First-Person Voice and Points of View

The first-person voice is one of the most needlessly nettlesome of all the narrative voices employed by writers, perhaps because "I" is the most used word in the language.

     Here are some observations about the most confusing aspects of first-person voice and point of view.

     Often overlooked is the fact there are always two "I's" in first-person narration, the "I" who narrates what happened, and the "I" who performs as an actor in the narration. Of course, they're actually the same, but the first is telling the story, while the second is performing in it. Using film terminology clarifies further: If a film includes a voice-over that belongs to a protagonist, we will be hearing him while seeing an actor performing as the same character; e.g., Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." A man's voice promises to tell us "the truth" of how he died; then we see William Holden enacting the fatal journey. Omitting attention to the "performer" in a narrative results in vague characterization of that protagonist.

     There are two main approaches to time in first-person narration: 1. The events are all over, and now the narrator will tell them to us; e.g., James Cain's "Double Indemnity." A murder has been committed and a confession is what we will be reading. 2. Certain events are about to occur, and we enter the narration simultaneously with the first-person narrator; e.g., Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." The reader enters the strange house of Bly, at the very point the Governess enters.

     In 1, it's all over; in 2, it's all about to happen, both told from a first-person point of view.

     Some adventurous uses of the first-person voice include variations on reliability and unreliability. Most first-person narrative leads us to trust that what the narrator is informing us about is true, as experienced by the narrator; e.g., the nameless narrator in Rebecca du Maurier's "Rebecca." But what if the narrator is lying, without even knowing it himself? Gulliver in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" ("Gullible's Travels") conveys to the reader, with exact details, what he sees--therefore, he is "truthful"--but he is incapable of interpreting what he is seeing, which is what we, too, see. The reader recognizes the Yahoos as human beings and the Hwynnms as horses--from details the narrator misses--long before gullible Gulliver does.

     What if the narrator is deliberately lying as in Swift's "A Modest Proposal"? That is another form of unreliability; the deadly narrator speaks in a seemingly civil voice that the reader recognizes as a chilly camouflage of barbarity--the proposal to eat Irish children to solve the problem of poverty in England! His tone is reasonable as he presents his precise deductions for the annihilation he proposes. The result is both chilling and satirical, a startling feat given the context.

     A highly complex first-person narration is one within which the narrator is not only attempting to lie to the reader, but to deceive himself; e.g., Paul Bowles's "Pages from Cold Point." The narrator can't help but know (from what he tells us he sees but doesn't interpret), that his son is using him--seducing him. The reader sees through the doubled unreliability, the rationalizations.

     All these effects, of course, are created through the expertise of a writer, in language, highlighted details, hints, clues, tone of delivery, subtle signals to the reader.

     Though rarely used in narrative, the first-person plural--"we"--approach provides unique effects. A salient example of that is William Faulkner's famous "A Rose for Emily." The story is told by "our whole town," and it retains that first-person plural point of view throughout (with one startling exception that Mr. Faulkner must have overlooked after too many bourbons).

     The effect is to keep the protagonist, Miss Emily, at a mysterious distance, but it also allows the various "I's" ("we") to witness different events, not possible with only one narrator.

     A further effect is that the story assumes the overtones of a gothic yarn, a mysterious folk tale--and, felicitously--whether Faulkner intended this or not, the collective "we" functions not unlike a Greek chorus. The "town" expresses admiration, then hope for Miss Emily, and ultimately predicts catastrophe for her, the "fallen monument" she is referred to in the opening.

     A nonsensical rule of writing that joins the notorious three abominations (i.e., the pernicious show-don't-tell, write-about-what-you-know, always-have-a-sympathetic-character-for-the-reader-to-relate-to nonsense) is this silly warning: Don't open more than one point of view in a story; and even in a novel, stay away from first-person narration. Granted that in a short story it is difficult to mix voices simply because of restricted length, still, it is possible. In a novel, the result can be terrific; e.g, Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights." That novel breaks every so-called "rule" of POV, using various first-person voices, narrators informing the reader about matters they could not possibly have witnessed. The result is one of the greatest "romantic" novels of all time--"romantic," if, that is, romance may be extended to incorporate two lovers who will pursue each other even to the limits of hell; even if not "romantic," it remains, without label, unassailably great.


     The good writer may employ as many first-person voices, open as many points of view, as he can get away with.


John Rechy
Los Angeles, California

1999-2006 John Rechy
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