The Royal We

The first person plural narrator is a rare beast. Few fiction writers want to tell their tale using the we form. Why not? Explanations vary. Some writers see the first person plural narrator as nothing more than a gimmick. Others see it as a trap for worse.

Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.

Snowden Wright, “We the Narrators” in The Millions, 4 Nov 2013

So, why would any writer use this peculiar narrative point of view?

Greeks

Back in the day, a Greek chorus was an inescapable part of any work of drama. The chorus often represented the community. It was also the voice of truth. Think about Antigone, mourning the death of her brother Polyneices and the cruelty of her uncle Creon to forbid his burial.

In early Greek drama, the chorus stood together near the orchestra, and commented on the main action above. They delivered their lines in unison, sometimes in half-chorus, or sometimes in call-and-response.

TaraShea Nesbit, “We can do a lot: the rise of first-person plural narration” in The Guardian, 14 May 2014

In Antigone, the chorus tries to reason with Creon and his disobedient niece. But both are headstrong and determined. Not so the wise chorus who sees merit in compromise and foretells disaster ahead.

Thrice happy are they who have never known disaster!
Once a house is shaken of Heaven, disaster
Never leaves it, from generation to generation

Sophocles, Antigone, Third Ode, Strophe 1

Who are we?

We’ve come a long way since the days of the Greek chorus. In 2004, The New York Times called the first person plural narrator one of the trickiest feats for an author to attempt. The assumption was that such a narrator must be dishonest.

Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one.

Laura Miller, “THE LAST WORD; We the Characters” in The New York Times, 18 Apr 2004

This dislike of the first person plural narrator may be rooted in a uniquely modern Western conceit. The idea goes like this. Each of us is an individual, unique in our likes and dislikes. Any opinion expressed can only be attributed to a single person. Group think like group speak is impossible.

Collectivism

In his short story “Granddaughters”, Anthony Marra portrays a group of women living in a Siberian gulag. Their existence has been erased from Soviet history. They live on solely as numbered criminals. What were their crimes? This is what the granddaughters know about their grandmothers.

Ours were bakers and railway workers and nurses and midwives. They were also spies and counterrevolutionaries and collaborators and traitors. They had been caught using expired ration cards, giving directions to foreigners on the street, and whispering to their spouses in the middle of the night.

Anthony Marra, “Granddaughters” in The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth 2015)

These women have been robbed of their individuality. Their collective experience as gulag prisoners is all that remains. How else could they express themselves other than in the first person plural?

orphans as first person plural narrator
Such Small Hands. Image source: transitbooks.org

Another, externally-imposed collective identity is that of orphans. Such Small Hands by Andres Barba alternates the narration between Marina, a newly-made orphan, and the other girls at the orphanage. Most of those girls have known no other life. Their identities have fused into one. Marina is an affront to these girls. She has a scar. She has a past. These are possessions the other orphans hate and covet.

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we materialized: these hands, these legs.

Andres Barba translated by Lisa Dillard, Such Small Hands (Transit Books 2017)

Choices

The orphans in Such Small Hands find solace in their collective identity. Being a member of a group can offer protection as any gang member can attest. You wear the right colors, tattoos, attitude. You speak the code.

Yiyun Li once told me that, when she lived in China, no one she knew used the pronoun I. It was dangerous in those days to have individual opinions, let alone voice them out loud. She said it was so much safer to speak as We. Imagine that, the first person plural narrator as a form of protection.

Or perhaps as a weapon. “Bad Boy” is a short story about a couple who takes in their hapless friend, distraught after having broken up with his terrible girlfriend. While their friend is in the room, the couple is sympathetic and kind. When he’s out of earshot, they mock him. They enjoy having sex within earshot of their poor friend, squirming alone on their living room couch.

In fact, it was the best sex we’d ever had. It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame.

Kristen Roupenian, “Bad Boy” in You Know You Want This (Jonathan Cape 2018)

The Ties Between Us

From the Greeks who believed that the we knew more than the I, we’ve passed through a long dry spell when few novelists dared to use the first person plural narrator. The samples I’ve cited here — all from the past 5 years — may be a sign that the we voice has found its mojo.

This could be a call-back to the days when the group was more important than the individual. When we represented a group inviolate against the outside world. If so, then the first person plural narrator is no more than a window into our tribal longings.

There may, however, be a better and more optimistic explanation for the current rise in first person plural narratives. It could be that

life in the 21st-century social network [is] less about the node and more about the links between nodes

TaraShea Nesbit

Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

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