2

I believe writing in the first person gets the reader closer to the character. As far as I know, this is generally accepted as true. That's not all there is to character development, certainly, but it gets the reader in a better mind-set for 'closeness' with the character.

The novel I am currently writing has a PoV who is not the protagonist. I am considering writing the PoV in first person, which I think would sound really good for the novel, but I'm wondering if this is going to remove the reader's focus from the protagonist.

I want to keep the reader's focus on the protagonist, largely because the PoV, in her current state, would not make a very good one. She is selfish, sometimes without even knowing it, and would almost certainly inspire thoughts of boredom or even anger in the reader if she was who the novel is about. But she's not. The novel is about the protagonist. I feel like I've made this distinction, and there is no threat of alienating the reader through my PoV.

Unless I write in the first person. Will writing the PoV in the first person draw my reader closer to her, away from the protagonist, and therefore further in general from the novel? It's my personal opinion that I can write in the first person and still keep the focus on the protagonist, but I want to make sure I'm not walking into a trap here.


This is not a duplicate of this question. The question isn't whether I can split the PoV and the protagonist. I know I can do that. This question deals with using the first person for that PoV, given that it is (generally) accepted that first person PoV draws the reader closer to the character, and the story is about the protagonist.


To future viewers: Choosing the answer was a toss-up between Mike C. Ford and WolfeFan; they both have excellent answers. I would also recommend that you look at what's answer. It has some interesting insights which could prove useful.

2

It really depends on the novel that you want to write. I think the issue isn't with the distance from the protagonist by having the POV character as a secondary character, but rather that you will struggle to attain depth in the protagonist with this method.

If the protagonist is relatable, or interesting, or complex, then the reader will empathize with them and want to get to know them better if they are written well. Some of my favorite characters in conventional POV = protagonist stories are the side characters, and I finish reading wishing that the story was actually about them.

So the reader can feel like they are close to the non-POV character, but without being in their head it's impossible to know everything that is going on with them. Unless they communicate everything to the POV character/ reader, it will be impossible to know who they truly are, or how they see themselves. The reader will only ever experience the story and other characters through a filter.

Of course, this can be used very effectively as a method of character development (perhaps the POV character thinks the protagonist is a hero, whilst the protagonist believes s/he is a fraud and has just gotten lucky so far), but at the very least it limits the ways in which we can understand the protagonist further.

Ultimately you aren't writing a story about the protagonist if you choose to use this method. You are writing about their adventures, but the story is about how the POV character experiences those adventures, and their relationship together. It is a fundamentally different type of story for the reader, and offers both opportunities and limitations for developing the narrative and characters.

  • A solid example that comes to mind is the Wheel of Time series. The books take perspectives from the Protagonist, side characters, love interests, and even Antagonists. Despite the fact that only about 25% of the series is from the Protagonist's perspective, it does not detract from the value of the Protagonist or the current narrator. It does this through having each narrator be heroes of their own stories. – Daniel Zastoupil 2 days ago
2

Please go ahead and write this character's scenes in first person. You clearly already want to do this. Even if you decide not to take this approach in your final draft, you will deepen your understanding of the character - and this depth will show in the story's final form, whatever form that may take.

Writing this character in first person will, in fact, draw readers closer to her. That's inevitable. This doesn't mean that your protagonist will suffer from lack of attention. Rather, it gives you some interesting opportunities to develop the protagonist. For example, you can show the protagonist's strengths in comparison to the more flawed PoV character, with the bonus of easily maintaining sympathy for the flawed character. You can allow the readers to learn rumors/lies about the protagonist, and wonder how true they are.

  • It is by no means inevitable. A first person narrator does not have to tell you anything about themselves at all if they don't want to. See Conrad's Heart of Darkness for an extreme example. – user16226 Dec 14 '16 at 22:03
  • Every first person narrator must necessarily tell the reader: "This is a story which I consider important to tell/record", "These are the details I consider important, and these are the details I skim over", "This is where I begin the story, and this is where I end it". In these details, the narrator shows the reader aspects of his/her character. – WolfeFan Dec 14 '16 at 22:59
  • As what points out, narrator and character are not the same thing. (See my Longmire examples in response to what's post.) So what the narrator choose to say is not necessarily revelatory of their character at all. – user16226 Dec 15 '16 at 13:05
  • @MarkBaker This is one of the large points I disagree with you on. The character isn't 'telling the reader' anything. I'm just writing the story in the first person. That doesn't mean the character is supposed to be the one writing it. I can tell the reader anything I want, including suppressed emotions if I have to. The only way I see the first person getting in the way is if there is something the character herself does not realize. For that, I have the protagonist, who does realize it, and my own writing, which can indicate to the reader anything the character doesn't know herself. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 15 '16 at 17:56
  • @ThomasMyron I'm not sure what it is you think you are disagreeing with me on here. We both seem to be saying what what is saying, which is that character and narrator are not the same thing. What are you disagreeing with? – user16226 Dec 15 '16 at 18:20
1

You write that you believe

writing in the first person gets the reader closer to the character. As far as I know, this is generally accepted as true.

This is wrong.

What brings a reader closer to a character is narrative perspective, not grammatical person. Third person narration is the standard in Western fiction. Readers are used to this convention and do not perceive it as signifying an outside perspective.

Narrative perspective has nothing to do with grammar. You bring a reader "in line" with the experience of a character by narrating that experience in a manner that evokes a similar experience in the reader. This can be done in both first and third person.

First person, as Mark Baker has elaborated, may come with a more subjective perspective and include misperceptions, lies, and other deviations from the objectivity that we commonly associate with the "third person omniscient narrator", but there are third person narrators that lie to the reader and first person narrators that manage an objective view on "themselves". As you note, I put themselves in quotation marks, because we must never confuse the narrator with the character. The narrator is a literary device and it – not he or she – is always distinct from the protagonist, as well as the author, no matter how much the narrator takes on one or the other perspective.

As a writer, you must keep three concepts apart:

  • the author
  • the protagonist (or any other character)
  • the narrator

The narrator is the device with which you guide the experience of the reader. The narrator has several dimensions, of which the following are a few:

  • interiority vs exteriority
  • grammatical person
  • subjectivity (and lies) vs objectivity
  • showing vs telling
  • present tense vs past tense
  • description vs action vs dialog
  • standard literary language vs personal voice

There is no clear correlation between one extreme on any one of these dimensions and a reader's closeness to a character. Rather, they all combine to create an overall effect.


That said, let's consider your question.

A third person narrator is neutral. A third person narrator may stick to the perspective of one character or switch between those of several characters or even leave all characters and describe places or events without people. For example, in a story, the narrator may describe what goes on while all the characters are asleep: The sun came up. The birds started to sing. Finally John awoke. Here, the first two sentences are "free of character", impersonal. There is no one there.

A first person narrator, on the other hand, clearly posits a character: there is "someone" there, and as readers we naturally focus as much attention on that character as the first person pronouns suggest that we do.

And there you have your answer. A first person narrator can bring themselves to the attention of the reader or avoid that attention, simply by how much they talk about themselves.

Look at this example, where I narrate a visit to the dentist with my son:

Yesterday, I went to the dentist with my son. On our way to the dentist, I could see that my son was apprehensive. As we got there, the dentist shook my hand, then greeted my son. I was worried, but I saw how my son relaxed, when the friendly dentist smiled at him.

Here, you, as a reader, will be confused about who the story is about: me or my son. Now compare this with another first person narration of the same events:

Yesterday, I went to the dentist with my son. My son was aprehensive and quiet on the bus, but when he saw the relaxed manner of the dentist and the dentist shook his hand with a big smile, he was no longer afraid.

Again, "I" am there, and you don't forget that I am, but I quickly step back and allow my son center stage. I can take this to an extreme, like Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, and appear only in the framing narrative. Or I can be a companion or side kick or the antagonist or another character with a more or less important role and continually take part in the story, and still not push myself before the third person protagonist.

"I", the first person narrator, can even do all that the third person narrator can, and narrate events that I did not witness. A first person omniscient narrator can be motivated (e.g. the protagonist later tells him what happened while he was elsewhere), or remain unexplained. Again, I want to remind you that the narrator is not a person but a device, and that readers will go with a first person omniscient narrator if that narrator is consistent and makes sense.

  • 1
    Yes, all of this, very much so. A great illustration of this is Craig Johnson's Longmire series. It is narrated in first person by the titular Sheriff Longmire, who is a laconic western sheriff who is hard to know. He is the last person who would, in real life, sit down and write down his adventures, or even relate them to anyone else. And in many ways making him the narrator serves to preserve the mystery of Longmire who, as narrator, explores everybody's character but his own. In other words, it preserves the dramatic distance from the character that marks him for the withdrawn person he is. – user16226 Dec 15 '16 at 13:02
  • I mostly agree with all of the above; my only note is on the examples given: there is no promised confusion in the first one; not only it is clearly written in the first person, that person is the character in focus. Everything about his son is delivered through his perception of the events. In the second example, the first person is not a character, but a narrator, and the narration continues in third limited (second sentence), making a point of view of the narrator irrelevant. – Lew Dec 15 '16 at 16:09
  • I'll be honest: you lost me with the narrative perspective and grammatical person. I looked both those terms up, and as far as I can tell, they mean the same thing, so I'm not following your distinction between them. Could you restate that in layman's terms? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 15 '16 at 16:35
  • @Lew That is exactly what I wanted to convey. – user5645 Dec 16 '16 at 8:38
  • 1
    @ThomasMyron That is my distinction. Look at the (admittedly bad) examples I give: Both are told from the grammatical first person, but while the first tells the story from the perspective of that person ("I", the father), in the second example that person tells the story from the perspective of another person ("he", the son), leaving himself mostly out of the story. So you have the same grammatical person, but different narrative perspectives. But that terminology is (as far as I know) my own, and I made it up because I disagree with the common view. – user5645 Dec 16 '16 at 8:42
1

I believe you are incorrect. If anything, writing in the first person distances you from the character.

First, consider the characters from fiction that you feel like you know well. Harry Potter? Oliver Twist? Frodo Baggins? All described in third person.

Second, consider the actual effect of first person narrative. A story told in the first person is one in which the protagonist never enters the frame. (Note that it is incredibly rare for a movie or TV show to be shot in first person, except for the odd effect shot, like looking through binoculars or down the barrel of a gun.) That creates distance from the character.

Third, consider that this technique ensures that we only know of the narrator what they choose to tell of themselves. It is an axiom of fiction that everybody lies. A first person narrator is telling their side of the story. They are putting their best foot forward. This creates a guardedness in the reader, the same kind of guardedness they would have with anyone telling them a story in real life. A story becomes hearsay. The reader does not see it for themselves but hears a report of it from a participant. This create a huge amount of distance.

Fourth, people are often (some would say always) a mystery to themselves. We don't just lie to others, we lie to ourselves. And we often do not understand the real reasons that we do things. As EM Forster pointed out, the unique privilege of the novelist is to see into the soul of the character, to know things about the character that the character does not know about themselves. An omniscient narrator can get closer to a character than they are to themselves.

A first person narrator, then, is actually a device for creating distance, not intimacy. Creating narrative distance can be a powerful tool. There are numerous examples of this in literature, including many in which the narrator is not the protagonist.

A good example of this is Bernard Corwall's Arthurian series in which the narrator is one of Arthur's retainers. Not only is it told first person by someone not the hero, it is told as recollected in old age, creating further distance. The effect of this is to preserve the mythic sense of Arthur, and effect that would be lost if Arthur were the narrator. What we get is a memory of Arthur, not an experience of Arthur, and the difference that makes is huge.

Distance, and the manipulation of distance, are some of the most important tools in the writer's toolbox. Creating closeness to the character is not always what you want, therefore. And if it is what you want, third person omniscient will let you get far more intimate with a character than first person, because third person omniscient can see everything the character can see, and whole lot more, including the stuff that the character would lie to themselves and others about.

  • Needless to say I disagree. Here are my answers by paragraph: a movie cannot be shot to show someone's thoughts except through facial expression. That is why it is never shot in first person. A novel can show someone's thoughts, and as a result, the PoV never leaves the frame. In fact, there are arguments that this detracts from the reader experience: being always stuck with the PoV. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 14 '16 at 20:13
  • 1
    Third point: We only know what the character chooses to tell if they are in the third person. If they are in the first person, we have access to their thoughts. They cannot sensor those out, unless the story is written in the form of a letter. We have a better understanding of the character. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 14 '16 at 20:14
  • 1
    Fourth point: a skilled writer can easily show the reader things through how the character sees themselves. It is possible for the character to think one thing, and due to the way it is written, the reader to know the opposite is true. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 14 '16 at 20:16
  • 1
    A. "no movie or TV show has ever been shot in first person"? I'd be more careful with broad generalizations. The three movies shot literally in first-person-camera-POV (off the top of my head): Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield. All very engaging, and into-your-face, I actually wish I was more distant from the character, for it was too close for comfort for me. That is not counting a number of film-noir detective stories, which all start with a 1st person behind-the-frame narration, which immediately hammers you into the head of the MC. – Lew Dec 14 '16 at 21:11
  • 2
    B. " A story told in the first person is one in which the protagonist never enters the frame ...That creates distance from the character." You completely lost me there. The First Person POV is the most personal and intimate of them all because you have no way of stepping out of the character's head and evaluate the scene more objectively. If you FP is a protagonist, s/he never leaves the frame if we continue with a cinematic analogy. – Lew Dec 14 '16 at 21:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.