Five Outstanding Tips for Writing in Shifting First Person

One of my favorite writers is William Faulkner.  Not only was he a great writer but an interesting person.  He was a man who was fired from his job as a postal inspector because he kept throwing people's mail away.  He often walked with a limp because he claimed he had a war wound but never served in battle (and the limp changed legs on occasion).  

Even though Faulkner was truly the "mountain of the South", what draws me to him as a writer is his innovative style.  Faulkner was not one to write in a conventional manner.  He broke boundaries not necessarily with subject matter but with the way he wrote his short stories and novels. Sure, everyone at the time from James Joyce to Katherine Anne Porter was using stream of consciousness, but Faulkner took the forms of his own generation and reworked them into a point of view called shifting first person.  An example of this use is found in his classic novel As I Lay Dying

Shifting first person is a point of view narrative where various characters in a story all speak in first person, giving the reader a glimpse inside the head of some or all of the characters in the story.  At first glance this might seem like the most confusing point of view to use, but it has several advantages that I feel outweigh the disadvantages.  I have studied As I Lay Dying for years, have written my own shifting first person novel, and so I have come up with five tips to writing in this point of view.

1. Map It Out - One major problem with this point of view is that it can confuse a reader if the plot is not carefully constructed and maintained.  Faulkner's As I Lay Dying shifts from narrator to narrator in first person, but the chapters are laid out in such a way that the action moves from one character to the next and from one event to the next in sequence.  If the narratives shift from one character to another and do not stay in continuity then the reader will be spending most of their time flipping back and forth to gain sense of the narrative.  This point of view does not lend itself well to non-linear narratives.  

2. Begin With the Main Character - If the writer waits to introduce the main character after a few minor characters have spoken, the reader will become confused as to the identity of the main character.  People are trained from grade school to read novels or longer fiction texts by identifying with a main character.  Faulkner does this in As I Lay Dying.  The main character Darl has more chapters devoted to his narrative than any of the other characters in the novel.  We see more from his point of view than we do the rest of the characters, and his point of view is what drives the novel forward.  All other characters in the novel whom we hear in first person only add to his narrative or give different perspectives on what he is experiencing.

3. Keep the Voices Different - Faulkner is, of course, a master at this.  When we read the "Darl" chapters there is a marked difference in voice between the rest of the characters in the novel.  I will use the character of Jewel as an example.  Darl's voice is more measured and calm, noting the idiosyncrasies of his poor southern family with a more matter-of-fact tone.  Read as each of these two characters tries to describe their brother Cash building their mother a coffin:

Darl: “Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together.  Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is.”
— Faulkner 4
Jewel: “It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box.  Where she’s got to see him.  Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you.  I told him to go somewhere else.  I said Good God do you want to see her in it.  It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he had taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung”
— Faulkner 14

Notice how Darl uses colorful adjectives such as "gold", "soft" and "smooth" to describe the same actions, yet Jewel uses hard adjectives and verbs with profanity and ugly images. Faulkner is able to keep the storyline moving while using the shifting narratives to give different perspectives on the same action.  This is one of the strengths of this point of view style.

4. The Chorus Should Enhance - There are 18 characters in As I Lay Dying and nearly all of them speak. The problem with a shifting first person narrative is that it can quickly become a cacophony of nonsense that the reader then has to sort out.  The last thing we want as a writer is to confuse the reader to frustration.  Confusion about the identity of a murderer is much more desirable than confusion about the plot.  Faulkner achieves a well-constructed plot because he uses the other voices to enhance the main voices of the Bundren family.  The characters of Darl, Jewel, Vardaman, Anse, Dewey Dell and Cash are much more prominent in the novel than the others.  The peripheral characters all comment on actions taken by the main characters or fill in backstory on the family, even if some of it is simple gossip.  In essence, the peripheral chorus sings in harmony with the main characters.

5.  Develop Detailed Character Sketches - Each character in As I Lay Dying experience the same events but each of them react to those events in unique and individual ways.  It is the scenario of the group of blind men encountering an elephant.  One feels the trunk and thinks its a snake, one felt an ear and thought it was a fan, one felt a leg and thought it was a tree trunk, and the person touching the tail thought it was a rope.  Through all of these observations, the reader knows it is an elephant but sees the elephant from several perspectives.  Each individual character must have excellent character development in order to allow the writer to get into the "head" of the character and therefore express their voice properly.  This requires proper character development.

If you'd like to see an example of how this is done from a more contemporary example, I've written a book entitled This Broken Earth.  It is a post-apocalyptic novel about a group of people trying to find a better place to live.  I had to follow all of the above tips to pull it off, and even though I had a couple of bad reviews from people who probably didn't get what I was doing, the other reviews are pretty good.  It was difficult, but then writing is indeed hard work.  Hopefully it will be a sounding board (at least) for other writers to attempt a shifting first person point of view.

If you have any suggestions for other tips concerning shifting first person, please comment in the section below.  Have you ever tried to write in this point of view?  Would you?  Let us know in the comments!

Faulkner, William.  As I Lay Dying. New York: Random House, 1992.