Entertain Me: Thoughts on the First Person POV

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...

You’re a jerk, Holmes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading a lot of first person stories lately,. No reason. Just worked out that way with my to-read list. But it did make me think, so here are my entirely unsolicited thoughts on the first person narrative:

1) The narrator has to sound interesting. Not just be interesting. Lots of characters are interesting but that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good narrator. There needs to be a distinctive voice, a manner of speaking* that draws in the reader. Something I’ve noticed: characters that are a little bit cocky make good narrators, at least for me. Especially if they have a sense of humour. But then I don’t like misery memoirs, so I’m not that interested in listening to some sad bastard go on about their life. It’s among the many reasons I never became a therapist.

2) It has to be the right narrator. First person is automatically limiting. The reader can only see what that person sees. Which is why it’s really fucking annoying when a first person story is solved by someone else at some time when the narrator is not present. All you get then is a recap. And I’m left thinking, “Why the hell are we following the story from inside this fucker’s head? Clearly that guy has more of an impact.” It’s like watching a concert from seats behind a pillar. If you had the chance, why the hell wouldn’t you move to another vantage point?

3) The narrator has to be active. They have to have some fucking impact on the story. Otherwise, why bother with their point of view?
However, they don’t have to be the mover. Sometimes the sidekick, like Watson from Sherlock Holmes, works even better than the main character as narrator because the main character is kind of a dick. Or just a character it’s more fun to watch than to understand.

4) They don’t have to be honest. Ambiguity can be good, whether it’s deliberate lying or just faulty memory. The narrator for Stephen King’s Duma Key states that “when it come to the past, we all stack the deck.” So while his story is a good one, there is room for doubt. For the possibility that he is remembering things differently than they happened.

5) But I shouldn’t want them to die in a fire. A narrator that I actively hate? Not a good read. I should not be rooting for the aliens coming down the hall to pull his guts out through his nose. They don’t have to be a prince among narrators, but they shouldn’t be obviously despicable. Or, if they are, they should save that reveal for the end.

That’s what I’ve got so far about first person. What’s your point of view? Do you like first person? Hate it? Tell  me your thoughts so that I may consume them and steal your powers for my own get a new perspective.

*Or thinking or whatever it is that first person narrators are doing. Sometimes it’s clear—Dolores Claiborne is very clearly speaking to someone—but other times it’s not.

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5 thoughts on “Entertain Me: Thoughts on the First Person POV

  1. I don’t mind first person IF it’s done right. All your conditions above are my conditions too. It’s beyond obvious when an author uses first person just to get out of writing the tricky scenes (as in every Twilight book when Bella is unconscious/hiding during the battles). It also has to be in the past tense (nothing more irritating than first person present… except possibly SECOND person present) mostly because it makes no sense. First person past could be a diary or telling the story aloud to someone. First person present is what, you recording the descriptive video track for your own life? The writing also has to sound like a person talking, like the entire thing could be dialogue. It’s lame and sloggy trying to read a ‘diary’ that’s nothing more than a 3rd person story with all the pronouns swapped out. I also need to feel like the story revolves ENTIRELY around this person so that I can’t possibly be missing clues that could unlock the whole plot just by being stuck in his/her head (another cheap writer dodge).

    • I think first person present can work, especially in the stripped-down noir style. It gives it an immediacy that’s hard to get otherwise.
      I agree that something that sounds like speech tends to work better than a diary style entry. Especially because most of my journal entries are notes for myself and no one else. They’re half in a code that no one else understands.

  2. I like first person, but then I like to tell the story even more than I like to write it. A story told verbally in the second person does not engage the hands, the face, the inflection. First person has the teller reliving the event, which was momentous if it is worth telling about. The challenge then is to write as nearly as possible the inflection, hands, face, etc., and that, as you allude, is a skill worth cultivating. Wish I was good at it!

  3. I don’t often read first-person, because I think it’s very hard to pull off. I agree – if you’re going to write in first-person, you better make absolutely sure the narrator is a very interesting person.

  4. I typically like first person stories as long as the narrator is entertaining. There doesn’t necessarily have to be something absolutely spectacular about them, but their voice has to at least come off as genuine instead of like the author is just trying way too hard.

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