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.