I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games over the summer and I knew with all certainty, before I finished the first sentence, that Katniss, the story’s protagonist, [spoiler alert!] would still be standing by the time I reached the last page. While I know it was a popular read, I was not a huge fan of the book. It was okay, I did finish it and found it entertaining enough, however, it isn’t something I would necessarily want to recommend to anyone. I thought there were two major plot twists that were highly contrived cheap tricks employed to further advance the story in a very manipulative way—but I digress. Back to the my point: I knew that the protagonist would survive her ordeal within the first several words. How did I know? See if you can figure out the “tell.” Here’s the first sentence:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
Did you see the clue? It was the second word. The book is written in first person—from the point of view of the main character. There is nothing wrong with writing in first person narrative, but if you want to keep the reader wondering if the main character is going to survive a man-against-man, fight-to-the-death, last-person-standing-wins ordeal, then maybe the first person point of view is the wrong choice. If Katniss were to be eliminated halfway through the novel there would be no one to relate the rest of the story. Another big clue was that Hunger Games is book one of a trilogy.
To be fair, it probably isn’t important that we know that Katniss will survive but rather how she overcomes her obstacles. A benefit of the first person point of view is that it limits the content to what the narrator experiences directly through thoughts or the five senses. If he or she can’t see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, say it or think it, then it shouldn’t be in the story. If the protagonist notes that his own face “glowed red with embarrassment,” that would be a violation of first person point of view unless the protagonist was gazing in a mirror. One usually can’t see their own face to know that it was turning red. You could however say something like, “I could feel the heat of a full blush as the blood rose in my face.”
In the case of Hunger Games, I can see how taking advantage of the first person point of view might heighten suspense by not allowing the reader to be privy to the plans and actions of her opponents. A good number of detective novels are written in first person so that the reader is only allowed to know what the detective knows and therefore has the opportunity to solve the mystery along with the narrator based on the same information. A murder mystery might also be written from the killer’s point of view allowing the reader to observe the detective and know when he’s getting close or heading down a wrong path.
The limiting effect that a writer uses to their advantage can also be a drawback as first person also limits the scope of the story. Everything is filtered through the narrator. There is no “Meanwhile across town…” with first person. The first person narrator can’t be in two places at once nor can he or she get inside the heads of fellow characters.
I think first person point of view is difficult to employ successfully and I also think that an author should have a valid reason to use it. There is probably good reason why most stories are related in third person or omniscient point of view. I tried my hand at first person and eventually abandoned my attempt. It was an interesting exercise but not a successful one. Give it a try yourself but pay close attention to the parameters and constraints of first person. Other authors have been successful with it. Who knows, you might be the next Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) or J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye).