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Look Into My I

collateral tales

collateral tales

Aspiring writers often adopt the first-person perspective for their narrative voice because it looks more simple & natural than the alternatives. They’re wrong.

The first-person-perspective seems easier. But it takes some experience to not walk straight into one of these two perspective-pitfalls, or both: revealing information your first-person character cannot possibly know, and withholding information from your reader your first-person character does know. (For the latter, guess why, with two minor exceptions, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries are not told from Holmes’s point of view.)

Let’s stick with the “revealing,” for now. If you check some of the classics on your shelf, you will find that the first-person narrator tradition goes quite a long way back. But wait—it’s different! You might have an omniscient narrator who may or may not be one of the story’s characters, and this is first and foremost the, indeed, narrator. Often, you can encounter this kind of narrator in frame stories, sometimes even on several levels (re Joseph Conrad): the character relates what he or she has heard from another character, and so on. This device constitutes, and is constituted by, well-known conventions with well-internalized rules, and I would strongly advise against using it except when you know exactly what you’re doing.

What you have in mind, of course, is rather the first-person narrator from hard-boiled fiction, film noir cinema, or your character from computer and console games, especially your alter ego from your favorite MMORPG, right?

Right. Now here’s the rub. You can’t have any cut scenes in your story when you write first-person narratives. Or, you can: but it’s so flagrantly “device-ish” that it borders on the amateurish. (By the way: I abhor cut scenes in computer or console games. But, as they say, another day, another entry.) So you have to get your act together and build up suspense without any foreboding events in the distance, without any in-the-meantimes, without whatever. It’s just plain you. Or rather, your “eye” in your story.

And, as if that weren’t enough to chew on, there’s another potential problem lurking at the far end of the spectrum. Technically, your first-person narrator is omniscient with respect to everything that’s going to happen. Your narrative is in the past tense, no? So your first-person narrator must have survived it all, otherwise he or she wouldn’t be alive to tell. And no, you wouldn’t want to narrate a short story in the present tense, let alone a novel. At least not in genre fiction. The only thing you might get away with, especially in horror stories, is having your narrator switch to present tense close to the ending with the “now I’ve told you everything, and here I am waiting for […]” gambit, one of the very few techniques, and a sadly overused one at that, to breach your first-person narrator’s utter incapacity to die. (H. P. Lovecraft used this from time to time, though his preferred device was the frame story where the narrator reads, or listens to, another person’s first-person account.)

So beware. In most cases, the third-person narrative will make things much, much easier for you. And there are some more pitfalls for the first-person narrative I haven’t even mentioned yet. But sooner or later, I will!


If you have something valuable to add or some interesting point to discuss, I’ll be looking forward to meeting you at Mastodon!

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