First-Person Plural

A discussion of the seldom-used and unsettling narrative style of first-person plural.

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Plural narration is a strange way to write. In third-person narration, you refer to more than one character as they act as a group—a singular entity made up of many. From a second-person viewpoint, you talk to ‘you’ as a singular or plural. First-person perspective, however, brings about the biggest change which is also the most unnatural to write. ‘I’ becomes ‘we.’

Initially, this is an odd concept, both as a writer and as a reader. It takes some getting used to, but it opens possibilities to comment on groupthink and the suppression of the self, as well as providing a whole other point-of-view that puts the reader on edge.

At the beginning of his novel Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk introduces each character as they climb aboard a bus bound for a writers’ retreat. The narrator, however, is the group themselves. They all watch each other board the bus, all talking together in first-person plural, and interrupting their observations with a group stream-of-consciousness.

This much time, we’d bet on our own ability to create some masterpiece. A short story or poem or screenplay or memoir that would make sense of our life. A masterpiece that would buy our way out of slavery to a husband or a parent or a corporation. That would earn our freedom.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

By doing this, Palahniuk creates a sense of shared focus and joint intent within the group. The first-person plural passages where the group tell their tale become the framing, as within this each member of the group takes to the stage to tell a story or two, which are delivered in first-person singular. This then shows how the characters are all wildly different, yet—as they discover later in the novel—have more than one unusual thing in common.

The concept of shared experience does not have to be exclusive to all characters, as is demonstrated by Joshua Ferris in Then We Came to the End. Here, the narrator is a group of co-workers, though not all the employees within the office are included within the narrative collective.

We didn’t know who was stealing things from other people’s workstations. Always small items—postcards, framed photographs. We had our suspicions but no proof. We believed it was probably not for the loot so much as the excitement—the shoplifter’s addictive kick, or maybe it was a pathological cry for help. Hank Neary, one of the agency’s only black writers, asked, “Come on, now—who would want my travel toothbrush?”

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

In this extract, the narration shows the discourse within the group, in that they are all thinking about the thief, but disagreeing as to who that person is or even why they are doing that they are doing. This creates a sense of unreliability within the hive-mind, changing the dynamic of the first-person plural narration.

First-person plural brings an odd dynamic yet is relatively rarely deployed. By doing so, you can tell a story in an entirely different way whilst maintaining relatability, yet also expressing a way of shared thinking that everyone, in some sense, is familiar with. The idea of tribal thought is unsettling because it is something we are all guilty of, and in that sense it includes us in the story as one of the group.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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