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Be tense about it
This is a rule that I cannot emphasize enough, and it expands across all narrative styles: pick a main tense and stick with it. I have seen a lot of occasions where new writers will use present tense and past tense interchangeably – do not do this. Your narrator should always use either the past tense or the present tense except for during references to previous events or flashbacks.
Now, interestingly, when we verbally and/or casually relate stories about our days or other goings on, we do switch freely between past and present. For example:
“So I walk (present) over to him – right? – and I said (past), ‘Dude, you need to chew gum with your mouth closed.’ And he just smacks (present) his gum even louder. I was (past) pissed off.
This is so widely accepted in vernacular (common) speech that it is easy for us to decipher. We are aided in our understanding through the assistance of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. When we come across it in correspondence, it might be a little harder to read, but since we are used to hearing the person’s voice and are familiar with their mannerisms, it’s still readable.
This won’t fly in narrative. It’s fine in dialogue, if that’s the way your character talks, because the point of dialogue is to mimic the way that people actually speak, but don’t use it in narrative.
Pick a tense. Stick with it. Got it?
The main reason for this is simple: it’s bad grammar (Won’t somebody think of the children!). Also, if you don’t pick a main tense, flashbacks and memories are much harder for the reader to pick out. If you’re not 100% sure on what I’m talking about with tense, don’t worry: I will be devoting an entire post to tense in narrative at a later point in this series of Word-Craft Wednesdays.
You are limited by your character’s perception
When using first-person narrative, you can only write what is inside the character’s brain. This means that unless your character is telepathic, you can’t write about anyone else’s thoughts. Now, you might switch POV characters every chapter, but while you are in any given character’s head, that’s the only brain you get to explore.
Likewise, you can only write what your character can see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. You can’t actively describe a battle in a city where your character is not currently located. Your character can hear about the battle or see footage on TV, but if your character can’t observe it, you can’t write it. (If the battle was in the past, and the character was there, then you may certainly write about it in a flashback.) Your character can’t see that somebody is sneaking up behind them (unless they are psychic or something).
Furthermore, your character needs to think like a living, breathing person. Something I see a lot is stuff like this: “As he looked into my beautiful, deep blue eyes…”
When somebody is looking you in the eye, do you tend to think about the color of your own eyes? Not so much. I can’t tell you the last time I actively thought about my own eye color.
Your character needs to behave similarly. If you’re determined to work in the stuff about eye color, it needs to fit your character’s personality. If your character is vain, they will probably try to use other people as “mirrors” – they might notice the color of their own eyes in a reflection on somebody’s glasses. Or, they might be thinking about how they are affecting the other person: “His gaze faltered; I knew that my deep blue eyes affected most men.” Either way, it comes across as very self-centered – which is fine, but only if your character actually is self-centered.
Character descriptions are limited
If you’re writing in first person, you won’t have a lot of opportunity to describe the POV character’s appearance. People just don’t usually think, “I pushed my brown hair out of my eyes.” We think, “I pushed my hair out of my eyes.” You will be able to squeeze in a description if your character is observing themselves in the mirror, but for the most part, books with first-person narrative are scant on description of the POV character. Think about it. You focus more on what you see than what you look like. It should be the same for your character.
You can leave your POV character’s appearance almost entirely up to the reader (one or two clues might be nice) – unless the character’s appearance is important to the story. An extremely ugly person might think more about their appearance as they live their life in a judgmental society. Susan Kay’s Phantom, a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, is partly written in first person from the Phantom’s point of view. And he thinks about his appearance. A lot.
But what if you really, really, really want to give your readers a blow-by-blow description of the POV character? You have two options:
1) Pick a different POV to tell the story.
2) Give your character a moment of self-obsession or hyper-self-awareness, but make it fit with the rest of the story, and especially find a way to make it fit with the character’s personality.
Well, what if you open your story thusly? Doesn’t this work?
My name is Benjamin. My dark hair is speckled with white, and my chin and jaw line are covered by a coarse beard. I have brown eyes, a long nose, and a thin, severe mouth.
Okay…is that an exciting way to open a story? Not terribly. Information dumps like this are seldom a good idea, especially in opening. In fact, most people will be bored and won’t care, unless you immediately give them a reason to care, such as continuing the story this way:
It’s the long nose that gets most people. Then their eyes rove over my other features. I can feel them looking. I can almost hear their thoughts: Filthy Jews, corrupting our society…those inferior, no good Christ-killers, cheating us, stealing our money…
And here I am. A forty-year-old Jewish man, out of work, trying to find work – any job will do – and most of the people in this town would do anything to see me and my people expunged from the face of the earth. As I walk through the city square, my stomach twists as I see a crowd of bald, blue-eyed men sizing me up. There are bands around their arms. Red. A white circle. A black, x-shaped, twisted cross.
I am proud of who I am. Proud of what I believe.
But my pride is not enough to stifle the terror as they approach me.
See? In this case, the character’s appearance is relevant to the story. The main character has reason to be self-conscious: he’s out of work, looks stereotypically Jewish, and lives in an anti-Semitic culture. He’s surrounded by people who hate his heritage and his faith, and they can tell he’s Jewish because he looks like it. Suddenly, the description goes from ho-hum to giving the readers an immediate reason to empathize with him.
(This example also shows that your first person narrator can still speculate on what other people are thinking. They can’t know for a fact, though.)
You are limited by your character’s vocabulary
So, not only should your character relate things in a way that seems like the normal thought processes of a person, you also need to consider that their vocabulary is limited, too. If your viewpoint character is six, he or she probably won’t be using words like ‘obsequious.’ This doesn’t just apply to dialogue, either. The character is narrating, therefore, the narration needs to sound similar to internal dialogue. You know what internal dialogue is like. It’s much like the way you speak.
However, just because there's internal dialogue and I said that main tense changes work in dialogue, this doesn't mean you can ignore the 'pick a tense' rule. Things will get messy quickly if you do this. Tense changes only get to happen inside of quotation marks.
Have you noticed that almost all of these sub-headings include the word “limited”?
First-person POV is awesome, but it doesn’t allow for a ton of leeway. There are things you can get away with in other POVs that simply won’t work with first person. On the other hand, first person allows the reader to become intimate with the character in a way that no other POV can. Like I said last week, people latch on to the word “I,” because it’s how they think of themselves. When done right, it creates believable characters that your reader will want to follow through thick and thin.
So, how do you know if first-person narration is right for you? Here are the things you need to consider, in descending order of importance:
1) Do you want to write the story in first person?
2) Can you live with the limitations of first person?
3) In what way do you want the reader to identify with the character: like self, or like other?
If you want to write the story with the limitations and perspective of first person, but want the reader to identify with the character as an ‘other,’ third-person limited will probably fit the bill for you. It has all the advantages of first person in that it creates an intimate painting of a character, but it is better for the ‘other’ effect. If your character is really, really unlikeable, you’ll probably want to use third-person limited, but this doesn’t always mean that first person is preferable for likeable characters.
Well, there you have it – a crash course in first-person narrative POV. Check back next week for a closer look at third-person POVs.
[Side note: those who are observant may notice that sometimes I hyphenate "first person." This is because first-person is the modifier, first person is the noun. Therefore, first-person POV is written in the first person. Those who are even more observant may notice that I didn't not hyphenate any of them last Wednesday. That was a mistake. Thanks to my husband for catching that.]
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