Wednesday, April 8, 2009

POV, Part IV: More First-Person

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No matter how you feel about first-person novels, learning to write in first-person teaches discipline and discrimination that come in useful in other POVs. Anyone can learn to identify the boundaries of first-person perception, and the exercise of staying indisputably within those boundaries clarifies everything. Learning to color inside the lines is useful even if you plan to do all your work later by throwing paint at the canvas.

By "staying indisputably" within those boundaries, I mean not writing anything that might smear outside of the fully subjective. The biggest wobbles tend to be in self-reporting.

A first-person narrator can certainly say "His cheeks reddened." But can a first-person narrator say "My cheeks reddened"? Well, you can probably get away with it; a person can certainly feel themself flushing or blushing, and one might infer that one's cheeks were red even though it would be impossible to observe; but in the spirit of indisputability, you can't know that unless you're looking in a mirror. And you're not allowed to look in a mirror, either. (Feeling your cheeks become hot is legal in this context; asserting anything about their color is not.)

In this early, ascetic, monastic phase, there would be no “I grinned like an idiot.” There might be “I gave what I intended as an idiotic grin,” or “From their expressions, my grin must have looked idiotic,” or “I tried to grin as idiotically as possible.” There’s nothing wrong with “I grinned like an idiot” (other than its basic cliché nature); but the purpose of the exercises at this point would be to make it crystal clear to the writer where the exact boundaries of POV are drawn. Later on you can smear those sharp borders, but start by being as existentialist as possible—everything from the inside looking out. Participants would be encouraged to submit stories or chapters written as perfectly within first-person boundaries as possible--and to dispute each other's POV wobbles.

While trashing each other's POV transgressions, we’d begin a survey of first-person narratives with a look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and follow it up with The Sun Also Rises. Once we had the feel of the thing, we’d move along to odder approaches.

Advanced topics would cover slightly unreliable narrators, as in The Catcher in the Rye, and wildly unreliable narrators, as in Fight Club, and narrators who are somewhat unreliable simply because they are too young to understand, as in To Kill A Mockingbird, or Rose Tremain’s The Way I Found Her. We’d look at first-person narration used to tell someone else’s story: The Great Gatsby, Budd Schulberg’s wonderful What Makes Sammy Run?, most of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the short but structured Heart of Darkness, and Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend.

In the advanced section, we’d take a close look at Maugham, probably concentrating on The Razor’s Edge (though others would do), to see how a first-person narrator can relate things he has only heard about and yet make them compelling—without ever violating first-person POV. We’d look at multi-POV first-person novels--certainly As I Lay Dying, and perhaps some others.


There are some first-person works that are impossible to imagine in other POVs. In the comment trail Tim Stretton mentioned Flowers for Algernon, where POV, form, story, and style unite almost perfectly. The best of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories are narrated by the befuddled, maladroit Bertie Wooster. Could any other voice insist they'd been kept awake by "the bellowing of the crickets"?

It is worth noting that Conan Doyle tried a handful of stories from Sherlock Holmes' point of view rather than Watson's. Seen through his own eyes, Holmes is rather tiresome. Do we want a superhuman dynamo talking about himself? Not unless he's going to be more intimate and revealing than Holmes. For the stories to work, we need Watson, who is always five steps behind Holmes (and usually a step or two behind the reader).

Although first-person narration from a truly iconic hero may spoil the story, sometimes an intimate, super-voicey first-person narrator is the only thing that makes a story tellable and tolerable. Lolita's Humbert Humbert, A Clockwork Orange's Alex, and Grendel's monster are made redeemable and readable by the combination of first-person intimacy plus incomparable use of language. In our subconscious minds, the narrative voice belongs to the character, not the book, and it is impossible to believe that someone who speaks so beguilingly is, if not loveable, at least redeemable; even Humbert, Alex, and the monster, despite the fact that all three revel in their own wickedness.

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After we'd spent time kicking around those books, we'd loosen our ascetic ways, and put away the hot irons. People would be allowed to say things that were not indisputably locked in the first-person voice. The narrator would be allowed to say, "My cheeks reddened" if the writer believed it worked better. (But I'd wager that at this point, the writers would be more comfortable with "I felt my cheeks redden," which still isn't indisputable, but at least is highly subjective.)

Now we'd try some additional writing exercises.

The first exercise would be to move from a tight first-person POV to a point as omniscient as possible without destroying the sense of the first-person narration. The 'voiceier' the narrative style, the further this can be stretched.

The second exercise would be to get as close to reporting the going's-on in another character's head as is possible without claiming true knowledge--the art of conjecture.

The third exercise would be to write two involving accounts delivered by a character to our narrator--one with our narrator offering thoughts and commentary, and another where the other character essentially seizes the narrative for a time.

Finally, we'd all try our hands at a problem that is usually intractable: switching first-person narrators without a major labeled break. Virtually every multi-first-person novel elects to start a new chapter with a new narrator, generally with the narrator's name at the chapter head. There's a good reason for this practice; if there's a technique for a seamless pass of POV between two first-person narrators, I've never seen it done. It would be fun for a dozen writers to take a whack at the problem.

I'm sure at least one reader is about to ask where Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy stand in all this? Nowhere. Neither of those are strictly first-person narratives, no matter how often the word “I” occurs, and regardless of how convincingly both start out anchored in a single consciousness. Both are experimental works, far ahead of their time; and both of them are as strange or stranger than anything that has been written since.

And what about first-person plural? I'll kick that around a bit in the next post in this series, along with second-person.

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n.b. It's interesting to note that this post includes virtually all the leading candidates for The Great American Novel (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby, Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird). If James was right that novel-length first-person fiction is barbaric...well, I guess we Americans must be a barbaric lot.

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11 comments:

Alis said...

Brilliant post, David, thanks. And very timely as I'm beginning to think about how I want to structure my next novel. I once swore I'd never do first person again but I'm all grown up and published now...

Tim Stretton said...

I think the point about using first-person to make monsters tolerable is an important one. The reader is predisposed to sympathise with a first-person narrator because the feeling of shared intimacy is strong in this POV.

It doesn't always work though: does American Psycho have any appeal beyond clumsy satire?

Neil said...

Hi, David.

I've been enjoying these posts. Thanks.

Concerning jumping between several first person POV's, unless you're going to switch language, I reckon you can switch between two first person narrators without some visual signal, but can't see what it was achieve without a line break other than momentarily confusing the reader. He doesn't perform this trick, but Yann Martel does something similar in Self.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Never say never.

But you seem to tackle things with a lot of scope and history, so I have a suspicion we'll be seeing a lot more third from you. (And why not? You do it brilliantly.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

"American Psycho."

You know, I think that might have been a really good book...if it were, say, about 85% shorter?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Haven't read "Self." Should I?

Your point about momentary confusion of the reader is well taken. Labeling is way of avoiding that problem, and the issue is really quite similar to the one that results in chapter labels that say "1945" and "2006"--it could probably be written so that the reader could sort it out without the label, but why make them do the extra work?

Tim Stretton said...

Yeah, American Psycho is a one-joke gig. Ellis just has to keep upping the gore-stakes to maintain the payoff. You're right, it's a novella padded beyond its natural length. Aliya would do it much better. And with penguins.

Jamie Ford said...

Wow! Incredibly in-depth post. I sometimes plot out in first person to get the feel of the character, but usually jump to 3rd so I'm not as fenced in, I struggle with the discipline it takes to do it well.

On a semi-related note, I've recently read some interesting 1st person plural short stories, all from the perspective of a group of gang members that was interesting.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I agree--and the characterization through brand-name-dropping is very entertaining, but would get old even in a novella.

I also agree that Aliya would do it better, and with penguins. In fact, I think she ought to. And with Albanian dwarfs in red socks, too.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jamie--

How's life as a NYT bestselling author?

Actually, my next post in this series is on first-person plural, but I'm not familiar with the stories you're talking about. They sound interesting.

I write more in third, but I've never switched from first to third. I've gone the other way, though--a few times I just couldn't get close enough to the character in third to make them anybody you'd want to hang out with.

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