s their own story, but you know better. You’re the writer. All your characters should have depth, and the more development you can show of a range of your characters, the better. If, at its core, though, the story is one character’s tale, then it can be told from a first person point of view. If the story hinges on multiple people, then you most likely don’t want to limit yourself to one person’s viewpoint.
First person’s advantages are many. It’s highly personal, and although you can do deep third person in which the characters thoughts and ideas and feelings are there in full detail (read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), there is something about a narration from your main character that just doesn’t come through any other way – like someone is telling the reader their own story. It gives your main character this quality of being a real person communicating directly to your reader. It also allows for characterization through the narration – your word choices, the details mentioned, the style of the writing, all contributes to your reader’s sense of your character. This was a huge part of writing my Erica Flynn novel – she’s a spunky, casual, humorous character, and I wanted that tone to color the whole book. It seemed only natural to have her tell it, and let the tone flow from the character herself. The personal nature of first person perspective was a factor, too – particularly since I kill Erica in the first chapter. It’s a bigger deal for the reader when the narrator tells you she’s going to be dead in a few pages than when it’s just some character – the assumption would be that this character won’t matter soon, and reader interest in that character therefore wanes. That’s just the opposite of what I needed the reader to feel at that point. I wanted the reader to be like, “Holy crap! I just met this girl, and now she’s telling me she’s going to die by the end of this chapter??”
I love anything that plays on unreliable narration (when your narrator lies, distorts the facts, omits details, or is oblivious to things that are obvious to the reader). Chuck Palahniuk uses unreliable first person narrators in most of his books, Wilkie Collins frequently uses a collection of first person narrators in his novels (each with very different takes on the facts!), and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is written from the point of view of a man who’s so twisted that he can barely tell when he’s lying and when he’s not anymore.
Obviously, first person has its limitations. It’s difficult to break to another point of view if you need to, it can be a real struggle to maintain voice and character consistency while still conveying the information necessary to the story, and it limits the focus of the story. Granted, sometimes that’s what you want (in the case of the Erica Flynn novel, I wanted to keep the scope narrow and simple). There’s no way I could tell my NaNoWriMo novel from a first person point of view because the scope is enormous and the characters’ development and decisions affect one another far too much for that kind of limitation of perspective.
Choose your point of view wisely, but don’t be afraid to play around with different perspectives or consider changing from one to another if the story isn’t flowing for you!