Corinne Manning teaches the six-session workshop Point of View in Fiction this fall, beginning Nov. 7. Explore the power and approach to both intimacy and distance of first, second, and third person POVs through readings and exercises and apply these lessons to your own stories.
There is so much innovation possible with first person narration. Yes, it reveals nuance about the character through their voice—how they claim or don’t claim their words—but it is also a potent method for going beyond the narrator by revealing the nuances of the world of the story and the other characters at play.
In a recent profile of Zadie Smith, she explains her decision to use the first person in her new novel, Swing Time:
“I thought it wouldn’t allow me to write about other people. But, in fact, it allows you to do it in a really interesting way because it’s all inflected by the subjectivity of the character.”
An opportunity you can play with when writing in the first person is to use your narration to reflect the world of the story. As readers, stories told in this way can often feel like you we are witnessing the world through a prism. The colors are brighter and through the distortion we can actually see ourselves in new ways.
Below is a passage from Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin.
Here’s what we have at work:
Two siblings. The story is told through the oldest sibling during a moment when he is struggling to understand his younger brother, Sonny, a teenager at the time. Notice how the narrator articulates his own and Sonny’s physical movements, how he talks to his brother, and how Sonny responds. What do you notice in the narrator’s narration vs. the way he talks to his brother in regards to the scene’s momentum?
Your writing exercise:
Older Sibling/Younger Sibling
Situation: Create two siblings in conflict. One doesn’t understand something the other likes or needs (maybe it’s music, or video games, or political, etc.). Consider power dynamics that exist within sibling relationships as you form this scene.
POV and narration: First person, from the sibling that doesn’t understand.
Utilize exposition to show what is happening, and dialogue to let this interaction play out.
Excerpt from Sonny’s Blues:
And, after the funeral, with just Sonny and me alone in the empty kitchen, I tried to find out something about him.
“What do you want to do?” I asked him.
“I’m going to be a musician,” he said. For he had graduated, in the time I had been away, from dancing to the juke box to finding out who was playing what, and what they were doing with it, and he had bought himself a set of drums.
“You mean, you want to be a drummer?” I somehow had the feeling that being a drummer might be all right for other people but not for my brother Sonny.
“I don’t think,” he said, looking at me very gravely, “that I’ll ever be a good drummer. But I think I can play a piano.” I frowned. I’d never played the role of the oldest brother quite so seriously before, had scarcely ever, in fact, asked Sonny a damn thing. I sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle, didn’t understand. So I made my frown a little deeper as I asked: “What kind of musician do you want to be?”
He grinned. “How many kinds do you think there are?”
“Be serious,” I said. He laughed, throwing his head back, and then looked at me. “I am serious.”
“Well, then, for Christ’s sake, stop kidding around and answer a serious question. I mean, do you want to be a concert pianist, you want to play classical music and all that, or-or what?” Long before I finished he was laughing again. “For Christ’s sake. Sonny!”
He sobered, but with difficulty. “I’m sorry. But you sound so-scared!” and he was off again.
“Well, you may think it’s funny now, baby, but it’s not going to be so funny when you have to make your living at it, let me tell you that.” I was furious because I knew he was laughing at me and I didn’t know why.
“No,” he said, very sober now, and afraid, perhaps, that he’d hurt me, “I don’t want to be a classical pianist. That isn’t what interests me. I mean”-he paused, looking hard at me, as though his eyes would help me to understand, and then gestured helplessly, as though perhaps his hand would help-“I mean, I’ll have a lot of studying to do, and I’ll have to study everything, but, I mean, I want to play with-jazz musicians.” He stopped. “I want to play jazz,” he said.
Well, the word had never before sounded as heavy, as real, as it sounded that afternoon in Sonny’s mouth. I just looked at him and I was probably frowning a real frown by this time. I simply couldn’t see why on earth he’d want to spend his time hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor. It seemed-beneath him, somehow. I had never thought about it before, had never been forced to, but I suppose I had always put jazz musicians in a class with what Daddy called “goodtime people.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hell, yes, I’m serious.”
He looked more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt. I suggested, helpfully: “You mean-like Louis Armstrong?”
His face closed as though I’d struck him. “No. I’m not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap.”
“Well, look, Sonny, I’m sorry, don’t get mad. I just don’t altogether get it, that’s all. Name somebody-you know, a jazz musician you admire.”
“Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?” I lit a cigarette. I was surprised and then a little amused to discover that I was trembling. “I’ve been out of touch,” I said. “You’ll have to be patient with me. Now. Who’s this Parker character?”
“He’s just one of the greatest jazz musicians alive,” said Sonny, sullenly, his hands in his pockets, his back to me. “Maybe the greatest,” he added, bitterly, “that’s probably why you never heard of him.”
“All right,” I said, “I’m ignorant. I’m sorry. I’ll go out and buy all the cat’s records right away, all right?”
“It don’t,” said Sonny, with dignity, “make any difference to me. I don’t care what you listen to. Don’t do me no favors.”
I was beginning to realize that I’d never seen him so upset before. With another part of my mind I was thinking that this would probably turn out to be one of those things kids go through and that I shouldn’t make it seem important by pushing it too hard. Still, I didn’t think it would do any harm to ask: “Doesn’t all this take a lot of time? Can you make a living at it?”
He turned back to me and half leaned, half sat, on the kitchen table. “Everything takes time,” he said, “and–well, yes, sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don’t seem to be able to make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do.”
“Well, Sonny,” I said gently, “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do–”
“No, I don’t know that,” said Sonny, surprising me. “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?”