When I am reading a work of fiction, I want to be transported to another place and another time and into the mind of a main character. A story told in first person may be the obvious choice to immerse the reader; but I have an aversion to first person.
It struck me, thinking about it a while back, there is an obvious reason for this: When I am reading an expertly written narrative told in third person (preferably close limited third, as close to first person as you can get), I become the character I am reading. I don’t just identify with their thoughts- I become their thoughts, I experience their sensations and their emotions. I see what they see, and I hear what they hear. At the most magic of moments, I forget I am reading a story, and I become the story. If a narrative is told in first person, there is a “remove” from the experience, because, I can never be that person telling the story.
Another factor: if they are telling the story, the story has already happened; it cannot be happening now. In a third person narrative, even though the story is told in past tense, there is a sense of the story happening in the now, that circumstances are unfolding, and not only does the narrator not know what will happen next; the reader does not know what will happen next. In first person, the narrator knows exactly what will happen, and the charm is in the telling.
There are exceptions to my aversion. The “charm in the telling” is the key. Sometimes it is the strength of a character, their idiosyncratic view of events, and the author’s clever use of syntax, creating a unique voice for that character, that makes me forget I am reading a first person account, and I am swept away by the story. Sometimes it is the lyrical quality of the author’s own style, lulling me into compliant duplicity, and the necessary “I” becomes irrelevant, as I am enthralled by the integrity of the story and the narrative weave.
First person, done well, is a challenge. When writing in first person, the author is limited to what the first person narrator can hear and see, including the character’s own interior thoughts. Close limited third carries this same responsibility, as the author sticks to one point-of-view for each chapter or scene.
If a first person character is not a witness to an event, they can only provide hear say, or perhaps, they may speak to someone in a scene who can relay a piece of critical information, or, in the worst of devices, overhear a conversation through a vent, or hide behind a screen. Mostly, it’s their interpretation of an event they have personally witnessed, or experienced, and their own thoughts about that event or experience that allows them to tell a tale.
For the reader, there is the issue of narrator reliability. Do we trust this first person narrator, and their interpretation of events, or, is part of the intrigue for the reader, deciphering their own sense of the truth out of the narrator’s delusions?
Another critical factor in first person narrative is the age of the character telling the tale, and their distance from the events. Are they a child telling the tale? Are they a twenty-something adult or an older teen? Are they middle aged, telling an event from their youth? Are they relaying their own story, or the story of someone else? An expert telling requires the writer to stay consistent to that age, and to that tone.
There is the added layer of capturing the voice of an earlier “me,” possibly a child, while relaying the current “me” telling the tale, a person presumably transformed in some way by the experiences and events they are relaying, so that they are not the same person, emotionally, intellectually, physically, or spiritually (in the larger, humanistic sense of the word), as they were when those experiences and events took place.
There are guides to writing that propose that first person narrative gives the reader immediate identification with the main character telling the story. In most first person, I do not find this to be personally true. Unless the first person narrator engages me from their first few lines, there will definitely be a “getting to know you” period, and what I may find out is that this person and their story situation is boring, or I just don’t like this person, and I stop reading.
For me, these two factors must be in place, for me to take the time to read a first person narrative, more important than the circumstances of the story they are telling: A three dimensional character with an intriguing point of view and a personal way of speaking, and the strength of the writer’s own style propelling me forward.
I’m trying again, the idea of throwing out a number of questions, and asking the reader to respond in any way they choose.
When you select a story told in first person, what factors do you look for?
If you are a writer, do you enjoy writing in first person?
Have you ever begun a story, where it “told itself” from the point of view of a single character, and a first person narrative was the obvious and only choice? (This has happened to me.)
If you’ve written in first person, have you encountered any difficulties, and how have you overcome them?
I admire quality first person writing. I have read short stories and novels told in first person that satisfy my need to be transported into another world, in terms of place, time, and point of view. How about you?