Whose Skin Am I In

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A picture with a person extending two hands, palms upward. From upsplash.com.

I love first person present tense. For me it’s the most demanding of any point of view and tense, because it requires the utmost discipline and agility to work effectively.

There are plenty of utilitarian examples of first person present tense. The one which springs readily to my mind is The Hunger Games. It was first person present tense in name only. In reality it was first person past, or, third person past, simply in the way that it handled action, emotions, and description. This is not a bad thing. Collins was writing for a young adult audience, and the choices she made in her use of first person present tense were appropriate and helped her appeal to more readers. But it is a good example of utilitarian first person present — that is, a first person present which acts a first person past, or third person of any tense.

The rules of first person present are vastly different from those of first person past, or third person, and even second person. You don’t stop and describe the main character’s house, for instance, especially if that house is not new to them. You never stop to describe your own house. Why would your main character? Why would your main character stop to describe anything that wasn’t important, or cursory? And if they did describe something, would they really pause and go “gosh she is so pretty, with her blonde hair and legs that go on forever”? Probably not.

First person present does not stop to describe — because that is for the reader’s benefit. But if the person is in their own head, there is no need.

First person present is akin to an impressionist painting: you (the reader) experience what the main character does. You experience bursts of light and color; the smells and tastes and sounds of the character’s world. You’re not oriented in it. You’re immersed. The character takes you on this ride — a character who is blissfully unaware of you — and it’s up to you to put the pieces together, and to see the picture. You will never get a whole picture, however. It is first person, and there are always limits to one person’s perspective.

Readers of first person present get to experience a dizzying, disjointed intimacy with the main character, and the world of the story. It can be disconcerting, I think, because it doesn’t cater to the reader in the “traditional” sense, or in the ways we are familiar with being catered as readers. But it provides such an orgy of possibilities exactly for that reason.

For myself, as a writer, first person present is the tense which keeps me on my toes. It demands that I bring my A-game. I can’t be lazy. I can’t cut corners. I have to write like a motherfucker and write like the best motherfucker I can. I can’t pause the story so my narrator can describe the setting, so I have to find a way to do that. I can’t have my character stop and stare at someone and then describe them in great detail. Who does that? You see one or two things about a person and the rest is just a vague blur.

I really relish and delight in this challenge, of folding myself into another person’s skin and describing what they feel and how they move through the world. It’s different than first person past, or third person, simply because the intimacy and immediacy of the story, and the character’s life, is right there, abrupt and disjointed — life playing out in all its multitude of ways — and there you are, in a stranger’s skin, trying to figure out who you are and where you are and why.

ETA: b00kreader was inspired by this post to write their own short story in first person present tense. You should check it out here!

4 thoughts on “Whose Skin Am I In

  1. I love this post! I have never really stopped to think about it, but yes it would be extremely difficult to get a reader to connect to a first person present tense story. So challenge accepted … I will now try to write a readable first person present tense story 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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