Carol Berg July 14th, 2008
Matthew Milson wrote:
another obstacle that I found to be limiting with the first person perspective was the inability to give the reader information outside of the main character’s knowledge. I grew concerned that I would not be able to adequately hold the reader’s interest or create a sense of worry for the main character by breaking away from their storyline for short periods of time.
Certainly there are limitations to strict first person POV that one has to deal with. You mentioned a number of concerns here, some of which are related and some not.
1. giving the reader information outside the POV character’s knowledge
2. holding the reader’s interest
3. breaking away from that (POV) character’s story
4. creating a sense of worry in the reader
First off, #2 should not be dependent on #1 or #3. If you create an interesting character, and a strong vivid supporting cast, complex relationships, and interesting events surrounding that character, ie. a good story, you can hold the reader’s interest. Your POV character – no matter first or third – should be someone we want to spend time with. Someone with a complex personality, not perfect, with interests, attitudes, likes, dislikes, beliefs, superstitions, whatever makes a person human (or not, as the case may be.) Someone who learns and is capable of change. Sometimes the first person narrator is not the true protagonist, but only the person who is telling the story of the true hero or heroine. (I tried that with Transformation, and it ended up the narrator WAS the heart of the story, but those things can happen…) First person is certainly not appropriate for every story.
Skipping to #4, because it is so important: You’re concerned about creating a sense of worry in the reader. Rightly so. Dramatic tension is a critical part of storytelling. Rising tension grips readers and forces them to turn the next page, to stay up a little later because they can’t put the books down. It creates the drumbeats in the background, the spooky music.
Giving the reader information that the POV character doesn’t have is ONE device that can enhance dramatic tension. But you could rephrase the basic idea as: Lack of information creates tension. Tension is raised when a person in a dramatic situation lacks critical information and knows it. This is the key to many mysteries and suspense stories – things keep happening and the protagonist doesn’t know where the hammer will fall next. It is a sense of inevitable danger. It’s why amnesia has always been such a beloved storytelling device. (Note I am not touting amnesia as the key to dramatic tension, only suggesting why we love it!)
Example: if you’ve read (or seen) Touching the Void, the story of the two UK climbers in the Andes. One breaks his leg in a terrible storm and the other, to save his own life, is forced to cut the rope. He climbs down, assuming his partner is dead. The guy with the broken leg doesn’t die, and the book tells how he crawls out of a crevasse and all the way back to camp with a broken leg and no water. One of the greatest points of tension in this book is that the guy crawling doesn’t know whether or not his partner has broken camp and left the area. Switching out of his POV would actually KILL tension.
So what if you want the POV character to be “innocent,” unaware of her lack of information? Then you have to add the spooky music other ways. Warnings. Concerned friends or colleagues. Other events that the reader might be able to pick up on. The risk here is making your POV character seem stupid or incredibly naive – both turnoffs. But consider which is more dramatic…having a piano fall suddenly on your hero’s head or having him see the piano dangling and the rope fraying and knowing his foot is caught? Consider whether we really needed to know what dangers Frodo was to face or the entire history of the Ring before he set out on his journey? There was plenty of spooky music playing.
Back to #1: As to giving the reader information outside the POV character’s knowledge, consider what and why you need that to happen. Would it ruin the story for your character to know or learn this info? (Often learning is a more interesting process anyway!) Think about how you would handle this in a third-person story. Switch POVs? Well you can certainly do that in a first person novel, too. Multiple first person narrators can be quite as effective as multiple third person POVs, as long as you keep readers informed as to which head they’re in. Would you have switched to a temporary omniscient voice? Mmmm…valid, certainly, but not a technique that produces the same intimacy as a close third or first person POV. Again, consider carefully what the reader really needs to know, and whether the story tension depends on your protagonist being deprived of that knowledge.
As for # 3 – breaking away from the first person character’s story – you can certainly do that with multiple narrators as well. It can be a great story development technique to show an event from one character’s perspective, and then the same event from another’s perspective. Or to keep several parallel plotlines going and have them merge in a cataclysm. Again – just keep it clear whose head we’re in. One of my great writing challenges was when my first person narrator chose a course of action that changed his personality late in a book. All of a sudden I wanted nothing more than to see him from another viewpoint – but it was much too late in the day to introduce another POV. After I worked on it a while, I realized that everything I wanted to show could be reflected through another character’s dialogue and body language as observed by my changed hero. The POV does not have to understand what he is observing. Only react. It worked.
Some people move from a first person narrator back and forth to a third person story. I’m sure that can work, too, though I can’t cite examples that I particularly like.
In summary of this wandering post: To be successful with first person POV
- Pick your viewpoint character carefully; and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with tricky situations!
- Consider multiple first person narrators for a story that depends heavily on events outside a single character’s direct experience
- Create strong, vivid additional characters so that your narrator is not living wholly in his own head, but bumping up against and reacting to interesting personalities
- Consider all ways to create dramatic tension;
- Lack of information does create tension, but consider whether the reader actually needs to know the info before your POV character does;
Hope this all makes sense! I’m sure many of you have additional ideas.