Point of view, the way a story or novel is narrated, is one of the most powerful tools at a fiction writer’s disposal. It dictates which of your characters will tell your story and how it will be told. It also determines whether readers will enjoy a friendly intimacy with your characters, be tightly enmeshed in their lives, or maintain a comfortable distance. It is powerful, and it’s frequently misused.
First-person point of view is easy to spot because the narrator is introduced as “I.” It’s often as if someone is telling you a personal story. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
In epistolary novels, we’re given a peek at personal letters or journals. For example, a series of letters comprises Alice Walker’s masterpiece The Color Purple, as Celie and her sister Nettie write to each other over the years. Other examples include A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Other authors use first-person point of view to create the sense that, instead of listening to a storyteller, you’re immersed in the character’s mind, experiencing her life along with her. This is often called close—or deep—first-person point of view.
If you choose to use this point of view, consider the wealth of opportunities it presents you as an author.
1. Create Immediate Immersion:
First-person point of view readily creates a vicarious experience for readers, pulling us into a character’s mind and into his world.
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews begins with this passage: I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen staring down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit.
In this short snippet, I readily imagine myself sitting at the table and tasting the hard lemonade. At the end of the sentence, I’m delving into a paranormal world, and I easily jump down that rabbit hole. I’ve already made the implicit choice to “become” this character for a while, and the story already feels real to me.
And when Katniss, the narrator of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, begins: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth… I am immediately lying in bed, reaching out for a loved one, prepared for a journey in Katniss’s shoes.
According to literary agent and writer Donald Maass: “Immersive POV is not just a camera angle, or a mind meld, but a total subsuming of the reader’s being into a character’s. It requires the reader to not only see through a character’s eyes, but to become that character. It demands that the reader not just pay attention but completely submerge.” [Source]
Sometimes we enjoy living in that character’s mind and miss his company when the book ends. At other times, as when reading one of Poe’s short stories—narrated by a character who assures us he’s definitely not crazy—the experience is confusing or deeply unsettling. And often, as when immersed in the beginning of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s clever satirical thriller, we have the uneasy feeling that our narrator isn’t telling us the truth…or is she?
As the author, you control which kind of ride the reader is on, one of enjoyable intimacy with a flawed but likable narrator, a dark, squirmy experience, or a story that raises more questions than it answers. When done right, this kind of immersion is powerful and creates a memorable experience for the reader, with whom these characters linger long after the book is finished.
2. Exploit the Power of Character Voice:
Focusing on a first-person point-of-view character, whether your novel has one narrator or alternates among multiple points of view, gives you the opportunity to create a narrative voice that’s memorable and engaging. This is often used to humorous effect.
For example Mark Watney’s sense of humor shines throughout Andy Weir’s The Martian, beginning with the apt and memorable first line: I’m pretty much fucked.
In a similar way, in Josh Bader’s urban fantasy Frostbite, the narrator’s sense of humor pulls you right into the story:
In an era of quick status updates, where everyone can define themselves by a short list of labels and in 140 characters, my status depends greatly on the perspective of the person describing me… The ones that have floated back to me are “world traveler,” “professional vagabond,” “dabbling wizard,” or “lunatic-just-short-of-civil commitment.” My dad once used the phrase “career criminal” when he thought I was out of earshot.
Narrative voices I’ve fallen in love with run the gamut from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn to Gillian Flynn’s paradoxically cynical and sheltered Libby Day in Dark Places.
3. Develop Your Main Character Through Exposition and Description
Part of the power of narrative voice is that virtually everything the narrator relates and describes is part of the fabric of the character. All of us filter our perception of the world through our own attitudes and experiences, and the possibilities for building a vibrant, multidimensional character are virtually endless.
A dramatic example of revealing character through exposition appears in I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells:
We didn’t get Jeb Jolley’s body that night, or even soon after, and I spent the next week in breathless anticipation, running home from school every afternoon to see if it had arrived yet. It felt like Christmas.
This is a curious reaction to being confronted with a murder victim, but for this protagonist—accustomed to working in a funeral home and fascinated with all things related to murder—it’s unsurprising.
Does your character describe a crowd as a varied, energetic group of people, an oppressive, frightening mass of humanity, or a herd of cattle? When a stranger offers a random act of kindness, does it spark joy and gratitude, invoke doubt about his motives, or single him out as a mark to be conned?
The better you know your character, the more natural it will be to add shades of her perspective to scenes you create, and this will help make her a living, breathing person in the eyes of readers.
4. Create Subtext:
Few of us are unfailingly honest with ourselves, and we don’t always fully understand the events unfolding around us. So it isn’t surprising that what well-crafted first-person narrators tell us is often inconsistent with the truth, or they aren’t telling the whole story. When the narrator’s version of events differs from what the reader sees, it creates subtext.
Scout, the young narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, gives us insight into her world as she gradually becomes aware of the virulent racism permeating society. This, in turn, is filtered through the words of her father, whose perspective is limited by his being a white man of his generation. This makes the story richer and more nuanced.
Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant novel The Poisonwood Bible is told in the alternating voices of five first-person characters. In the early chapters, Reverend Nathan Price’s mission in the Congo is explored through the eyes of his four daughters.
Kingsolver masterfully creates each voice reflecting the age, knowledge, and attitudes of the character. Rachel describes the banquet the tribe held to welcome the Prices, focusing on superficial details such as the unpalatable food. Leah describes Nathan’s efforts to create a “demonstration garden” to educate those poor heathen natives, filtered through her fierce devotion to and admiration for her father.
But in each case, readers readily glean the truth about the good reverend, unraveling a grim, infuriating story of cultural ignorance, racism, religious bigotry, and imperialism. Kingsolver’s narrative choices add a layered, nuanced quality to this harsh, powerful, and all-too-realistic tale.
5. Experiment with an Unreliable Narrator:
What does your narrator want readers to know? Is it the truth, or is he deliberately misleading us? The unreliable narrator is a fun convention to experiment with. Misguiding readers can lead to a rewarding twist or it can cast the character—and the story—in an interesting light.
An author typically plays fair by tipping off the reader that this narrator is not to be trusted. Vladimir Nabokov’s narrator in Lolita is selling his story to a jury. Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, in The Heart of Darkness, lets us know, right from the get-go, that he likes to spin a good yarn. And Patrick Bateman, in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, is a psychopath, unlikely to have any affinity with the truth. Yet as we all know, these slippery narrators often end up revealing much more than they intend to.
6. Explore the Unreliability of Memory
In her gorgeous contemporary novel An American Marriage, Tayari Jones wrote, “Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator.”
Even if your narrator isn’t intentionally lying or manipulating readers, human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially when relating traumatic events. This is often used in literature to excellent effect.
Eva, in We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, recalls her son’s life, from conception to the horrific events that shattered her family and community, in a way that stretches credibility, to say the least. The unreliability of her narrative, in itself, tells an interesting story and raises thought-provoking questions.
For example, why does she remember her son as having deliberately delayed developmental milestones, such as potty training, because of his animosity toward her? What does that say about Eva? Did she actually believe this at the time, or are her recollections skewed by subsequent events? If Kevin weren’t a sociopath, would she remember his childhood differently?
Also, take a close look at Briony’s perspective in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement by Ian McEwan. Is she lying? Is her intention malicious? Or is she simply revealing what she’s perceived through the lens of her youth, immaturity, and confused, troubled emotions?
7. Contrast Perceptions of Reality:
In the same vein Barbara Kingsolver wrote, in one of her novels, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” No two people remember an event in exactly the same way—this is a fascinating topic to delve into in fiction. It’s sometimes called The Rashomon Effect, after a 1950 Japanese film that explores four different accounts of a brutal crime.
Another movie that uses this approach is Hilary and Jackie, a British biographical film about two sisters who are gifted musicians. Each woman’s memories of their intertwined lives plays out on screen, telling two closely related but very different stories. The “facts” explored in the movie have been disputed (creating a third version of events), but it’s an excellent film.
Experimenting with multiple first-person narrators telling the same story can be fascinating. Even if each of these characters is doing her level best to tell the truth, how might their accounts vary? Knowing your character as you do, what will you choose to include in his telling of the story? What will you leave out? Based on his age, maturity level, attitude, and emotions, how would a certain event appear to him?
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones are excellent examples of exploring the potential of multiple points of view on the same events through first-person narrators. Each of these authors expertly uses this technique to create a novel that is complex, multi-layered, and full of richly developed characters.
An American Marriage and The Sweet Hereafter also use multiple first-person narrators to explore the ripple effect of injustice and tragedy. An American Marriage revolves around a young man’s imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit—and, by extension, the perils faces by Black citizens in the US—and The Sweet Hereafter delves into the aftermath of a school bus accident and how individuals and a community respond to devastating loss.
8. Surprise the Reader:
In his recorded lectures at Brigham Young University, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said, “If a first-person narrator lies, he’s a jerk. If a third-person narrator lies, you’re a jerk.” Essentially he’s saying that when you mislead readers using third-person point of view, you run the risk that they’ll feel you haven’t played fair. With a first-person narrator, you have a lot more freedom.
If you want to withhold information from readers, to surprise us later, you have a great deal of latitude with a first-person narrator. He may be misleading us, or maybe he simply doesn’t know. This has been used effectively with a plethora of first-person sleuths in mystery novels. We pick up the clues as the sleuth does—and, together, we learn whodunnit. As a confirmed mystery addict, this convention never gets old for me. 🙂
Who are some of your favorite first-person narrators? How are the authors using these techniques?