My newest work in progress is a story told in the first person perspective. I know I don’t need to tell most folks what the first person perspective is, but some may not know, so: the first person point of view is told using ‘I’ or ‘We’ and is, essentially, the narrator telling the story and being an integral part of it (my definition, not Websters).
I enjoy first person stories, but so many other folks, including editors, do not. Why is that? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe the use of ‘I’ is used a bit too much in these stories. I know there have been many pieces that I have read where ‘I’, and not the story itself, became the complete focal point. Yes, in first person the story is about the ‘I’ or the ‘We’, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. If it is more about the narrator and less about what the narrator is saying, or the story he/she is telling, then the ‘I’ becomes redundant and annoying.
It’s hard to write a first person piece and not use/over use the ‘I’. But with practice, you can make that ‘I’ less about the narrator and more about the story. When I first wrote the story, The Woodshed it was all about the narrator, all about his plight with the monster that was his father. That’s not a terrible thing—the story was about a young man, Kyle, who couldn’t escape his past—but the way I told it made the ‘I’ the focal point and not the story. Every other sentence was me, me, me, me. The story was lost on the narrator.
I rewrote The Woodshed numerous times before coming up with the version published in 2012 in the short story collection, Along the Splintered Path. (Yeah, a little bit of shameless self-promotion there.)
After the rewrite, the story sounded much better. Take a look:
We lived in the back woods of the North Carolina Mountains. Our property extended as far as the eyes could see and our legs could carry us. Trees surrounded us in every direction and there was a pond down the hill and around the bend. It was pretty country for those who lived there. If you were a stranger it was just as dangerous as it was beautiful. Father made sure that anyone and everyone knew the land was ours, running off trespassers with his shotgun, warning them to “stay off my land,” and “if I see yah again I’ll bury yah where I shoot yah.”
Those were the lucky ones.
Once I was under the porch burying my penny jar when a stranger pulled his jeep alongside the house. He got out and started up the steps. Before he could reach the door Father greeted him with his old shotgun, the one he called Babe.
You can tell right away that the story is first person, but you can also see the narrator is moving the piece along, and not hung up on himself. Sure, he mentions ‘us’ and ‘our’ and begins to tell about this one incident, buy you immediately know they live out in the country and that, during that one incident, he is under the porch and a stranger has just pulled up in a jeep. You get a sense of direction.
Writing first person is nothing more than telling someone about something that happened to you. A first date. A speeding ticket. Applying for a job. However, you can’t just make it about YOU. In first person, you have to also make it about the reader.
It’s easy to tell a story when standing by the water cooler or talking on the phone to someone who knows you. There are details that are not needed in those cases. However, when writing a story and telling it to complete strangers, you have to do it a little differently. I call it the “Picture This Mentality.” Just because you can see it in your head, doesn’t mean the reader can. You have to help them picture it.
This goes back to the old school way of writing. Back before the advances in technology brought us cars and planes and television and the internet (oh my!) writers delved into the details of stories. If you lived in America, there was a good chance you had no clue what Africa looked like or what England was like. There was a good chance, unless you were a soldier, that you had no clue what being in the trenches in a war was like. So the writers of that time gave the readers great details in order for them to picture the story.
Writing in a manner that gives the readers a good image (yet not an overdone image) helps the readers fall into a story, helps them get to know the narrator a little more without that person talking explicitly about themselves.
Whenever I go into the PTM, I state simply: ‘Picture this, if you will.’ From there I set up the scene and then go into the story. It allows me to describe to the reader in enough detail (again, without drowning them in descriptions) the scenery and what is going on so the story can come more alive. It also helps me to take the focus off of the ‘I’.
Still, a lot of folks don’t like these types of stories. Though I took a guess with the last bit of rambling, I have another thought on it. Bear with me for just another minute.
In my newest work in progress, my main character is an older black male who is from the south and who spent eight years in prison back in the seventies. He’s not a dumb guy, and he keeps to himself for the most part. He speaks in a dialect that is not heavy southern, but is dialect, none-the-less. His grammar is not perfect—far from it—but I wanted to make him as realistic as possible, so he talks the way he talks.
I can hear all the editors out there cringing now.
Let’s back up a step: I’m a notoriously slow reader. I like to picture what is happening and I like to get into the characters’ heads. I like to see it from their eyes, feel it through their skin, hear it with their ears, smell it with their noses, and taste it with their tongues. If they are hurting, I want to be in there with them and feel that pain. So, when I read, I am slow about it, because I really dive into the water, so to speak.
When I read a first person story, within the first couple of pages, I try to get into character, much like an actor. I try to put myself in the narrator’s shoes and the voice in my head reading the story to me, becomes someone else’s (like an audio book, I guess). It is the voice of the character trying to assert itself in the telling of the story. By doing that, I become part of the story and it makes those first person pieces so much more enjoyable.
Do readers do that? Do editors do that? Am I the only person who does that and does it make me some kind of weirdo?
If you have never tried to form an image and a way of being for a character in a first person story, then give it a try, especially if you don’t like that type of narration. It may help you come to enjoy it. Maybe not. But it never hurts to give it a shot, right?
Before anyone writes me nasty comments (and please feel free to if you wish to have a conversation on the subject), allow me to say that this is me speculating on possible reasons why many folks don’t like this perspective. This is not something researched and I didn’t do any surveys. These are just my thoughts on the subject. ‘Nothing more,’ sayeth the Sparrow.
I’ve always enjoyed writing in the first person perspective. If something in this blog helps you come to enjoy reading that point of view, then that’s awesome. If not, well, that’s okay as well. At any rate, I have a story that needs to be worked on and it’s time to get into character.
Until we meet again, my friends…