Let’s say you’re in the office and you’re telling a story about someone. First you talk about what the person did. Maybe it’s something juicy, like a secret infidelity with a prison inmate, or maybe it’s something subtle, like they moved away from home. Then you go on to tell about something more recent, like, “Just the other day she was caught using her work phone to talk to this guy in prison.” This is the offbeat writing technique of the first person peripheral.
Now you’ll wonder why I decided to bring up the “first person peripheral” perspective. Firstly, I’m a writerly nerd with a brain geared toward endless energy for this stuff. Secondly, have you seen the size of my forehead? Look at the photos on my blog. There’s a whole lot of brains behind there. Lastly, and more importantly (subjective), I’m thinking about shifting the POV in my novel, Uncle Called Him Spider.
The example starting the post is pretty clear about how the technique is implemented. More or less, the first person telling the story is not the subject of the story but a side character telling the story about the main character. The majority of the story will be told in the “she said, he said.”
Why my interest? I feel like the first person peripheral does something the other POVS don’t: it gives voice to the community. I mean it does much more than that but that’s the main reason I tend to be drawn toward it. The peripheral narrator is unreliable by nature. Why? Because it’s going to ultimately come off as gossip. But this is not only a reason to use it, it’s also the reason the method has power. One, people love gossip. It’s terrible, yes, and destructive, I know. Let me ask you this: why do people still use it? I’m not going to go into the psychoanalysis (largely because I’d be the only interested in mining that nugget), but I can tell you this: it is how we obtain news from and about the community and our families. The technique replicates human behavior so why not use it as a powerful writerly tool to engage with readers?
The main reason I like the method and used it in Time Like Masks has to do with the community voice. I’m Native and we’re family and community people. We have no disillusionment about hyper individualism and we haven’t developed the schism associated with it. We know community and family is how human beings have survived since we crawled out of the hole in the ground. Whether you want to say this is dependence or codependence is your choice of words, but it’s a cold hard fact the modern world attempts to disrupt. We depend on each other for survival not until we’re eighteen, but our entire lives, meaning forever into old age and then back again for the next life. Because of this communal perspective, I tend to give a lot of value to the first person peripheral POV.
In my novel, Uncle Called Him Spider, I’ve used third person omniscient and I’m on the second draft. In the midst of revision I’ve had a lot of realizations about the story. One of the biggest aspects I’ve been struggling with is the inner monologue, where the “voice” of the story gives subtle judgments and observations about the action. The main character, Dean, has a close uncle who stepped in as a father of sorts because his own father was absent. This is his mother’s brother, and in Kiowa culture the mother’s brother is the primary father figure in a child’s life.
As the novel is titled Uncle Called Him Spider, it points toward a relationship with the uncle. When I titled the book I hadn’t given thought to the level of importance of the uncle. Mostly, it was about Dean being called spider. In Kiowa culture, the spider is a powerful symbol for community and this was the extent of my creative thinking at the time.
Now, as I’m searching and searching for the “voice of the novel” I start tweaking the first few lines of the novel and all of a sudden I write something the uncle says to Dean. Then bam! It hits him. The uncle’s voice is the voice of the novel. Then the next thought is, “Should the uncle be the one telling the story?” Similarly in Time Like Masks a distant uncle tells the story of his nephew–a child. I thought maybe something subconsciously was signaling me toward the voice of the novel. Now I’m thinking the novel will be much more powerful being told by the uncle in a first person peripheral POV. Largely, I like this idea because it offers an opportunity for his uncle to judge Dean, to criticize him the way a loving uncle would criticize his “son” in effect, as in an attempt to steer him toward benevolence.
Switching from a third person omniscient to first person peripheral isn’t a big leap. They’re told in very similar ways. I’ll keep in all the “she said, he said” and simply insert “I said” into moments where the uncle comes into the storyline. A little tweak not only fills up the weak points in the story, but it also gives me new energy.
(Images were borrowed from Wiki and Wikimedia Commons)