This post first appeared in May 2018 on the Milford SF blog as “Tinkering with First Person Point of View” by Brenda Clough.
My latest novel, A Most Dangerous Woman (SerialBox , May 2018), is a sort of sequel to a much greater work: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Like many Victorian novels, this work was told in various first-person voices. And so anyone following along behind has to duplicate that format.
So, doing this I have become pretty good at handling first person POV. And the first thing I did was to split out my two narrators. People do not sound alike; consider the people you yourself know. You instantly can identify your spouse’s voice, and you never confuse it with that of your boss, or your Aunt Linda The great and invincible advantage of using a first person narrator is that you get to ‘hear’ that person perfectly, without the filter of the omniscient narrator. So exploit that advantage to the hilt. Let that person be utterly distinctive, with a voice that you could recognize anywhere.
The allied point, of course, is that both the author and the reader are going to be spending a lot of time with that narrator An entire book, maybe a hundred thousand words, listening to this guy – can you do it? Can your reader? There are people in this world (many of them in politics — turn on your TV if you don’t believe me) whose voices are intolerable. You could not listen to them for a hundred seconds; an entire novel’s worth of channeling that voice would drive you to heavy drug use. Narrators can lie to themselves and thus to the reader. They can be fools, even outright villains. But they had better have charm, otherwise the book will be unreadable.
In this novel I have two narrators. Wilkie Collins, no fool, was careful to choose magnetic voices, a woman and a man. And so I have had a lot of fun putting work into differentiation. Marian and Walter notice different things, have slightly variant vocabularies (but not too different!), care about different things. The gender thing is particularly useful in a work set in 1860, because roles were highly differentiated at that period. There were lots of things that women were not allowed to do, say, or be. And, on the other side, there were lots of things that men had to do, some of them fun (only men could swim in outdoor ponds!) and some of them pretty depressing. It’s like having two cameras, or two pairs of glasses. I, and therefore you, can look through two sets of eyes and see the alien landscape of Victorian Britain with two perspectives.
The other angle involves the plot. Who sees what? And who tells it, when? This is the great limitation of first person POV – you are stuck, more or less, inside your character’s head. What if something happens at which neither of my POV characters can be present? Then some fancier footwork is called for so that I can get the necessary information into the hands of the viewpoint characters. People don’t have to tell each other everything, either. Marian can simply not tell poor Walter things, which can lead to vast difficulty and complication. The two viewpoint characters do not have to have the same goals, can misunderstand each other hugely, and in fact be at daggers drawn. Although I don’t do it in this book, you could also cheat by loosening the first person a little. Some occasional omniscient narration, and the problem is solved.
The flow of time is another consideration. A first person viewpoint implies time, because the character is necessarily either living the events, from moment to moment, or looking back upon them from a greater or lesser distance. There are advantages to both ways of managing it, and since I have two viewpoints, it’s easy to work it for maximal fun. Marian keeps a journal, which she makes an entry in nearly every day so that she can puzzle over or be alarmed at current happenings. Walter, at a remove of some years, can be more analytical and portentously note when things are going off the rails.
The final and truly irreparable difficulty in first person narrative is the way it undercuts suspense. You can be certain the character isn’t going to die. Because otherwise how could she be sitting there, telling you about her adventures? This is where I have found having two viewpoint characters useful. If Walter really does believe Marian has died, and tells us all about it, all the misery and grief required can be there. And I have seen inventive writers cheat this one entirely. In Her Privates We, Frederic Manning’s novel about WW1 battle in the trenches, the first-person narrator does indeed die, blown to glory by the Germans. The last entry in his journal is by his best friend, sadly recording his demise. This was a little unfair – the best friend had contributed nothing to the narrative until that point — but there was no other way out of the situation for the author. The hero, the viewpoint character, had to die.
The author who plans her novel will mull over the choice of person carefully. Not every work is suited to first person narration. I am not a planner in the least. I put no thought into it at all. I went with the first point I mention, above: an attractive voice. Once I could ‘hear’ Marian’s voice I just let her talk, and away we go!