When I was writing about The Blank Page the other day, I pointed out that one of the most difficult choices to make initially is deciding which point-of-view to use. Whether you choose to write a story in first, second, or third person POV will depend on a variety of elements and, ideally, should be an intentional decision you make at the outset. It’s not always intentional, but upon revision, that choice should make sense.
A first person narrator, for one thing, will ALWAYS be at least a little unreliable. Always. Why? Because a first person narrator can not necessarily be depended upon to tell the entire truth about his or her experiences, even if the narrator is sane and reliable on the outset. With a first person narrator, everything in the story is filtered through that first person conciousness.
For example, you are probably sane for the most part, but pretend you get a speeding ticket and later, you are telling someone about that speeding ticket. You may, as the unreliable narrator of your life, change the details of your life just a bit so as to paint yourself as not driving so fast. You may paint the cop as being unfair or brusque or determined to give a ticket. Or maybe, you want to depict yourself as a speed demon, so you tell the tale where you are driving very fast, with flames following you down the road, but then, you slowed down just in time–so it could have been worse!–and yet you still got a ticket because you were going that fast. And so on. The details you choose to tell in that story will be filtered through your consciousness–they will be the details you choose to tell so as to continue on with the narration of your life, so no matter how truthful you may be on the bare facts of life, you are still not fully reliable. And this is only a speeding ticket. We can only imagine what you might say (even to yourself) when depicting the deeper elements of your life–the things that keep you up at night. We all do this, which is why first person narrators are unreliable.
So, if you plan to exploit a narrator’s unreliability in your story, then you should write your story from first person. If the lack of reliability adds to your story, then you should write your story in first person POV. For example, take the narrator from the “TellTale Heart” or the novel You by Caroline Kepnes or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Those are extreme examples, but even John Updike’s “A & P” would not be the same story unless it was written from a first person point of view. That story is told from the perspective of a 19-year old who doesn’t fully understand why he walks off his job, except that it makes him feel “squishy” inside to see the way the girls were treated. He can’t even articulate his emotions or why he chooses to take certain actions and this adds volumes to that story.
I am always very careful when using first person POV because in order to use it responsibly, first person POV HAS to exploit that lack of reliability some way and this exploitation has to add to the story in order for it to work. You can’t just use first person as an immediate go-to point-of-view because you like it (Well, you can, but your story will be stronger if you don’t). You will use first person POV because the character is lying to herself, maybe, and this inability to see the truth is part of the story. Or your character is very young and unable to see the bigger picture or come to a full realization due to inexperience. Or your character is insane or going insane and you want to raise the question of that insanity (“The Yellow Wallpaper”). Or your character is hurting deeply and lying to himself about the reason for that pain. Or your character is doing something wrong and lying to himself about that wrong (for a brilliant example of this that will reduce you to tears, read “Dark Meadow” by Adam Johnson. Read it. Then read it again. And again). But whatever the reason, you need to have a purpose for exploiting the first person’s unreliability and that needs to add to the story. This doesn’t happen often.
Not everyone understands this. I once ran across—years ago—some editor’s comments in the submission guidelines for a literary journal (not sure which one) which said something to the effect of how the magazine didn’t want short stories that “used the crutch of first person.” That comment always bothered me because first person POV is NOT a crutch. It’s actually harder to write an effective short story in first person POV, but beginning writers don’t always know this. Nor do editors of certain literary magazines, apparently. Or maybe they just worded this badly.
I rarely use first person when writing fiction because it IS more difficult to do. Still, if I choose to use it, the aforementioned are the reasons. If there is no particular unreliability at play, then third person or second are possibly more appropriate choices.
At any rate, this was one of the most valuable lessons I learned and it has saved me rewriting stories on several occasions.