First-person perspective: Using central vs. peripheral; choosing a name for a fictional town
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: March 10, 2009
|When writing in first person, do I automatically have to use the main character as the narrator? |
Most first person narratives are told from the main character's perspective. This strategy, called "first person central," lets the reader hear the main character's account of the action through his own voice. In J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield shares his experiences wandering around New York City after he's been expelled from Pencey Prep, a school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. He takes the train to New York City:
The first thing I did when I got off at Penn Station, I went into this phone booth. I felt like giving somebody a buzz. I left my bags right outside the booth so that I could watch them, but as soon as I was inside, I couldn't think of anyone to call up. My brother D.B. was in Hollywood. My kid sister Phoebe goes to bed around nine o'clock-so I couldn't call herup ... So I ended up not calling anybody. I came out of the booth, after about twenty minutes or so, and got my bags and walked over to that tunnel where the cabs are and got a cab.
While most first person narratives are told from the perspective of the main character, this isn't your only choice. In "first person peripheral" the narrator is another character in the story, one who witnesses the main character's story and conveys it to the reader. The peripheral narrator may be a part of the action but he is not the focus. One of the most famous examples of this point of view strategy is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway narrates Gatsby's story. Gatsby—and his wealth—remain a mystery to the community and rumors abound:
"He's a bootlegger," said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. "One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil."
Nick is related to Daisy, Gatsby's love, who is married to another man. The narrative focuses on Nick's glimpses and interactions with Gatsby as Gatsby attempts to rekindle this relationship. Here, Nick has arranged a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby at his house:
Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.
With his hands still in his coat pockets he stalked by me into the hall, turned sharply as if he were on a wire and disappeared into the living room. It wasn't a bit funny. Aware of the loud beating of my own heart I pulled the door to against the increasing rain.
As a peripheral narrator, Nick observes, participates in, and reacts to the action of which he is a part, but the major dramatic focus rests on Gatsby. While the peripheral narrator isn't the focus of the action itself, he is the focus of the telling, and so his observations and interpretations play a significant role in the unfolding story.
How do I choose a name for a town that I made up?
Creating a fictional town means you also have to create a fitting fictional name. I recently attended a reading by Charles Dickinson, who mentioned that the fictional Euclid Heights in his novel A Shortcut in Time was inspired by his hometown of Arlington Heights, Illinois. The use of "heights" in the fictionalized name certainly echoes the original, and "Euclid" has the same sort of formality that "Arlington" does, which makes it apt. (Interestingly, Euclid is the name of a major street that runs through the real Arlington Heights.)
Charles Baxter set many stories, including his novel Saul and Patsy, in the fictionalized Five Oaks, Michigan. It sounds small and Midwestern, doesn't it? It's no surprise, then, to find other nature-inspired names—Cedar Springs, Coldwater, Farmington Hills, Green Oak, Harbor Beach—on a real map of Michigan.
Stephen King's fictionalized Castle Rock, Maine is the setting in several of his novels, including Cujo and Needful Things. It has same sort of regal sound as real towns in Maine, such as Litchfield, Newcastle, and Edgecomb.
Consider names that mirror the atmosphere of your town. Think of where it would appear on a map and look at the kinds of names associated with those specific areas. Make a short list of possible names and choose one that captures—in sound and connotation—the very essence of the town you've created.
--Posted March 10, 2009
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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