A Story Told by Me

Today’s blog is about writing your story from one perspective – in this case, the main character. This presents some challenges as well as some unique opportunities. First of all, information is acquired and filtered through the eyes, ears, and accumulated experiential baggage of this character. This provides the reader with a particularly intimate look at the character’s observations, thoughts, fears and prejudices. Of course, there may be events that have happened that the character knows nothing about. This means the reader will be ignorant of these events as well. Consider this passage from a new novel I started writing last week:

We passed through an arched entryway into a large dimly-lit double room. Half of it was occupied with dozens of people sitting or standing, talking in hushed tones. Most of them were not looking at the center of attraction at the other end of the room: my grandmother. She was all dressed up, lying in a casket, her head propped up on a small pillow. Flowers from friends and family spread out on either side like little tiered bleacher seats filled with a display of colors and smells that made my eyes water. A small kneeler maybe big enough to hold two skinny people was placed in front of it. My grandfather, and the four children which included my mother, stood like a row of tall thin darkly garbed trees with thin armed branches in a solemn receiving line, thanking the mourners who came to pay their last respects with bobbing heads and clasped hands. My Dad gave me a nudge. I walked up to the casket and knelt down, transfixed by the perfectly made-up sleeping woman who only vaguely looked like the Nana I remembered. A pair of rosary beads were artfully draped around her bony wrinkled hands and someone had attached a cross to the inside white satin lining of the lid. I stared at it, mouth open, wondering how it stayed up like that without falling. A little voice inside my head that could have been my father’s embarrassed whisper behind me, told me to say a prayer. 

I knelt down, pushed my hands together, and shut my eyes, wondering what prayer I should say to the dead body lying in front of me. Every prayer I could remember just didn’t seem to fit. I recalled her sitting beside me on the front steps of our house. I turned and looked up into her sad, kindly, green-gray eyes. I didn’t remember her reaching out and laying a strong thin arm on my shoulder. I felt a jolt like static electricity ripple across my back and down through my body. My eyes snapped open in surprise and I sucked in a sharp breath. “Nana?” My grandmother was standing between two oversized prayer plants to the right of the casket, nodding sadly at me. I started to stand up, looking from the body in the casket to Nana dressed in two wrinkled hospital jonnies. My father put an arm on my shoulder, a concerned look darkening his face.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The reader is instantly thrust into into the world of a ten year old boy who experiences something frightening and quite confusing. If I choose to use an omniscent narrator to describe this scene, I might have written it like this:

Theo and his Dad passed through an arched entryway into a large dimly-lit double room. Half of it was occupied with dozens of people sitting or standing, talking in hushed tones. An angry older couple standing in one corner of the room were in the middle of a heated conversation, the woman looking up occasionally with wet eyes staring at the mahogany casket. Most of the people appeared to be studiously choosing not to look in that direction. Theo’s grandmother, Catherine Coyle, was dressed up in a light blue dress, lying on a bed of pleated satin in the casket, her head propped up on a small pillow. Flowers from friends and family spread out to either side like little tiered bleacher seats filled with a riotous display of colors. A small kneeler was placed in front of the casket. Joseph Coyle, her husband, and the four children which included Theodore’s mother, stood like a row of tall, thin, darkly garbed trees in a solemn receiving line, thanking the mourners who came to pay their last respects. Theo’s father gave him a nudge. He walked up and knelt down, transfixed by the perfectly made-up sleeping woman who only vaguely looked like the Nana he remembered. A pair of rosary beads were artfully draped around her bony wrinkled hands and someone had attached a cross to the inside white satin lining of the lid. He stared, mouth open. His father leaned over behind him and told him to say a prayer.

The boy shut his eyes, and put his hands together appearing to pray. His eyes suddenly snapped open in surprise and he sucked in a sharp breath. “Nana?” He stared at the two oversized prayer plants to the right of the casket. He started to stand up, looking from the body in the casket back to the plants. His father put an arm on his shoulder, a concerned look darkening his face.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The narrator in this second version provides provides the reader with some additional information, such as peoples names, the kind of casket, as well as other conflicts that might be going on during the wake, etc. It also allows the writer to introduce an element of suspense and raise lots of questions. Did the boy really see the ghost of his grandmother? Can he see other people who have died? What was that argument all about?

However, we do lose the unique perspective of Theo. Unless he tells someone about what he saw, the reader is left to guess what’s going on. This may not be such a bad thing, if the writer intends to surprise the reader with some answers later in the story. It should be noted, that changing the point of view within a chapter (say, suddenly jumping to Theo’s point of view) can pull the reader out of the story and be quite jarring, so generally, it’s a good idea to avoid it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about writing a story in the first person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s