The Unique Potential of the First-Person Novel

“If one feels the desire to transform oneself and to speak from other bodies and souls, one is a dramatist.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Point of view is a question every fiction writer must decide on when telling a story. When reading others and writing myself, I prefer the first-person perspective. It lets you get inside the mind of another person and see life from their point of view. No matter who they are or what they’ve done, you can’t judge them. You need to have empathy for all people, even the worst-seeming people on the outside.

Take someone largely despised today—fill in the blank with someone you personally hate (judging by the discourse on social media this shouldn’t be too difficult). Whoever that person is, there is a reason that caused them to be the way they are. Imagine the person as an innocent child and all the events in life that led them to be the person they are today. Surely they weren’t always evil, and surely they don’t think they are evil themselves. Plus, many other people probably disagree with you and don’t think they are evil at all. Even if the person has done truly evil things, there were likely evil things done to them in the past that made them that way.

This doesn’t excuse evil actions or behavior. You can hate the things a person says or does without hating the person. If you truly knew the person and their entire life experience, you might discover they were victims themselves at some point. A series of events in their lives, coupled with their genetics, caused them to be the way they are. Whether or not you believe in free will (I do), you must at least admit genetics and environment play a role in limiting one’s available options in life.

Human beings must have empathy for all other human beings. You can never know anyone else fully as you can’t know what’s really going on inside their head. The first-person novel may be the closest approximation we can get (as of yet). In it, the author lays out the inner monologue of a character and we simulate their consciousness—the way they really think—which is what makes the first-person narrative such a powerful art form.

At least the first-person novel has that potential. If you write a first-person story just to have the narrator describe the action, it’s a waste of the medium. You have the opportunity to go inside the character’s head and transcribe their consciousness in full detail—which can and should be fascinating. How one appears on the outside may be quite different from what one thinks on the inside. Experiencing another person’s consciousness helps to better understand other people. No matter how evil or horrible a person may seem on the outside, in their minds they rarely see themselves that same way. Again, this doesn’t mean the things people do aren’t evil, but the person is rarely trying to be evil.

The first-person novel can transcribe a consciousness, reveal the real person, and let others see who they truly are. This is powerful with fictional characters, but perhaps even more so with a memoir. Memoirs can provide the same depth and insight—but it’s all true (assuming the writer is honest, whether consciously or unconsciously). Then again, fictional accounts can be just as—if not more powerful—if the author is an intuitive enough observer of human psychology (i.e. Dostoyevsky). Though still, a novel or memoir is not a completely accurate portrayal of consciousness because it never contains the whole picture. The author must cut some parts out or else it would be a million-page book. The first-person novel isn’t necessarily the most accurate portrayal of another’s consciousness, but it has the potential to be so—if the author is honest and thorough.

No other art form can portray the consciousness of another human being with as much depth or detail as the first-person narrative. It’s literally sharing what the author (or character) thinks. Movies fail to deliver this because they don’t show what people think—only what they say and do. But what someone thinks is often far more interesting than what they do and say. A seemingly boring person who says and does nothing could have an inner life that is wildly exciting and fascinating.

Virtual reality has great potential as a medium, but even VR may fail to reach the heights of first-person writing. In VR, you would still be your consciousness experiencing someone else’s life. You wouldn’t be experiencing their actual consciousness unless you heard all their thoughts in real time. That is who a person truly is: their inner thoughts—their consciousness. Everything everyone says and does outwardly is a performance. One’s true self lies within.

The more conscious you are, the better you are at imagining what it is to be another person. Self-consciousness enables you to not only conceive of your own mind but the minds of others. You can imagine what it is like to be another person, aka to empathize. Humans likely evolved this ability of self-consciousness because empathy promotes cooperation in large groups, and civilization hinges on humans’ ability to cooperate in large groups.

Writing and reading novels are a way to help others imagine what it is like to be another person. The most conscious humans—the most empathetic humans—can become great novelists. It’s easy to imagine what it is like to be someone you like, but it takes real empathy to imagine (accurately) what it is like to be someone you hate. If you truly empathize with and understand another person you may come to realize your reasons for hating them were unfounded. A first-person novel that fails to empathize what it is like to be another human, even the most evil of villains, is a failure of the medium. A villain with a full inner-life where they believe they are the hero will make for a better story,

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