Every parent remembers having to listen to his or her beloved offspring holler, “Me first! Me first!” And pushes the memory away. Of lines going up the slide or off the diving board, or especially when ice cream sandwiches are the prize, every kid fixed on first.
First person narrative. Used to be we rarely saw that in books. Too personal. Too much telling of things better left private. Unless, of course, you were writing your autobiography.
Today, however, fiction can be told from every point of view using first, third, or even second person and I wonder why. Certainly our world has become more me-centred, so much so that a whole generation was nicknamed the “me” generation. Does that make the first person more acceptable?
Have we moved away from our parents’ admonitions to put ourselves last? Or our teachers’ lessons to list ourselves last as in The cards came to John, Susan and me? As far as I know most of us still speak this way but our actions have changed. Years ago a young person always opened the door for an older person, or deferred to that older person in most situations. Not so, today. The young ones push through the door first.
We have raised a couple of generations of young people who believe their opinions are on par with anyone’s, and they expect to be treated as such. This makes putting ourselves first much more socially acceptable and, well, just easier. Today when a writer uses the first person, we are closer to the character and feel that we are that character.
With my historical novel, written in third person, I find myself writing Lucy’s thoughts in first person. Oh, most of the time they are in third but when I need to absolutely get close to her the first person comes into the narrative.
Lucy stomped to the bedroom and jerked the patchwork quilt over the bed. I don’t know why he didn’t tell me. Does he just not care? Leaving me here in the wilderness all by myself for who knows how long? I’ll not put up with it. I’ll go back to Boston, to my father. But then she remembered her father’s scowling eyes and his stern words when she left to marry John. No, she wouldn’t go back there.
And it works, as does changing the tense. Perhaps the barometer of whether this works or not is related to whether our brains can logically and easily keep up with the switches. If we can, the rules can be stretched. My guiding principle is to use whatever gets me closest to the character and the story but doesn’t hinder understanding or believability. We don’t want the reader to have to stop reading to figure out who is speaking or thinking. The story line must flow.
In my writing, then, the first person sneaks in. With opening doors? I still let others go first.