Choosing your point of view: when to write in the first person (tip 40) Reply

Many of us begin writing in the first person, often without considering whether it’s the best point of view for our story. So here’s a link to a test that can help decide whether first person is right for you. And here, in the video below, you’ll find D.D. Johnston’s reflections on meeting Richard Ford, and on when writing in the first person is and isn’t a good idea.

Video transcript follows below:
In 2006 I was on a train to Manchester and totally by chance I happened to sit next to Richard Ford. Richard Ford! Of all the carriages on all the trains in all the world and I happen to sit beside arguably America’s greatest living writer.
We were almost at Stoke on Trent before I realised who he was and why his face was familiar. Excuse me,’ I said, Mr Ford, sir?’ I asked him why he was going to Manchester for and he explained that he was launching his new book, the sequel to Independence Day. Independence Day was the first novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen-Faulkner. And when he told me he was launching the sequel I said, ‘Is it any good?’
Well he laughed a bit and then he thought a bit and then he said, ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I try! I don’t know if it’s any good. You tell me.’
And he gave me the copy he was going to read from, and here it is – still one of my most treasured possessions.
When we got to Manchester I said, ‘Mr. Ford, Sir-‘
He said ‘call me Richard.’
I said, ‘Richard, Sir, I don’t know what you two are getting up to after the reading but if you wanted to see round Manchester I could show you the sights, you know?’
He said, ‘Well… that’s very kind of you but, you know, we’ll probably go back to the hotel and hit the hay. But thanks again,’ he said, ‘You have a good day now.’
I said ‘Richard! Mr. Ford Sir?’
He said, ‘Yeah.’
I said, ‘You know, Richard, I do some writing myself.’
He said, ‘Good for you. That’s great. I wish you every luck with that. Best of luck; it was very nice to meet you.’
I said, ‘Mr. Ford, Richard, Sir?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. He was getting into a taxi at this point.
‘I could send you some of my writing maybe?’
‘That’d be… that’d be great. Good day now.’ He closed the door.
‘Richard! Mr Ford, Sir! I don’t know your– Richard? I don’t know your address.’ But the taxi was gone, and Ford was gone, out of my life forever.

Here’s the opening line of Independence Day:
In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.

Wow. Richard Ford can write that, and so can his narrator. Frank, the narrator, although now a real estate agent, is a former sportswriter and novelist. He has the same education as Ford, and he’s the same gender, class, race, nationality, and age as Ford. Independence Day represents one type of first person narrative: stories in which the narrator shares the author’s language to the extent that the author doesn’t have to compromise her mode of expression. If you read first person narratives in contemporary fiction, it’s amazing how many of these stories are narrated by writers, academics, English literature PhD students; characters who can use more or less the same language as the author would.

But what if your narrator is a semi-literate prisoner, or an eight-year-old girl, or a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, or a Chinese immigrant whose first language is mandarin, or any of the billions of other people who haven’t devoted their lives to reading and writing in English. In such cases, the author agrees to pay a terrible price to occupy the body of another: she surrenders her language, her syntax, her idiosyncrasies, and perhaps her wit; she abandons (or at least hides) her ideas and values.

When choosing your point of view, imagine yourself as TommyJohnson at the crossroads. According to the story, the great blues singer Tommy Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads. And the Devil tuned his guitar, and TommyJohnson was able to play music like no one had ever heard before. But he’d paid a terrible price. And so it is with the first person perspective: you can do amazing things in the first person, but unless your narrator is partly autobiographical, you will have to trade your soul.

Now, if I am going to sell my soul to the Devil or anyone else – and in these times of economic hardship I’m certainly prepared to consider all reasonable offers – then I want a decent pay off! I want to be absolutely certain that what I’m getting out of this first person malarkey is going to be worth the sacrifices. Because if I decide that Mrs. Chang, who arrived in London six years ago, not speaking a word of English, is going to tell this story, then every word, every sentence, has to be hers.

This is our second type of first person story: the story where the narrator’s language is so different from established literary prose – and thus so interesting – that the author agrees to sacrifice her language to present it.

And of course, authors can do wonderful things in the first person:
‘Mother Superior wis Johnny Swan; also kent as the White Swan, a dealer whae was based in Tollcross and covered the Sighthill and Wester Hailes schemes. Ah preferred tae score fi Swanney, or his sideckick Raymie, rather than Seeker n the Muirhoose-Leith mob, if ah could likes. Better gear, usually. Johnny Swan hud once been a good mate ay mines, back in the auld days. We played fitba thegither fir Porty Thistle. Now he wis a dealer. Ah mind um saying tae us once: Nae friends in this game. Jist associates. (Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting)

In Trainspotting, the sacrifice was worth it. But often when I critique a story in which the use of language is imprecise and vague, the author will retort that this is how the character would express herself. For instance, a character might be describing the story on her Facebook page:

‘Soz not been in touch everyone, things really busy with assignments (and drinking!!) Lol. Me and Steve broke up, you’ve probably heard, basically because we decided we just wanted different things, are def going to try and stay friends!’

This may be realistic, but it isn’t good or interesting. A million billion such words float around in cyberspace. This writing doesn’t justify abandoning standard grammar, complexity of thought, precision of expression. So if you are going to write in a first person voice that isn’t your own, or departs from standard written English, or both, then you need to be certain that the effect will be greater than or equal to the sacrifice.

So before writing in the first person, I think you should ask yourself a series of questions.

First, is the narrator sufficiently skilled, eloquent, and similar to yourself that you can write interestingly in her voice without compromising or altering your language?

If the answer to that is yes, go for it. But if the answer is no, you need to consider a second question.

Are the narrator’s language and worldview sufficiently interesting, different, powerful, and integral to the story that they justify abandoning your own way of writing?

If the answer to that is no then stop – write it in the third person subjective instead. But if the answer is yes, then there’s a third question you must answer:

Are you knowledgeable enough to convincingly write as this character? Do you have the ventriloquist skills to impersonate his voice? Can you efface yourself?

If the answer to all those questions is yes – go for it. But if the answer to any of them is no – stop and choose a different point of view.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Jackman Chiu. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here:

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