Mystery Solved! Riddle of Writing Well in the First Person Revealed!

Irish Firebrands is my only finished novel, and it’s written in a limited third person point of view. In its sequel, work-in-progress Once Burnt, Twice Blind, the first and last chapters are the only attempts I’ve made to write fiction in the first person, and I’m not sure they’ll stay that way. This is in spite of the fact that some of my favorite stories are told in the first person; however, those books were written a long time ago. An excellent example is Treasure Island.

treasure island cover

The audiobook I grew up with: Absolutely the best reading ever done.

Most of the new generation of first-person narratives I’ve sampled have been disappointing. The awkward writing in those books includes narrator self-description, multiple head-hopping, and an excess of “telling” and data-dumping: evidence that the limitations of the first person point of view were too difficult for the writer to work around. I believe the third person, limited POV is more flexible for new authors. This is why I’ve suggested that developing novelists should avoid using the first person POV.

I wondered what it was about the old first-person narratives that made them so good. Then I discovered Robert Louis Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing, and in the piece, “My First Book: Treasure Island,” I found some intriguing clues. Here is what happened, in Stevenson’s words:

It seems as though a full-grown experienced man of letters might engage to turn out Treasure Island at so many pages a day, and keep his pipe alight.  But alas! this was not my case.  Fifteen days I stuck to it, and turned out fifteen chapters; and then, in the early paragraphs of the sixteenth, ignominiously lost hold.  My mouth was empty; there was not one word of Treasure Island in my bosom; and here were the proofs of the beginning already waiting me at the ‘Hand and Spear’!  Then I corrected them, living for the most part alone, walking on the heath at Weybridge in dewy autumn mornings, a good deal pleased with what I had done, and more appalled than I can depict to you in words at what remained for me to do.  I was thirty-one; I was the head of a family; I had lost my health; I had never yet paid my way, never yet made £200 a year; my father had quite recently bought back and cancelled a book that was judged a failure: was this to be another and last fiasco? I was indeed very close on despair; but I shut my mouth hard, and during the journey to Davos, where I was to pass the winter, had the resolution to think of other things and bury myself in the novels of M. de Boisgobey.  Arrived at my destination, down I sat one morning to the unfinished tale; and behold! it flowed from me like small talk; and in a second tide of delighted industry, and again at a rate of a chapter a day, I finished Treasure Island.

So far, so good: Apparently Stevenson was afflicted with a bit of block at just shy of halfway. This was terribly upsetting to him, as it called forth all of the fears and insecurities that writers can be subject to; nevertheless, he had the good sense not to let it get to him, but he knuckled down to correcting the proofs of the first half of the book (as many were in that day, Treasure Island was first published in installments); he took some exercise and got plenty of fresh air; and while on the way to a change of scene in winter quarters, he thought about other things, and read fiction by somebody else.

Then I looked at my copy of the novel, and found that Stevenson had experienced this hiatus at the point where the POV changes: “Narrative continued by the Doctor: How the Ship was abandoned.” Doctor Livesey takes over until Chapter XIX, “Narrative resumed by Jim Hawkins: The Garrison in the Stockade,” and then the story proceeds as before, through to the end.

Very interesting: The best first-person narrative ever written changes POV in the middle of the book, but the change doesn’t hurt the storytelling, the way it invariably does in the modern writing I’ve read. What gives?

The beginning of the very next paragraph in Stevenson’s essay granted an epiphany:

Treasure Island—it was Mr. Henderson who deleted the first title, The Sea Cook—appeared duly in the story paper….

I could hardly take it in. I promptly went back to my copy and re-read the whole book. It was true: Although Treasure Island is written in the first person, and the narrator, Jim Hawkins, is very involved in the adventure (to the point of taking decisions that end up saving the day), the story is about The Sea Cook, John Silver – it’s not about Jim Hawkins, cabin boy.

How does this happen? Even though the Sea Cook is absent until Chapter VII, Stevenson vividly introduces the “seafaring man with one leg” in Chapter I:

For me, at least, there was no secret about the matter, for I was, in a way, a sharer in his alarms. He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg” and let him know the moment he appeared. Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for “the seafaring man with one leg.”

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.

But though I was so terrified by the idea of the seafaring man with one leg, I was far less afraid of the captain himself than anybody else who knew him. …

At first I had supposed “the dead man’s chest” to be that identical big box of his upstairs in the front room, and the thought had been mingled in my nightmares with that of the one-legged seafaring man.

The author reminds us of him in Chapter II, when Black Dog turns up, “wanting two fingers of the left hand,” but on both legs, with which he later “showed a wonderful clean pair of heels”:

I had always my eye open for seafaring men, with one leg or two, and I remember this one puzzled me.

And in Chapter III, after the Old Buccaneer’s first stroke:

“But you won’t peach unless they get the black spot on me, or unless you see that Black Dog again, or a seafaring man with one leg, Jim–him above all.”

After Long John finally makes his début, he is described in detail on several occasions, as are the other important characters. But nowhere in Treasure Island must we endure a self-conscious description of the narrator’s personal appearance. We don’t even know Jim’s age, although throughout the book, and at the very end, we are given clues that some significant amount of time elapsed before Jim took up his pen: by the time the tale was told (which was not at the time of the adventure), he might have been an adult.

This is what helps us to identify with him: despite his name, sex, and immaturity at the time of the adventure (characteristics which helped sell the book to a boys’ magazine), he is still anonymous. It’s the same reason why readers of a third-person-limited story can simultaneously sympathize with an unnamed narrator and still empathize deeply enough with the POV characters, to be moved to tears, laughter, and satisfaction with those characters’ fates.

Treasure-island-map (1)Without the perfidious seafaring man with one leg, there would have been no plausible plot. And the story is not just about Jim’s experience with John: all of the characters are intensely involved in the buildup, the crisis, and the conclusion of the tale about what Long John Silver tried to do. This is why there comes a time when another POV must take over, and Doctor Livesey shows how the rest of the important characters get onto the island: which Jim cannot effectively do, because of his identity, his own arc, and the limitations of the first person POV.

Doctor Livesey recounts the adventure that he, Squire Trelawney, Captain Smollet, and the faithful hands had in getting ashore, and then Jim Hawkins takes up the tale again. The effect of this hand-off-and-hand-back maneuver is to give the story the flexibility of a third-person-limited, multiple-POV narrative.

Stevenson accomplishes the switch by reminding us that this is a story being told long after the fact. It’s a risky move, but he did set up for it in the first paragraph of Chapter I, and it does not involve the desperate random head-hopping that inexperienced modern writers resort to, when the severe limitations of their first-person narrators’ POVs run up against the you-are-there “immediacy” that they think they need to build into their storytelling, to keep readers engaged.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the “I-me-my” of a first-person POV that compels us to identify with a narrator-protagonist: it’s how easily we can participate as active observers in the story. This can only happen when a first-person narrator is not the focus of the tale, just like an anonymous third-person narrator.

In other words, you could take out of Treasure Island all of the “I-me-my” stuff, anonymously narrate it in limited third person with two POV characters, and the great adventure would still stand on its own.

Thus, the key to writing a good first-person narrative is to spin a good yarn, not to write a memoir for the POV character.

Because Treasure Island is not about Jim Hawkins, it’s about the seafaring man with one leg: Long John Silver, The Sea Cook.


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2 responses to “Mystery Solved! Riddle of Writing Well in the First Person Revealed!

  1. I hate to admit this is confusing me. I’m struggling with a novel in third person..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! Thank you for visiting and commenting. What’s in this post that I should try to explain more clearly? Would you like to share a problem you’re having with writing in the third person? If I can’t help, maybe one of my readers can. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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