In stories the protagonist is always in need of some knowledge whether it’s self-knowledge, or external knowledge, or something physical like blueprints. There’s always something the character knows at the end that they didn’t know before, even if it’s that they were right all along. Something that is noticeably important in first-person/subjective narration is the character acquires this information. This is important in other stories too, but it becomes particularly noticeable in a first-person story because we’re going to be limited, most of the time, to one character’s perspective so if they don’t know it or witness it then the reader doesn’t know it either.
Characters can actively or passively acquire information, an obvious distinction there would be the difference between going out to find the information and waiting for the information to come to them. However, actively/passively acquiring information can become blurred when we consider all the implication I keep talking about. The narrator may see a character do something or say something that they interpret one way, or don’t pay any attention to, and then when they acquire other knowledge it takes on a different meaning. They may not have actively sought out this information, they may have been looking for other information and passively acquired the information that changes meaning when their perspective changes.
When a character is actively acquiring information then we have to consider how far they will go and what they will do to get it. The obvious difference might be between the detective who kicks down doors and knocks heads together and the detective who carefully assembles bits of evidence in accordance with the law. The door-kicking detective will assemble information, and can even do it with the same methodical approach, but the detective who obeys the rules won’t kick in doors and knock heads together unless pushed to some extreme.
So, if we’re writing a crime story with a methodical detective, such as Poirot for instance, it’s going to be jarring and likely not work if Poirot kicks in a door and punches the suspect until they talk. We’re going to have to think of another way that fits his character better to find the same information.
As we discussed in a previous article, we can’t simply have one random chapter in the middle of the story from another character’s perspective to give us that information either. If we’re going to reveal the information using another character’s perspective then we need to establish that character and their perspective and give them a several chapters, not just a randomly placed one. We have to remember that every character needs to be rounded, even if their main purpose is to reveal information. A character who has no function or personality beyond conveying exposition isn’t likely to be a character people will be interested in.
So when we have our character pursuing information to help them achieve their goals we have to consider what they know and how they’ll fill in what they don’t. When we write in first-person we need to be particularly careful we don’t accidently have them revealing things they couldn’t know.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the last article this week but check back next week for more on first-person/subjective narration.