We are winding down to the final week of NaNoWriMo. This has been a busy month, and this week, being Thanksgiving week here in the US, is even more jammed. Today’s post is on First Person Point of View, a literary mode I have found myself using more often lately. This first posted on November 26, 2018, and expands on employing good subtext, which we discussed last week.
Third-person omniscient has been my usual mode to write in, but I’m not limited to it. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.
This works because the narrator holds much of the information back from the reader, doling it out as the protagonists need it.
But what if we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head? And what if we don’t want the reader to know everything that is going on until the last minute?
This is where the literary devices of point-of-view and subtext come into play. It’s fairly easy to keep the reader guessing what is going on in either narrative mode if you make good use of subtext.
The first-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.
A limited first person point of view is stream of consciousness. This is a narrative mode told from a first-person perspective, showing the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the protagonist.
In real life, we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. First-person point-of-view employs the unreliable narrator which I like when the author understands how to make the subtext work.
Disbelief paralyzes me, but then my emotions coalesce into one thought—Ricky…of course.
Through the use of interior monologues (thoughts), we show the inner desires and motivations of the protagonists. We also offer the reader the incomplete thoughts they express to themselves but conceal from the other characters.
At times, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts about a situation or person, as well as witness their conversations and actions.
How do we fit subtext into our narrative if we’re using a limited first person point of view? Subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, and the secret motives of the entire cast. Subtext is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the events each character experiences.
We don’t want to just lay it all out for the reader in the first paragraphs. Just as in all other narrative modes, in a limited first person point of view we have several ways available to reveal the subtext, the hidden motives and desires of our characters.
The Double Entendre: a word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. “My, those are some plump loaves you have rising there, ma’am.” This can be too in-your-face for many readers, especially if the author is heavy-handed. Many classic Noir detective novels of the 1930s through the 1960s employed the double entendre to convey ideas and intentions that referenced sexual matters and which the censors wouldn’t have allowed to be published.
Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.—Mark Twain.
In my writing, I sometimes use sarcasm as a way to show subtle aggression and tension. Also, sarcasm, especially that which is self-directed, can highlight the dark humor of a bad situation.
Lying: The point-of-view character may be guilty of habitually telling falsehoods. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.” But perhaps the first page showed the character oversleeping, so this lie is a clue that the character is not always truthful.
In a first person narrative, if the protagonist is shown lying to others in small, insignificant ways, the reader should consider that what he tells us may be a lie too.
We can also employ the use of allegory, words, and images that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to describe the overthrow of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Communist Revolution of Russia before WW I.
Symbolism: using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning. Literary Devices.net gives us these examples:
- The dove is a symbol of peace.
- A red rose, or the color red, stands for love or romance.
- Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.
- A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.
- A broken mirror may symbolize separation.
For me, writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. Sometimes I have a story that I think might have potential, but I can’t decide if the plot should continue down the bunny trail it’s on or not. I will share it with my writing buddies to see what they think about the premise.
Usually, I get good feedback that helps me steer the narrative in the right direction when I am embarking on the second draft.
I consider all feedback good, even when the first readers of a scene or short story don’t “get” what I am trying to convey. If the readers don’t see what I mean, their comments aren’t directly helpful.
That lack of comprehension shows that the reader missed the point of the story entirely—my subtext failed to do its job. The scene or story must be completely rewritten. My protagonist’s intentions must be made clearer to the reader.
The struggle to express my ideas is just part of the process, and having good friends who are willing to read and give honest, thoughtful feedback is priceless.
Credits and Attributions:
LiteraryDevices Editors. “Symbolism” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. http://literarydevices.net/symbolism/ (accessed November 24, 2018).
Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.
Underwood Standard Typewriter, PD|75 yrs image first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok.
IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
8 responses to “Subtext and First Person Point of View #amwriting (revisited)”
I’ve read and been told that first-person POV is the hardest to write. That’s all I’ve written in so far and it hasn’t been done well. I find it difficult to eliminate the ‘I” and “me”, etc. and use more adjectives. My saving grace is using dialogue to show and not tell as well as show emotions.
LikeLiked by 1 person
You can never eliminate ‘I’ and ‘me’ from first person. You can tone it down, and that is the mark of good writing, but eliminate? No. If “I” am not sharing my thoughts, is it first person?
In the first draft, “I” must be allowed to speak so that the story can be laid down in its entirety. In the subsequent revisions, we find ways to phrase what “I” saw and thought by using the synonym dictionary and thesaurus to find good common words. We have to struggle, unfortunately, so our prose isn’t repetitive.
That does take thought and considerable writing and rewriting.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I understand you can’t eliminate “I” altogether, but I’m learning to minimize its use. Using expressive adjectives instead makes the story stronger.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sorry Chuck! My misunderstanding. That sounds like the way to go!
Valuable post. My current WIP/novel is 1st person although the earlier drafts of a related novel were 3rd. Making the shift, although I’ve found going deep has helped.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have found that some stories work better when changed to 1st person pov.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A favorite subject of mine. Thank you for covering this. When writing in first person subjective POV I find myself tempted to rely overly much on character voice. Balancing that requires a deliberate turn away from the POV character to return to the panoramic view of things. It gets fun when you can go interior and really get into the world inside the first-person’s free indirect discourse, that “stream of consciousness” you mention, But, hard to tell the story from that close interior vantage, hence the need for deliberate pulling back.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello! I never used to write in this mode, but now I have several things in the process.