I’ve taught novel and short story writing going on fifteen years now and I see too many writers grabbing at first person because they think it’s easier. First person isn’t easier—nor is it harder. It’s simply a choice and if a writer uses it, one hopes it’s the right choice for that narrative. As William Gass used to say (maybe he still says it—it’s not like I follow him around, stalking him for info), every choice a writer makes offers that writer opportunity and obstacle. And, as my bud Steve Almond says (he does still say this, though I don’t have to stalk him to know it) “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less.”
And when a writer has chosen to tell a narrative in first person, they’ve made a choice that offers them plenty of opportunities, among them:
- The intensity, drive and wonderful rhythms and word choices of human speech,
- The chance to exploit and explore a single voice and no fear of shifting point of view at the wrong time (since they’ve chosen to tell the story in only one POV)
Among the obstacles inherent in first person?:
- You’re trapped with that single voice and you’ve offered yourself no variation in POV—so it better be a compelling one in every single word choice (though this is true of second and third-person, as well). But you run the risk of a redundant voice.
- When a reader sees the opening line is in first-person, there is a tacit contract with the reader (often an unconscious one, understood simply from hours, days and years of exposure to narrative) that the text will be contained to that single POV. This, of course, assumes it’s not a multiple first-person narrative, like As I Lay Dying, or a novel that will shift—nearly always unsuccessfully—from first person to third person at some point, as in Hemingway’s problematic (primarily because of its lack of focus caused by the shift between first and third person) To Have and Have Not.
- As a result of the reader knowing the POV will stay in the mind of your first-person narrator, there is the accompanying tacit contract—that no scene will occur without the narrator being present to observe/participate in the scene.
This last obstacle is a tricky one for a writer. It’s a maddening limitation you’ve given yourself, at times. How to get in crucial information that your narrator isn’t present for? But, like all forced limitations (from the sonnet to the lipogram to the 1/4/5 blues), it offers the attentive writer a chance to come up with interesting and creative problem-solving.
One of the best at overcoming the limitations inherent in first-person was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both his most accomplished novel, The Great Gatsby, and in his incredibly promising, yet sadly unfinished The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald applies a twist to traditional first-person and uses a technique I call Flexible First Person. What is Flexible First Person? It’s really just a technique a writer can use within the confines of traditional first person. It’s not a POV of its own, but more of a subset technique within a POV choice. It’s the technique of a writer who realizes there are a multitude of ways that we (who live in first-person singular—most of us, at any rate) get information about other people and events.
Think about it—there are plenty of things we know about in life that we weren’t present for. People tell us things, we listen to the radio, we read, we watch TV and check the Internet (though the last two weren’t available to Fitzgerald) and, perhaps most importantly, we imagine what other people are thinking.
And it’s this realization of the narrator’s imagination that shows up in one of the most famous scenes in Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway imagines Gatsby’s murder at the hands of Tom Wilson (a scene that has already taken place and one Nick was not there for). Not only does he use multiple hearsay (what the butler tells him about Gatsby getting in the pool for the last time of the season and what the police tell him about Wilson shooting Gatsby and then himself), but he imagines Gatsby’s dying thoughts. We get Nick, thinking/imagining Gatsby waiting for Daisy’s call where he hopes she’ll leave her husband and run away with him:
…I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sun though frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon sparsely created grass…
Notice all of the qualifiers: I have an idea, perhaps, If that was true, and he must (twice). Because it’s the narrator imagining this, we get not only the narrator’s conclusions on the end of Gatsby’s life, but a sense of immediacy of this ending as seen/realized by Gatsby, even though the narrator is absent and there’s no way he can actually know what Gatsby felt and thought at the end.
We spend an enormous amount of our lives (at least I do, and my friends do—but maybe that’s because my friends are mostly addicts and writers, who spend a lot of time in their heads) thinking about other people, their motives, their desires and their opinions. Yet, I seldom see student writers taking advantage of this when they choose to write in first person. This is an incredible technique not used often enough.
There are more pedestrian ways to get in scenes that the narrator’s not there for. For instance, in The Last Tycoon, the narrative is in the first person, told by Celia Brady. Then, several chapters in, we get the entire first date and romance between Monroe and Kathleen, shown to the reader in what seems like third person (minus interiors—what’s known as camera-view third-person, where we get actions, but not thoughts in third-person), and then we’re told that Celia had learned about this entire encounter from someone intimate with the characters in the scene—via hearsay. Then, the first-person narrative continues with “This is Celia, taking up the story again.”
This is much less poetic than the death scene in Gatsby, but it’s effective and it offers readers (and writers) another example of the Flexible First Person where the writer explores creative and interesting ways of getting crucial information to the reader.