Difficult Voices: First Person Plural

First person is a very common voice for writers to use in fiction, especially in mysteries and crime thrillers; this voice allows the reader to discover the plot as it unfolds through the protagonists eyes.

Harold said, “I never knew her.” But I knew he was lying. I knew for a fact that Harold and Liz went to school together, shared a few classes and even dated for a while after they graduated. Why was he lying? I decided not to press the point just yet; I’d dangle a rope and see if he’d hang himself first.

First person can be limiting because the reader can only experience what the POV character knows, or experiences.  This means that the scope of the novel needs to be fairly tight.  Using multiple POV characters (first person serial) can expand the view considerably. Generally this is done by letting characters take turns in relating events as the story unfolds. Sometimes someone does something unusual such as in Levi Montgomery’s The Death of Patsy McCoy where the same story is retold through the eyes of several characters and each retelling reveals new facets of the complete story.

First Person Plural

In first person plural the “I” viewpoint is exchanged for “we” and the main character goes from being an individual to being a group of beings without individual identities. This can cloak an individual voice with the anonymity of a group, or present a number of individuals with a collective voice. The reader needs to be able to identify with the group represented as it offers the reader a place within the story, similar to second person. This is a complicated technique to master and its use draws on the reader’s ability to identify with a group and the natural desire to be part of a crowd.

The following piece of fiction was written for this article as an example of first person plural voice.

We crept up the attic stairs, avoiding the one step that creaked loudly when weight was placed on it. We got the telescope out of the trunk and set it on its tripod in front of the window. We’d saved our allowances for 6 months to buy that telescope, of course then we intended to study another form of heavenly body.

A high hedge provided the Thatcher home with supposed privacy, but from our attic, we could see over the hedge and into the front upstairs bedroom shared by the Thatcher girls.  We were careful to leave the lights off so they would not spy us spying on them as they changed into their nightclothes each evening.

Our young hearts beat with anticipation as we waited for their light to go on, and beat even harder as we took turns watching them peel out of their blouses, skirts and underclothes. It awakened feelings within us we had not known before.  It became an addiction: an addiction that craved more than just watching. An addiction that would have devastating effects on the Thatcher girls… and us. We were decided to pursue that longing.

As you can see, there are no individual references, no “Johnny said this’ and “Bertram thought that”. The group acts and speaks as a single entity. We, as readers, don’t even know how many boys there are in the snippet above, only that they are all enamored of watching the neighboring girls undress.

Not all uses have to be so homogenous. Joshua Ferris provides an example of how well this perspective can work in Then We Came to the End.  In this novel, ‘we’ refers to a group of office workers in a Chicago advertising agency.  Portraying their lives through the economic downturn of the 1990s, Ferris’ tone and pace quickly engages the reader.

We were fractious and overpaid.  Our mornings lacked promise…Most of us like most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything.  Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.  We loved free bagels in the morning…Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness…Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it.”

Told from the point of view of a group of employees, Ferris still manages to paint a colorful view of the individuals that make up the collective without actually identifying any individuals.   Click here to visit this book’s website.

In The Weird Sisters Eleanor Brown uses first person plural to reflect the trials and commonalities of familial relationships.

When asked about her choice of first person plural for The Weird Sisters, Brown explains that, she “noticed that people were doing first and third, and even, rarely, second-person narration, almost no one did first person plural…It’s a tricky voice, and I had to devise a lot of rules for how to use it…I chose it because this is a story about family, and one of the ideas I wanted to raise is that we carry our families of origin with us always.  They helped form the way in which we see the world…Even though Rose and Bean and Cordy are not close, they cannot separate themselves from their common history.”

For an excerpt from The Weird Sisters, visit http://www.eleanor-brown.com/.

Let’s wrap up with a bit of sci-fi. Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem is a fascinating use of first person plural.  In this story, Equality 7-2521 lives in a futuristic world where collectivism rules; to be different is evil and it is a crime to think as an individual. Equality 7-2521 refers to himself in first person plural.

Our name is Equality 7-2521, as it is written on the iron bracelet which all men wear on their left wrists with their names upon it.  We are twenty-one years old.  We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tallWe strive to be like all our brother men, for all men must be alike.  Over the portals of the Palace of the World Council, there are words cut in the marble, which we repeat to ourselves whenever we are tempted:

‘We are one in all and all in one.
There are no men but only the great WE,
One, indivisible and forever.’
We repeat this to ourselves, but it helps us not.”

It is a crime to think as an individual and the word ‘I’ has been erased from social memory. If discovered, its utterance is punishable by death. When Equality 7-2521 discovers the unspeakable word, he discovers a sense of self and the word ‘we’ becomes detestable to him.

The word ‘We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it…I am done with the monster ‘We’, the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.”

After the discovery, the remainder of Rand’s Anthem changes to first person singular.  For more, check out the Audio Book of Anthem.

Ready to try a short piece using first person plural? Please leave your story or a link to it in the comments below.


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