50. Point of View Part 2: First-Person Pros

Author: Nola Published: 3 months ago.
Tags: POV, point of view, voice, identification, identifying, understanding Category: Writing tips

If first-person point of view had a theme song, it would be Joan Armatrading’s Me Myself I. We hear the story from the perspective of the narrator, usually the main protagonist. This approach has a number of advantages.

Understanding

First-person POV provides us with direct access to the character. We don’t have to guess or infer what they’re thinking or feeling. They tell us. This can bring a sense of immediacy. We know what’s at stake and the motives for their actions. When Charlie says the following words in the novel Jasper Jones, we understand the world through his eyes.

I'd heard Jasper Jones described as a half-caste, which I'd never really understood until I mentioned it one night at the dinner table. My father is a serene and reasonable man, but those words had him snapping his cutlery down and glaring at me through his thick-rimmed glasses.

Identification

As this perspective uses personal pronouns such as I, me and my, we become part of the story. We identify with the character and experience the issues they’re facing.

In one scene from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Maxim de Winter’s new wife unknowingly dresses in a costume that had been worn by his deceased former wife. As she makes her grand entrance, she’s met with looks of horror.

I could not move, I went on standing there, my hand on the banister.

'It’s the picture,’ I said, terrified at his eyes, at his voice. ‘It’s the picture, the one in the gallery.’

There was a long silence. We went on staring at each other. Nobody moved in the hall. I swallowed, my hand moved to my throat. ‘What is it?’ I said. ‘What have I done?’

We feel her confusion and see the panic rising. Rebecca is long dead, but her shadow casts an inescapable pall over Manderley.

Voice

First-person POV is an excellent vehicle for bringing out a character’s unique voice. Flavia De Luce, the pre-teen sleuth and chemistry prodigy from Alan Bradley’s best-selling murder mysteries, has a quirky way of looking at the world that comes through in her thoughts and dialogue. For example:

At that instant there was a terrific pounding at the door: a wood-splintering banging so loud that I almost kissed a kidney goodbye.

First-person narrative is also effective for showing changes in a character’s voice over time. Emma Healey’s heartwarming debut novel Elizabeth is Missing tells the story of Maud, a woman with dementia, who’s trying to find her friend. When the story dips into events surrounding the earlier disappearance of Maud’s sister in post-war Britain, her voice is clear and strong. When we come back to the present, she has trouble keeping track of her thoughts. As her dementia worsens later in the novel, her thoughts become even more jumbled and we can’t help empathising with a character we’ve grown to love:

She needed the currants to feed the mad woman. The mad woman, who was really a bird and flew about my sister’s head. My sister was frightened, and she and Douglas dug a tunnel to America. I tried to follow, but I couldn’t dig that far. Perhaps they took Elizabeth with them?

Next week, I’ll look at some of the disadvantages of this perspective. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favourite first-person novels.

(Sources for quotes: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, p. 6; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, p. 223; As Chimney Sweepers Turn to Dust by Alan Bradley, p. 36; Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, p. 275).

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Posted 3 months ago by jeanettegt

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