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Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes
 

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Everyone’s Got A Point (of View) – Part One: First Person

I’ve never liked violence. Doesn’t mean I’m not good at it, I’m just not fond of it. But survival’s become something of a habit and if that means getting in the first punch, kick, or whack with whatever object comes to hand, I’m all for it. – Corin Hayes

And after that shameless self-promotion let’s look at those few lines. What can we say about them and the character?

Mirror Mirror by Sabine FischerWell, it is written in first person so that gives us an immediate insight into the characters mind-set. We are hearing (reading) his thoughts and seeing action, when it comes, from his point of view. And that’s intriguing while presenting a problem or five.

Number one, how do we know that Corin is telling us the truth? He could be lying through his teeth, telling us what we want to hear or, and this is more likely, inflicting his own personal bias on the narrative. Can we trust what we are reading? Do we have a choice?

First person narrative is all about that character. Every single thing you see is from their viewpoint. You can’t head jump, can’t change the point of view or give the reader information the character wouldn’t know because, if you do, you’ve ruined the flow, changed the story, and the focus. You’ve broken a narrative wall and jolted the readers flow. You’ve stepped “out of character” and that gets noticed. Sure you can have other chapters, with other viewpoints interspersed if you want to and many very good authors do.

Which is number two, or one and half if you’re feeling pedantic. The reader can only know what the character knows. Worldbuilding, a favourite topic of fantasy authors and readers, must be delivered through the character’s experience/life. They are not omniscient; they don’t know everything and the sudden appearance of god-like knowledge can seriously upset the story.

Almost Infinity by Katong KateNumber three… number three… What’s number three? Oh yes, memory or the author’s lack thereof. An author has to be exceedingly careful not to stray beyond or from the characters skill set, ethics, morals and previous thought/expositions on a subject. A reader might notice the inconsistency. However, to counter-point, let’s remember we are dealing with a person’s thoughts and actions and who amongst us is consistent in those? We all remember things differently, all have unconscious bias, are all subject to a little inflation of our own importance, aren’t we? It can’t just be me, can it?

And this doesn’t mean you can’t play with those thoughts. After all, you’re inside the characters head this is the best opportunity to reveal and revel in those internal monologues, flights of fancy or fantasy. Things never said, can be shared. In First Person you can dispense with the polite, social pleasantries and reveal the true heart of the character to the reader. A dour character on the outside might be full of sardonic wit on the inside, or the opposite might be true. A brave hero might be terrified on the inside, and you get to play with both sides.

There is something about wearing your own clothes that makes you feel better, confident and ready for the world. A weapon wouldn’t have gone amiss, but the only thing I could find in the apartment was a plastic spork. Deadly to re-hydrated noodles. – Corin Hayes

Number four, the story can be limited by the viewpoint. When you pick up/start to write a first person novel you recognise the limitations. This is not going to be a George R R R R R Martin epic with tension developed through the competing aims of many kings, emperors, queens and scheming villains. And yes, I know it relates to the points above, but it is, in my opinion worth noting again. You will read/tell the story from that one point of view and they won’t see everything. It is a limitation on the story-telling. The thoughts of the big bad villain, their plans and schemes are totally unknown to the hero. Each situation the protagonist runs into are of their own making, it seems. The reader may not know, until a little later that it was all the dastardly scheme of the antagonist.

Shadow mirror by Kip Loades

On the other side of things, some carefully dropped in clues, foreshadowing and passing conversational comments that seem unimportant at the start my portend darker days ahead. We, the reader, notice them or file them away for future reference, but the character does not. Caught up in their own struggles they cannot see the wood for the trees, or the camouflaged villain hiding amongst the foliage, but we do. The reveal in the end can be more powerful for all of that. We’ve spent the rest of the book willing our hero to notice it, but they blithely carry on.

triangulation by maqNumber five, because I said five above, is really simple. The character, the first person POV, must be likeable, readable, empathisable (I know it’s not a word, but you understand). If the reader or, mythical-deity-above forbid, the author doesn’t like the character, the book is a waste. If you can’t empathise with the character, even an unlikeable, divisive one then no-one will want to read it and the story won’t be told. There are divisive books out there, where the point of view is someone’s cup of tea and another’s cup of arsenic. At least in third-person (more next month), if there is a character you don’t like, you know that in a chapter or two that one you do like will take centre-stage (or be killed off – it is always a risk!).

Number six, because I, like all the best first-person narrations, am inconsistent and make promises I can’t keep, the hero is unlikely to die. Maybe if this was a Japanese Samurai movie where the honourable death of a hero is not just pathos, but a conclusion that suits the tone, it would fit. Here though, in the novel you’ve picked up to read (or write) is the hero likely to die? Of course not. If they die in chapter two the book is over and the next 300 pages are just blank (I bet that would sell millions in today’s world – it’s my idea, you can’t have it!). You know as a reader/author that the hero is going to survive which means, more than likely, that the hero is going to be put through it – and rightly so. Does this detract from the story? Hopefully not, if done well.

First person gives you a tight view-point to tell or experience the story. It gives immediacy to the action, a chance to view yourself as the protagonist. You can lose yourself in the events of a well written novel, told in first person. Given a well-defined character, the reader becomes the protagonist. Given a well-written blank slate, the reader can impress their own face and traits upon the character. Either works, as long as it is well written.

Title image by Stefania Pascucci.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar ScarletBea says:

    Hey, just wanted to say I really like Corin’s voice in the 2 samples you chose.
    I’m not a sci-fi/UF person, but still… 🙂

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