Writing in the First Person Point of View (Part 2/3) – Choosing words & who is talking to whom

In the first part of this three-part series on first person narrative, I talked about why one should use the first person narration and why it is different than third person point of view.

This post continues these differences and addresses the first of three questions to ask yourself when writing in the first person: Who is telling the story to whom?

First person narrator provides the ultimate show don’t tell. Consider third person:

Casey paced, considering her options. There was still time to run, but where? How far could they get in that beat up truck? She stopped, turned and saw John looking at her.

This could become first person as:

We could run. Still time, right? But that truck. It wouldn’t make it far. And shit, even if it was brand new I didn’t know where to go. Something pulled my gaze left. I stopped― had I been pacing? Was that why John was watching me?

Or it could be:

I knew we could run, but the question was could we find someplace safe. We had enough time to get ahead of them―that wasn’t the issue. What was the issue was how far that beat-up truck would make it even if we had a sanctuary to head for. I caught John watching me and realized I’d been pacing.

These two examples present two very different narrators, allowing you to develop the character simply through vocabulary and how they would interpret an event. Yet still, we have crucial pieces of information about the truck, a conflict, timing, and a character named John.

Finally, first person narration offers you the chance for the classic unreliable narrator. (If you don’t know what the unreliable narrator is, it’s too long to go into here. Drop me a note in the comments if you want to see a post about this.) “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a great example of this.

Who is telling the story… and to whom?

Before writing a story in the first person, ask yourself: Who is narrating the story and who are they talking to?

I’ll cover the reasons for why they’re telling the story below, but knowing narrator and audience is essential keep your story on track and avoid unnecessary (and unrealistic) exposition.

First, is your narrator the main character/protagonist or a bystander? Both offer their advantages.

A bystander allows us to consider the story as a third party―seeing events played out that we are not involved in. The question, though, is why not tell the story from the third person. The answer might be how a normal person interprets extraordinary events.

Imagine a Batman story told from the point of view of the victim of a mugging who is rescued by the Dark Knight. Would he feel gratitude? Or, what if he felt sickened by the excessive violence employed by the Caped Crusader? If the latter, what are you saying thematically?

Second, what does the narrator expect the audience to know? If you have a story set in the past where the narrator talking to someone her age, she would not describe the norms and terms since both would know them. (This is called “As you know, Bob,” as in “As you know Bob, back in the 20s alcohol was illegal.”) However, if the narrator was a grandfather explaining something to his granddaughter, then a certain level of “So I tied an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time” exposition is justified. (But, he would not say “As you know, I’m your grandfather.”)

But keep in mind that while a third party narrator is expected to explain certain things to the audience, how much do you personally explain to your friends when you’re telling them a story? Probably only enough to keep the story moving forward.

Lastly, what is the reason the narrator is telling a story to someone? My reasons for explaining a conflict at work to my wife are different than telling them to my boss―venting/sympathy in the first case; wanting resolution in the second. My goals affects how I tell the story.

In the last part of this series, I’ll delve into two others questions to ask yourself about first person narrators: why is the narrator telling this story, and when did the story take place in relation to the telling of it?
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