SPOILER ALERT: In this blog, I discuss some events in My Heart Lies Here. Be sure to read the book first!
In every writing group or class I have attended, I’ve found those who ardently champion writing in first person point of view and those who virulently hate it. It’s a quandary for a writer–choosing the point of view from which the book will be written is one of the first and most essential decisions a writer makes. It’s all good and well to spend time writing from differing points of view and voices, but at some point, a writer has to pick a path and stick with it.
I chose to use first person in My Heart Lies Here because I heard Christian’s voice in my head. The old cliche is true: Characters do what they want to do in any given work. (I’m currently struggling with a first person narrator who refuses to move graciously and without a knockdown, drag-out battle to third person–as well as characters who want to do far more than a reasonable page count will allow–in my next novel, Clean Cut.) Working in first person has some advantages, but it also presents a host of problems for the writer to solve.
The advantages of first person narrative are simple. The use of “I” gives the reader a reliable, sure anchor in the story; the reader always knows who is telling the story (even if the narrator’s recollection of the events is unreliable, as often happens). There’s an immediacy to the plot and events in the book–the reader is being “told” the story as if he or she was sitting down in a bar talking with a good friend.
The downside of using first person point of view is, of course, the limitations it imposes. The reader can only see, feel, taste, smell, touch and think what the narrator sees, feels, tastes, smells, touches and thinks. So if the narrator is not at the center of the action, then the writer has to figure out how the character will learn of the events and how much will be related. As a woman in 1914, my character of Christian is often not at the center of the action. She doesn’t see the abuses in the mines; she is stuck in the hospital tent when the steel train attacks Ludlow; and she is not on the hills fighting during the civil war that follows the massacre.
It took some contriving to allow Christian (and therefore, the reader) to learn all she needed to know. She overhears conversations; other characters relate events to her; and near the end of the book, she walks through Ludlow at the end and sees first-hand the devastation of the colony. Throughout the story, she finds herself in situations where she meets a whole host of historical figures, sort of Forrest Gump-like. While reading the proofs, I noticed how often Theros shows up where Christian is in the novel. I had to laugh–Good job, Theros, on being in the right place at the right time! Of course, this is all part of the willing suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part that makes reading fiction so enjoyable.
Another consideration when using first person is how close to stand to the character. Consider this: Does the writer want the reader to be inside the character’s head and knowing only what that character knows at that instant in time, or is the character retelling the story from the comfortable distance of a number of years, when he or she has the advantage of reconstructing and interpreting the events? In My Heart Lies Here, I rely mostly on the play-by-play, inside-the-character’s-head-right-now, which again asks the reader to suspend disbelief. (How many of us can remember a conversation word for word even an hour later, much less reconstruct it with accompanying actions and expressions of the others involved?) At times, though, I cheat, giving Christian the gift of hindsight. In fact, at the end of the book, Christian tells us what happens to some of the characters in the future, which reveals that she is telling the story from the distance of many years.
All in all, I’m pleased with the use of first person and the choice of Christian as my narrator. Her character arc–from somewhat selfish and spoiled little girl to a true advocate of union–seems well served by the use of “I.”