Stephen King says, "I'm a confrontational writer. I want to be in your face. I want to get into your space. I want to get within kissing distance, hugging distance, choking distance, punching distance. Call it whatever you want. But I want your attention."
So how do you get within choking distance of your reader? One of the variables you can tinker with is your novel’s point of view, aka POV. It’s the answer to the question: Whose head are we in at this point in the story? Choosing one point of view over another can dramatically alter your plot.
Viewing your story from the POV of a ten-year-old girl will be very different from the POV of her father. Their thoughts, actions and speech are sure to be distinctive if the writer characterizes them properly.
Let’s look at First Person, one option you have for point of view, and its advantages and disadvantages.
The “I” is the narrator, usually the protagonist. We directly witness the story’s events and his or her thoughts (or “its thoughts” in the case of an animal or fantasy character). Occasionally, the “I” narrator may be a bystander rather than the protagonist. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsy, the narrator is Nick Carraway, who rents a cottage next door to a mansion where Jay Gatsby’s extravagant parties attract the wealthy residents of Long Island.
Another example of a narrator who is not the protagonist is a twelve-year-old boy in Larry Watson’s poignant and compelling Montana 1948. David witnesses a devastating event that requires his parents to choose between family loyalty and justice. Although his coming of age is an important part of the plot, the focus is on adult relationships, family secrets and scandal.
One advantage of first person POV is an intimacy with the reader, a closeness to the character’s thoughts. It’s also a way to establish a distinctive voice for your narrator. Suppose you’ve created a street-smart protagonist who lives in New York in 1955. He will speak and behave quite differently from an attorney who lives in Los Angeles in 2015.
First person is a natural POV because we all have a vivid life inside our heads, and once you’ve established the voice, it’s easy to write because you don’t have to shift from one character to another. Huckleberry Finn, an uneducated Missouri boy in the 1830s, is only a few years younger than Holden Caulfield, a 1950’s New Yorker with a prep school background, but they’re worlds apart in terms of education, personalities and speech, and those differences come through clearly in first person point of view.
First person also works well when your main character is an unreliable narrator, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The protagonist is Mr. Stephens, who like his father values his career as a butler in a very proper English household at Darlington Hall. Mr. Stephens is preoccupied with managing a conference and a banquet attended by several high-level foreign dignitaries. While the event is unfolding downstairs, Mr. Stephens’ father is in his bedroom upstairs suffering a stroke. Mr. Stephens knows his father is dying but he places more value on his butler duties than he does on his love for his father.
When Lord Darlington asks Stephens if he is all right, the butler says, “Yes, sir. Perfectly.”
“You look as though you’ve been crying,” his employer says.
Mr. Stephens tells us, “I laughed and taking out a handkerchief, quickly wiped my face. ‘I’m very sorry, sir. The strains of a hard day.’”
Because we are privy to Mr. Stephens’ thoughts and actions, we know he is grieving over his father, but he’s determined to show everyone at the banquet, including Lord Darlington, that he is fine. Not only is Mr. Stephens an unreliable narrator but, as the story progresses, we learn he has not even been honest with himself.
In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner boldly melds first person point of view with unreliable narrator into a developmentally disabled man-child named Benjamin. We know about his condition and the troubles of his Mississippi family by what other characters say to him. Sometimes, the dialogue is garbled because it's being heard from the perspective of a brain-damaged character. The novel is so unique and penetrating that it's considered Faulkner's tour de force. Here are a few paragraphs from Benjamin’s section in the novel. (The punctuation errors are Faulkner’s; I don't know why he didn't use question marks.) Another character, Versh, has taken Benjamin outside.
I couldn’t feel the gate at all, but I could smell the bright cold.
“You better put them hands back in your pockets.”
Caddy was walking. Then she was running, her booksatchel swinging and jouncing behind her.
“Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said. She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves. “Did you come to meet me.” she said. “Did you come to meet Caddy. What did you let him get his hands so cold for, Versh.”
“I told him to keep them in his pockets.” Versh said. “Holding onto that ahun gate.”
“Did you come to meet Caddy.” she said, rubbing my hands. “What is it. What are you trying to tell Caddy.” Caddy smelled like trees and like when she says we were asleep.
“What are you moaning about,” Luster said. You can watch them again when we get to the branch. Here. Here’s you a jimson weed.” He gave me the flower. We went through the fence, into the lot.
“What is it.” Caddy said. What are you trying to tell Caddy. Did they send him out, Versh.”
“Couldn’t keep him in,” Versh said. “He kept on until they let him go and he come right straight down here, looking through the gate.”
Using first person point of view in this fashion adds depth and richness to Faulkner’s novel, challenging the reader to see beneath the surface of the author’s and the narrator’s words.
But it has its limitations. Some critics find it self-indulgent. The reader is eternally in one person’s head and the constant “I” pronoun can become tedious. The narrator can only show us events she has witnessed. The author might have another character tell the “I” protagonist what has happened offstage, but a description is not as dramatic and powerful as the actual incident.
First person POV happens to be my personal favorite because I can take on the persona of the main character with the hope of developing a unique voice. In my next blog, I’ll write more about point of view, giving you other options you might choose.