Narrative Tense and POV


1st Person Narratives

Read the following explanation of the 1st person viewpoint. It comes from James Frey's book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel:

1st Person Subjective Viewpoint

The first-person narrator is always writing from a subjective viewpoint. The first-person narrator has access to one character, the narrator, who is himself a character in the story. He may be the protagonist, the antagonist, or any other character.

First-person narrative has many attractions, especially for the beginning novelist. A beginner often feels comfortable writing in first person; it is, after all, the way people write personal correspondence. And because a story narrated in the first person sounds like an eyewitness account, it has the added advantage of seeming more believable than a third person account.

Most beginning writers choose a first-person narrator. And why not, you say, if it's more believable and the writer is more comfortable with it?

Here's why not: It takes considerable skill to handle a lengthy narrative from a single viewpoint. You cannot go places the narrator couldn't have been and show things to the reader the narrator couldn't have seen. Not without a lot of burdensome explaining.

Say you are using as first-person narrator the mother of the town "party girl." The narrator's daughter is seduced by the town Lothario when she's fourteen. It's an important scene and you want to show it. Since the mother was not there, how could she know what happened? Maybe the daughter tells her later. What if the daughter does not get along with her mother? How do you make it believable that the daughter would tell her mother anything?

A first-person narrator has the additional burden of showing how other characters feel strictly through how they look, speak, and act. This is a considerable challenge for an inexperienced writer.

It is also extremely difficult to write a lengthy narrative in the first person without boring the reader. The continuous use of "I" begins to sound, before long, like complaining when you are relating the character's feelings, and like bragging when you are relating the character's actions.

J.D. Salinger made it look easy in The Catcher in the Rye. Raymond Chandler made it look easy with his Marlowe stories. J. D. Salinger and Raymond Chandler are responsible for many ruined first novels.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.