Who’s on First?

By Gale Albright

Abbott and Costello invented the comedy routine Who's on First

Abbott and Costello invented the classic comedy routine “Who’s on First?”

Abbott and Costello invented a hilarious comedy routine called “Who’s on First?” about baseball. But my questions are not about baseball, but points of view (POV), such as first, second, and third person.

I prefer to write in first person. I don’t want to know too much, like that know-it-all omniscient narrator. It must be exhausting to know everything about what’s going on in a novel. It sounds way too stressful to juggle all that information.

I prefer to write in first person because there are limitations. The narrator only knows how she feels and what she sees. She finds out about the world through her five senses—what she can feel, smell, taste, see, or hear. The reader only knows what the narrator knows.

The first-person protagonist finds out information by personal observation. If she hears gossip, she can only take it on face value. She doesn’t know if it’s true. The reader doesn’t know if it’s true either.

I’ll give you an example from one of my works in progress. In a small Depression-era East Texas town, young Eva knows that Demon Rum is bad. Not from personal experience, but from what her mama and the church ladies in the Temperance Union tell her. She takes it on faith without really thinking about it. When, through a series of bizarre circumstances, she takes a swig of Demon Rum (for investigative purposes only), she feels she is on the road to perdition. She doesn’t know what perdition is, but it sounds pretty bad. Mama and the church ladies are against it.

When Eva asks her father why some old man is always getting drunk and making a fool of himself on Main Street, he tells her not to be too hard on the poor fellow. “Some men just have a sickness in their belly. They crave it and can’t stop.”

After Eva’s clandestine sip of illegal homebrew whiskey, she wonders why anybody would crave something that tastes worse than turpentine. So the reader knows that Eva has a lot to learn. The reader is part of that learning process. Readers will be privy to Eva’s innermost thoughts and feelings and opinions because they have a privileged position inside Eva’s brain.

Writing a story in first person allows intimacy between narrator and reader. The reader has a front-row seat right smack in the middle of the narrator’s psyche. The reader forms a bond with the narrator and makes an emotional investment in the character.

One of the drawbacks of relying on first-person narrative is the reader doesn’t know if the narrator is telling the truth. The narrator may think she is telling the truth, but she might be lying to herself. Where does that leave the reader? You now have the first-person unreliable narrator, which can add a lot of suspense to a novel. The reader doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. Is the first-person narrator (whom the reader has come to love and worry about and care about) really a deranged psycho, split-personality nutcase? Mercy.

What’s even more interesting in the point-of-view question is the “head hopping” phenomenon.

Have you ever had a piece of writing critiqued for head hopping? This phenomenon occurs when one is writing a first person novel and the narrator knows what other people are thinking. “Aha!” shrieks a critique partner, shaking a red pencil in the hapless author’s direction. “Head hopping! You did head hopping! This is a first person POV and you have the narrator acting like an omniscient third-person narrator who knows what other people are thinking!” Then everyone laughs gleefully and pelts the author with paper clips.

I made that up. That sort of behavior may occur in ill-bred critique groups, but certainly not mine. In my critique group there is no humiliation. Just a gentle reminder that you totally messed up.

But why not have a narrative with creative head hopping? It’s not always so wrong, is it? What about novels with more than one first-person narrator? What if the book has several first-person narrators and they each have several chapters of their own where they all seem to experience the same events in a completely different way?

A good example of a single novel with different first-person points of view is The Other Queen, by Philippa Gregory. The story of Mary of Scotland’s imprisonment in England before her execution is told from the POV of the captive queen and her two jailers. Somehow, in the midst of all three unreliable narrators, the reader begins to see what really happened.

There’s a scary film called The Fallen, with Denzel Washington and John Goodman. The devilish essence of an executed killer escapes when the felon dies and his evil spirit jumps from one person to another—to fellow police buddies Washington and Goodman–and even a cat. Talk about head hopping on steroids, The Fallen has a nasty entity hopping around and possessing the minds of nice folks who turn murderous. If a nasty killer spirit possesses your brain, you will become an unreliable narrator.

Any thoughts about who’s on second?


2 thoughts on “Who’s on First?

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