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First Person Direct Address

Most of the time, our narrators are speaking directly to our readers. We may not do so as directly as Charlotte Bronte (“Reader, I married him.”) but it is implied, no matter the voice that we’re using. Second person can be the most direct address to the reader, or it can be the narrator speaking to herself, but either way, the reader is still clearly identified.

First person direct address, however, feels different. In this voice, one character is speaking to another character. There is an intimacy there between the characters that keeps the reader at bay. Of course, the reader is always the ultimate audience, but first person direct addresses are a fascinating addition to our list of possible points-of-view.

Two great examples of this are to be found in the novel Fools of Fortune by William Trevor and in “Hema and Kaushik,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s triptych of short stories in Unaccustomed Earth. After a short opening chapter in the omniscient voice, Trevor starts his novel with the first person direct address: “I wish that somehow you might have shared my childhood, for I would love to remember you in the scarlet drawing-room, so fragrant in summer with the scent of roses, warmed in winter by the wood Tim Paddy gathered.” We may be confused by the use of the second person, but Trevor then moves away from it, so we quickly forget it, until it reappears again, often at the start of a new chapter. Slowly we begin to understand who is being addressed and why.

In “Hema and Kaushik,” the second person address also begins the first story, “Once in a Lifetime,” and Hema narrates this story, speaking to Kaushik: “I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life.” Like with the Trevor—and, perhaps because of the Trevor, as Lahiri has spoken of her admiration for his work—the focus on the other fades away, coming back intermittently, although the direct address is a stronger and more consistent presence here. The second story, which is from Kaushik’s POV, does not have a direct address.

In “Going Ashore,” the final story in the triptych, the third person POV switches between Hema and Kaushik. And then, at the very end, it returns to the first person direct address that was used in “Once in a Lifetime.” It is the return to that voice and to Hema speaking directly to Kaushik that causes the ending to have those essential elements of inevitability and surprise.

Exercise

  1. Write an opening to a story where you begin with one character directly addressing the other, and then switch to first person without the direct address, only bringing it back at the end of the story.
  2. Take a story you’ve written in the first person and insert a direct address from that character to another intermittently throughout the piece. How does this change the relationship between the two characters? Did you learn anything about them that you didn’t know before?

by Laura Spence-Ash