First Person – Deconstructed

first personYes, we already talked about first person, but now let’s really deconstruct it and examine what it means to write in first person. Let’s see what it takes to do the work.

Writing in first person, as we discussed before, means that we’re inside a character’s head. This could be your main character. It usually is in the books I edit. It could also be their best friend, their mother, the antagonist, an observer, their dog… you name it. Sometimes it’s fun to play around with perspective by altering who’s seeing the story unfold.

But what is first person? When we sit down with our family or friends and tell stories of what happened in our lives, we obviously don’t tell any that are novel length. We don’t recount dialogue word for word, yet in a first person novel, we do. So right off the bat, writing in first person is artificial. The narrator in the story must, by definition, already know how the story ends, because we’re holding the book, right? But we play along like he doesn’t, and we discover what happens right along with him. First person is just a device we can use and readers accept it.

Of course, it has strict limitations, too. Let’s take description, for instance. How many of you take a paragraph to describe your characters like they’re on the police blotter? Aside from the fact that you shouldn’t do that unless they are, in fact, being hunted by the police, in first person, would you describe people like that?

“Oh, yes, I’m dating a new girl… she’s 5’2″, has blue eyes, red hair, and weighs 120 pounds. She perfectly complements my dashing 5’8″, 185 pound frame, and her hair goes well with my coal black tresses.”

Yeah, right! No one talks like that, even in books! You have to work it in when it naturally fits.

I stumbled across the room to the mirror, running my hand through the tangled mess on my head. I couldn’t believe I’d overslept. Staring back at me were two hungover brown eyes with deep circles beneath them. Shit. How was I going to get rid of them before I met Jennifer’s parents for lunch in half an hour? I wanted to make a good impression. I glanced down at the rest of me. I sucked in my belly… nah. Too much effort. Work on the face.

While I used the mirror trick above, watch out for that. It can come across natural or it can come across as a cheap device. Even book characters do use mirrors…just don’t let them dwell on every aspect of their appearance while they’re there. In the example above, I only mention the hungover brown eyes. There’s nothing about hair color, lips, complexion. A cursory glance by the character down his frame is enough to let us know he’s not perfect because instead of complaining about his belly, he tries to suck it in. Actions speak louder than words.

While it can be more work to do it right, first person gives us a wonderful opportunity to really get inside the character’s head so we can see the character as he sees himself.

Actions also appear different in first person. They can reveal how the character feels about himself, the situation, and anyone else involved. Instead of describing how a character got out of a car and tripped over the curb, you can include how that made them feel. Did they blame the curb? The city? Did they immediately think about how it ruined their nylons? Did they scrape their shin? Are they worried that they’ll disappoint the person they’re meeting by their appearance now?

Every story has some form of exposition. In first person, it usually is found in the character’s thoughts. There are several ways to handle it. First, you can ignore it and treat it like any other exposition you might write, regardless of whether someone would really think that way or not. This is fine if it’s more important to you to get the style and image across.

You could also limit the exposition to the style your character would use, thus exploiting the first person point of view.

You could also leave out almost all exposition altogether, confining your story to only what your narrating character thinks about in the story.

And the final option would be to have a dual first person point of view. This is where you also have an older version of your narrator who can recall the story that has already occurred. This person would have the advantage of time to think about the what if’s and the repercussions of what happened and bring them into the story.

No matter which you use, be sure to include your character’s attitude. Why use first person at all if you’re not going to include the character’s attitude and opinions? It’s the attitude that makes the character more real. It fleshes him out, helps us identify with him or want to dislike him.

We’ll continue this discussion on Friday.