When it is done right, a story told in the first-person plural can hold incredible power. In this craft essay, we take a look at successful uses of this point of view and some of its common pitfalls.
“If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark.”
Here at The Masters Review, we often see trends among submissions. During any given reading period, patterns emerge: sometimes, there are a remarkable number of stories with surreal elements; lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of pieces about drones; for one anthology, we received an uncanny number of stories that involved fish hooks. One of the most interesting trends to identify, however, is the popularity of specific points of view. For a while, we received an enormous amount of stories told in the second person (and we still get a bunch of these). But what we have been noticing a lot of lately (and loving) is fiction told in the first-person plural. Authors are embracing the collective voice—“us” and “we”—to tell tales about group experience.
While reading for our Short Story Award for New Writers this summer, we encountered multiple stories told in the voice of an entire town. In more than one case, the author used the first-person plural to explore a community’s reaction to a strange, shared event. A town overtaken by pests. A swath of mysterious drownings. The first-person plural is certainly hot right now. So, it’s worth getting down to the nitty-gritty and looking at it on the level of craft. What makes the collective voice particularly effective? How can authors best harness its strengths? And, what are some common pitfalls that authors encounter when writing from this point of view? To me, the most crucial question that the first-person plural raises is this: how do you speak from the perspective of the group without speaking for the group?
Over ten years back, a New York Times article discussed the rarity of the first-person plural in contemporary literature, and the extreme difficulty of pulling it off successfully: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one.” However, about two years ago, an article in The Guardian discussed the growing popularity of recent novels that “provide varying degrees of differentiation within the collective experience.” It named Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to an End as two notable examples. It also aptly noted that: “Many contemporary first-person plural novels give voice to the previously overlooked.” Of course, both articles mention the Greek chorus as an early and powerful example of the first-person plural voice.
So, we decided to take a close look at some of the stories we’ve published that are told in the first-person plural, in order to get to the bottom of what makes them so effective. “The Behemoth,” by Drew Ciccolo, the story that opens our third anthology, is told from the point of view of the people of a city in which a mysterious giant has just landed. The collective voice is particularly effective in capturing the citizens’ reaction to this unknowable presence: their confusion, their excitement, and, eventually, their disappointment. However, the story is also sure to acknowledge the various individuals who comprise its collective voice, splintering off sometimes to describe the differences in their reactions:
“A spotlight swung over a pale, gigantic ear, which looked to some of us like a fetus coiled in utero. Those of us nursing hangovers quickly added a shot of brandy to our coffee. Some of us added double shots.”
“New Shadows” by Kaj Tanaka is a recent piece of flash from our library. It is written in the first-person plural, from the point of view of a group of people who notice that there is something different about the shadows: they are larger, more intense, than they should be. Their experience, too, hits on something universal and elusive, something that seems too-big-to-be-believed:
“Each of us knows this feeling. It is the same feeling you have when you look in a mirror and see someone else for moment, someone who looks eerily like yourself, though it is not you (though it is actually you). That is the way of these new shadows. They are at once completely foreign to us, and also uncomfortably familiar.”
“Red,” by Katie Knoll, the winner of this past summer’s Short Story Award for New Writers, was one of many submissions we saw that was written in the first-person plural. “Red” is told in the collective voice of a group of girls living in a matriarchal society, as some of them begin to turn into deer at night. It is interesting to note that what unites these girls is their shared desire to be different, to become deer themselves. It speaks to coming-of-age, to the girls’ at once common and fiercely individual desires to carve out their own identities. The girls who do transform are no longer part of the story’s collective voice, which cleaves again, near the end. The story is still told, all the way through, from the point of view of a group, but this group shrinks throughout the telling.
In “Red,” as in many other successful first-person plural stories, the voice is given some flexibility: it acknowledges that it does not always speak for all parts of the group and that the group itself has the ability to change; the characters are not hemmed in by their place in the community.
I’ve been reading Anne Valente’s recent novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, which uses the first-person plural to great effect, in order to describe a community’s reaction to a school shooting, and a mysterious rash of house fires that occurs afterward. It follows the high school’s yearbook staff, whose (impossible) task it is to chronicle disaster. This novel is so effective, in part, because it switches between the first-person plural and the individual perspectives of each character. In an interview with Electric Literature, Anne Valente said: “I alternated between the first-person plural and the close-third point of view of these four main characters because this allowed me to contend with how a community mourns — what is everyone’s to mourn — and what is singularized and personal in a mass experience, the individual’s unique response to violence and mourning.”
It’s worth noting that what can be the first-person plural’s greatest pitfall is also its unique strength. Yes, the collective voice is inherently eerie, because people don’t naturally talk as one. If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark. But it also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us. Even if there are things that we experience differently, there are others that we share, and that, especially in our times, is worth remembering.
by Sadye Teiser