Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First Person Singular

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. . . .” This is the famous opening line of the novel ‘Rebecca’ written by the great writer Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca is an excellent example of writing with the first person narration. As are her other novels like ‘My Cousin Rachel’ and ‘The Scapegoat.’

Writing in the first person narration can be difficult but very interesting. And certainly not to be avoided. Usually, the first person singular is the ‘voice’ of the main character in the novel. It is a style which immediately brings the reader in contact with the thoughts, ideas of the character and the situations in his or her life. It is a little like writing a diary, but not your own of course. It is your character’s diary. And you have to be careful that when you write in your character’s voice, you should think like him, talk like him and feel like him! The whole point of writing in first person narration is to establish a conspiratorial bonding with the reader, taking him into confidence to reveal the character’s tale of endurance. At no point should the reader feel that the writer has taken over the character. As such, this is a difficult part of the narration. But if you stick to the character’s point of view and background, the first person can be most rewarding in style.

Sometimes a second important character can be the voice of the book. For example Arthur Conan Doyle used Watson’s voice to narrate Sherlock Holmes’ cases. This helped to create the suspense and intrigue in Holmes’ crime solving technique.

While writing in first person is interesting, it has its problems. One most important limitation is that the character or narrator has to have witnessed the main situations. How could he possibly describe, for example, what happened at dinner in the neighbor’s house, if he wasn’t present for dinner? Events taking place outside the character’s orbit, have to be incorporated expertly and without sounding contrived.

Another limitation is writing about the thoughts of other characters. How is it possible to convey what others are thinking? You can speculate in a first person narration – ‘He looked sad. . .’ But you cannot for sure describe the thoughts in his head – ‘ “if only” he thought wistfully’. Of course, sometimes, the uncertainty of the thinking patterns of the other characters can add to the mystery element of your story!

And lastly it can be a little difficult to describe the first person narrator’s looks. Again this can be done by using ploys like mirrors. Or using the comments of other characters to describe the looks.

In short, a first person narrative can be a heart–to-heart talk with the reader, with the character leading him through the story; provided it comes across as effortless and smooth.