The first person point of view (POV) has taken the literary world by storm. Most writers like Paula Hawkins, Helen Fielding and Chetan Bhagat have used it to their advantage. Readers have warmed up to it. And publishers are picking up work that’s written in first person.
So what’s the first person POV?
Simple. I, we, me, my, mine, us.
To understand it, let’s look at a few examples of using this voice to write a story:
” I read somewhere that a train can rip the clothes right off you when it hits. It’s not that unusual, death by train. I am not sure how many of those are accidental.” Rachel, Girl on the Train
” In school, Aditi didi was a hundred times more popular than me. She was the girl boys had crushes on. I was the girl who started to wear spectacles in class six. Aditi didi is fair-complexioned. I am what they call wheatish in matrimonial ads (why don’t they call white-skinned people rice-ish?). ” Radhika Mehta, One Indian Girl
” The last thing on earth I feel physically, emotionally or mentally equipped to do is drive to Una and Geoffrey Alconbury’s New Year’s Day Turkey Curry Buffet. Geoffrey and Una are my parents’ best friends, and as Uncle Geoffrey never tires of reminding me, have known me since I was running round the lawn with no clothes on.” Bridget, Bridget Jones Diary.
The examples above have a few things in common.
One, intimacy. The advantage of writing in first person is the immediate connect the author builds with her readers. This is a huge advantage as compared to a third person point of view, where readers slowly get into the book. After investing time and attention to understand what’s happening. In case of a first person narrative, the connect is almost instantaneous.
In a world, where instant gratification and reduced attention span is the norm, the first person POV can thus be powerful. It can help the author to bond with her readers, which can translate into more sales for the publisher.
Two, humour. Like in Bridget Jones Diary or in the Princess Diaries, the jokes are on the narrator. The author is cracking jokes on herself, much like a standup comic and in situations she finds herself in. This makes the character relatable and likeable. And what better way to win hearts, if not through a goofy and vulnerable character. The one who goes through a journey of love, loss and hardships and flowers at the end.
Three, surprise. Take Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or SJ Watson’s Before I go to Sleep. Here the narrator is telling you a story and taking you on a journey which may not be real. I mean of course it’s a fictitious journey. But the catch lies in finding yourself fooled at the end of it. Or being surprised. The element of surprise that a first person narrative can bring into a story, is the highlight of this literary instrument.
An amnesiac, a pathological liar, a murderer, a crazy lover can take you on a very interesting journey and leave you baffled. For psychological thrillers, the first person POV and a tight plot can be a formidable combination.
For romance writers or writers of women’s literature and romantic comedies, first person POV can be scathingly honest, sarcastic and humorous.
No wonder, romance and thriller writers worldwide are using this POV.
However, there’s a flip side to this coin too. The biggest challenge of writing in first person POV for the author is to find a voice that’s lovable and interesting. Readers will not invest their time, energy and money on a character that’s irritating and boring or both. I think, one way of doing it is to make the character flawed and vulnerable. It’s easier to relate to a human just like us, than to a superhero. Even superheroes have an Achilles heel and most super hero stories today, particularly in Hollywood films, have a human (and relatable) side.
As a writer, writing in the first person POV, the biggest challenge, as laughable as it may seem, to me is to talk about the personal details. I mean of course, you can make the character stand in front of a mirror, like Chetan Bhagat does in One Indian Girl and tell the reader how she looks. But to do it subtly and organically is the mark of good writing. One way of doing it could be through a third character. Or dialogues.
And then there’s the I. In a first person POV, the reader doesn’t hear or know the other persons voice or point of view, except through dialogues. So if the narrator is biased and delusional there’s no way of knowing it until the very end. Sometimes, not even after the book ends.
The third person POV on the other hand which refers to he, she, it, they, them makes room for more POVs. In that sense, the scope and breadth of a third person narrative is enormous. The reader can enter into the minds of multiple characters, know their backstories and form opinions.
And then there’s the second person point of view — the you narration. Most writers give it a miss. So does publishers. But it does empower the writer to be quirky and different.
However, my loyalty lies with the first person. To me it sounds natural and I find it easier to write and express through it. Yes, I’m aware of the limitations of this form. But to be able to express unabashedly and with sarcasm make up for the shortcomings.