Me First! Point of View in Fiction

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.


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12 thoughts on “Me First! Point of View in Fiction

  1. I have a different memory of old writing. Many of my favorite books from earlier centuries are told in first person through a diary. This is a very intimate form of writing that we rarely see anymore except in children’s historical fiction, such as My America. The use of the diary was supposed to add a sense of, not just intimacy, but of a true story to the narrative. Now we appear to be moving back to that feeling. I’m still a third person author and I try very hard to stay with that, though I agree with you, sometimes those characters just want their own voice!

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  2. You are exactly right. I’ve read the Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of Governor Simcoe who did so much to open up our province of Ontario around the turn of the late 1700’s to 1800’s. It was amazing to read in her voice what this province looked like at the time. Your points are well taken. Thank you for commenting.

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  3. First person is exhausting to write, but very useful in many ways. It prevents author omniscience, and really makes the writer focus on what is important to the story and how to portray it. I think it works best in private detective fiction. All my stories have been third person except for my mystery novel. I think it is because in a private detective novel, the exploration of the protagonist is more important than the plot.

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  4. Hi John
    So glad you commented as your point is excellent–the genre makes all the difference. For my historicals I can’t imagine using first. What did you think of my point about the link to the me-centered society we live in?
    BTW makofan. Is that in reference to the mako shark? (I remember my Hemingway well, you see.)

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    • I dislike the device of slipping between first person and third person, but I can’t explain why. I just know it bugs me a lot. As to “me me me”, I don’t think first person has anything to do with that. There are many older books, usually adventure or detective, that are in first person. I really do think it is genre-driven.

      As to the “makofan”, that comes from my anime fandom days in the ’90’s and referencec Sailor Jupiter. The handle is so unique that I use it for all my forums. Not sure how it got attached to my comment

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      • Thanks for your point of view, John. I think you are right that genre is often the deciding factor, as I said. This is not just a quick answer question, it seems to me, though. Genre, the public taste, a writer’s style, all of these things play a part.

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  5. Hm. I thought my tendency to write in first person was all about Me, Me, Me. Turns out it is! Thanks, Elaine, for pointing that out!

    Snort!

    It’s a rare story that I can slip into third person. I don’t consciously make the decision to write in first of third, it simply happens. POV, on the other hand, was a brute of problem to sort out but thanks to many whacks upside the head from wonderful critique partners, I may have finally mastered that tricky bugger.

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  6. I’ve never written a story in 1st person. I do the same thing as you, Elaine, and use Italics when my character thinks in 1st person.

    Your passage is a seamless transition between 1st and 3rd and I have no problem with it. I think it brings the readers closer to the character when we hear their voice in 1st person, especially effective in an emotional moment.

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  7. Great article, really interesting point of view I never actually thought about before. Weaving in and out of first person when it is called for (as opposed to just doing a “neat trick”) clearly is extremely effective and interesting. Thanks for writing it!

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    • Well, thanks, AG. My pleasure, really. And especially my pleasure to have written something that has intrigued my writer friends. Those math-oriented folks have no idea just what little tidbits we writers struggle with, do they? Great to see you here and to find your own website. Hope we’ll connect again and again.

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