Crash Course on Perspective: First Person

I originally started this post years ago. I though I’d lost it when my computer crashed and burned, but I found it a little while ago, and I guess I’ve finally found the motivation to move forward with it.

Because I’m tackling all three perspectives, I don’t go into a lot of depth on each. This is, like I say, a crash course, rather than an intensive study. If anyone wants a more in-depth approach to one of the three, just let me know!

In the meantime, I’m tacking on a brief passage from each, to demonstrate how I use (and occasionally mangle) the perspective.

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Before I start, what is perspective?

Perspective, also called Point of View, can be looked at as the camera in a movie. It determines where the overall focus is in your story. Is it on one character? Is it on a handful of characters and the story they tie into? Is it on a bunch of characters, the world they’re in, and the story they’re a part of? Deciding on what perspective you’re using can help you choose where your focus will be, and vice versa.

There are three kinds of perspective commonly used in fiction. There’s First Person, which uses I as its pronoun, and Third Omniscient and Third Limited, which both use he or she. I’ll get to the other two in future posts, but for now I’m going to focus on First.

First Person perspective is the most immediate, the most personal. Have you ever seen a scene in a movie that is from the character’s eyes? That is First Person.

First is the most immediate, and the most intimate, viewpoint. You can do things in first that you can’t easily do in one or both of the others. The PoV character can address, manipulate or even lie to the reader. They can directly tell jokes to the reader. The PoV character is a legitimate character, in the way that the perspective in Third usually isn’t. You can build a voice and a character that carries the book in a way that the other perspectives don’t. You can even infodump—within reason.

However, this Point of View is inherently limited. It’s very difficult to tell a story from more than one perspective; while it can be done, it’s usually not worth the trouble. This means two important things. First, if the reader doesn’t like the character, they don’t get to hop to another that they might like better. You have one shot to make them like it. Second, you can only give the reader what the character either experiences directly, or learns about later. If some important event has to happen while the PoV character is somewhere else, then you miss out on the chance to have that happen in-scene.

There’s an important question you’ll want to ask at the outset of writing First. Are we inside the character’s head as events happen? If so, you can’t directly address the audience, or deliver information until the character learns it, or have them comment on the current actions with the hindsight of someone who’s seen the outcome. If we aren’t in the character’s head as events happen, then we must be taking in the character’s words, whether written or spoken, after the fact. If this is the case, then we have to assume that the character is alive, and in a state that they may deliver these words in this way.

As you can see, there are serious pros and cons to First Person.

If you’re planning to write First Person, I’d highly recommend Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. It’s my favorite single novel ever written, and it shows off the strengths of First Person while deftly working around the weaknesses. If you read it with the use of First in mind, I think there’s a lot it can teach.

Now that I’ve given my bit about what First is and how to use it, here’s what I used it for. Warning: it’s pretty bleak.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

My hands trembled, almost fumbling the cigarette on the way to my lips. Stuck on the steps of the old brick porch, stuck between the cheerful winking of Christmas tree lights spilling from the living room window and the gloom of the sinking winter sun, about all I could do was tremble.

Tremble and smoke.

I pulled the lighter from my coat, trying to snap loose buttons to keep the ratty thing shut, but my hand refused to work the little wheel.

The cold made my veins throb darker, closer to the surface against the back of my hand, and sitting on the porch felt like sitting on the edge of a knife. My breath was a hot fog against a numbed, runny nose. But the cold had nothing to do with it when I dropped the lighter.

If I listened, I could understand the voices stabbing at me from inside. I didn’t want to pay attention. Didn’t want the jumble of noises to suddenly become words, become sentences. I didn’t want to hear what they were saying about me. But my brain was an idiot, and kept right on with the translation.

“Sure, Paul,” Mom said, her words dripping venom. “Keep yelling. That always works.”

Paul took a breath—I could hear it in the pregnant quiet—and the walls shook when he spoke. “Why don’t we just sit down and talk it out, right?” If his words dripped with anything, it was with alcohol. “Like she’s still a child, like she’s not doing this on purpose! Juvenile, Jillian. That’s where she’s headed. And talking isn’t going to—”

“How do you know it won’t?” Mom interrupted. With a shudder, I pulled my hood further forward, and wished the zipper hadn’t busted last March. My aching fingers scrabbled at the step below for the lighter. Paul didn’t like being interrupted. Ever. “Did you try it some time when I was at work? I think that if you actually tried to talk to her—”

“What do you think we should do, Jill? Ground her? So she can steal the car again?” My fingers were back working the wheel of the lighter. Sparking, sparking… “Or take her cell? She can run away again. Who knows? Maybe next time she sleeps with somebody to let her stay with them, we’ll know the guy? How do you like the odds?”

God, finally! I took my first delighted puff of the cigarette, leaning against the wooden banister beside me. It had almost two hours since I’d finished the last one—right before our nice, holiday dinner. Just us family.

Paul had only drank two beers, then, and had only started on the bourbon.

We’d been five minutes away from Mom pulling the chicken out of the oven. Fifteen from her going to take the phone call. Twenty-five from my plate shattering against the wall. My lips curled at the thought of the smears the mashed potatoes must have left. I pulled my fingers under the frayed cuffs—it was starting to feel like the cold was physically squeezing them—I rolled the cigarette across my lips and took another mouthful, letting it out through my nose.

“She promised me she wont do that again…” Mom sounded not quite as sure of herself. Defensive. She was losing. Good for her! Maybe if she was smart, she’d take a dive.

“Did she?” Surprise and mock-relief didn’t sit on Paul’s lips as easily as a bottle. “Well, then. At least we can rest easy there. If only we’d thought to make her promise everything else! “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry! I promise I won’t get high, break into my school, steal the computers for drug money!” The slur should have made his prissy whine of an imitation funnier.

A few quick, rough puffs shot smoke straight to my brain. Thankfully, every great once and a while, my parents decided to choose their battles. Between taking me to the clinic for gonorrhea and practically strip-searching me for joints, they never did quite find time to bring up the smoking. Thank God. I can only imagine how sanctimonious mom would have gotten about the dangers of freaking smoking.

“I’m tired,” Paul said, almost quietly. If I hadn’t lived under the man’s roof for about two-thirds of sixteen years, I might have felt sorry for him. He sounded sad. Listening to that voice, an outsider could almost believe he’d tried to be a real father. “Jillian, I’m so tired. But you always pull this crap. I always have to be the bad guy.”

“No,” Mom said, her voice just as soft. “Not always. Just when you’re drunk.”

I knew it was coming, but my shoulders still rocked a the sound of a fist making contact. Distinctive, that sound. Impossible to mistake it for anything else, once you’ve heard it a few times. Felt it a few times. My stomach made a funny twist as I heard her hit the floor.

Dropping what was left of the cigarette on the step, I pulled myself up by the banister. I heard Anne’s door creak open, next door, and her head poked out. Looking at her face—like a bulldog, with great hanging jowls, but with eyes glittering in a rabbit’s panic—I gave her an exaggerated nod. She disappeared back into her house.

It usually only took them ten minutes to get here. Sometimes as little as five, but rarely more than fifteen.

I sighed at the wasted half of a cigarette. Then I ground it out beneath my tennis shoe and slipped what was left of the pack out and left it on the banister. The lighter on top would keep it there.

Dear ol’ Dad wouldn’t get a special, free fare ride to the station, an all-expenses-paid stay at the city’s most popular hotel. He’d only got that once, years back, when he was too free with his fists on Mom’s face. Now he was careful. Now all he got was a few minutes in the back of a cruiser while mom swore up and down that we were a sitcom family. Never mind the daughter; she’s a druggie and whore, so who’s surprised she’s a liar, too?

I could have laughed.

I couldn’t leave. I’d promised. And I was tired of sitting out on the steps, listening.

Turning to the screen door, which let out the vague forms of writhing victim and towering, swaying menace, I took a breath of clean, sweet air. Cold, but without sweat, without fear. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Then the night would be over, and he’d be done for a week or two. He was always better, afterward. Apologetic. It won’t happen again, it was the booze, yadda yadda. I didn’t so much smile, swinging the screen door open as noisily as a screen door swings, as I sneered.

Ten minutes was easy. I’d learned better than Mom. Know when the hit’s coming, Mom. Know when, know where. Anticipate, and move away. Don’t dodge, don’t try to block. But soften it, and overplay it afterward. He’s drunk. He doesn’t know the difference. I knew the bit well enough to sell it on a late-night infomercial. It had been years since he’d broken anything.

Ten minutes was easy. Two years was hard.

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2 thoughts on “Crash Course on Perspective: First Person

  1. First person is a struggle. I have only used it a couple of times. But I think it depends on the story being told. Choosing the right perspective can male or break the story. And if first person is chosen, the character has to be interesting enough to carry the whole story.

    Like

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