In this part, we’ll look at how to construct subplots, but from the perspective of first person, which is much harder to get to grips with.
The question here is: can subplots be constructed in a first person story? After all, there is only one perspective in first person – the protagonist. And that’s it. It’s not like having the diversity of multiple viewpoints as with third person stories, but that’s not to say that subplots can’t be done in first person. They can, but they’re quite limited.
Unlike third person stories, where the viewpoint can change from character to character, and the richness of different character views can come into play (and so subplots can weave around the main character), with first person, this just isn’t possible. First person stories have to involve the main character, since the story cannot be told from any other character other than ‘I’ of your main character.
By being involved in a subplot, the main character gets to see different outlooks of other characters, because they will be involved on a personal, individual level. But in order to carry different subplots, it means the main character must be sufficiently complex, otherwise the just won’t be interesting enough to sustain more than the main plot.
Let’s look at the crime novel example from part 1, but this time as first person. It would have the following basic plot structure:
The protagonist, a cop who’s never played by the rules, is brought in to help solve a crime similar to one that happened 20 years earlier and the suspect was never caught. His story is the main plot.
The antagonist is the main suspect, a high-profile politician who may or may not be guilty. He was suspected 20 years ago of a similar crime. But he has friends in high places. This is a subplot - but instead of telling the subplot from the perspective of the villain, it must be told from the cop’s POV – as the first person. That means he will be involved on a personal level with this character, so it will certainly involve more of his inner thoughts and feelings, what he thinks, how he reacts to the villain and how the villain acts and so on. These thoughts and feelings are more amplified than if it were third person simply because it’s all told through the main character’s eyes. It’s all personal to him.
The cop falls for the antagonist’s ex-wife, but he can’t be entirely sure whether to trust her or use her to his advantage. This is another subplot – but again, instead of telling the subplot from the perspective of the ex-wife, it must be told from the cop’s POV. That means he will react to her, his thoughts will reflect what is happening and his feelings will also mirror this. It all must be told from his perspective. These two subplots will then connect to the main plot of finding the killer, but the whole story will remain the POV of the main character throughout.
A successful first person story subplot relies on hints, implication and inference from the other characters. These can then be interpreted through the eyes of the main character.
This is just one of the reasons why first person stories are quite hard to master – they are very restricted in what the author can achieve, so they need a lot of planning and thought.
Whichever you choose – third person or first person – adding subplots enriches the story, strengthens characterisation, heightens reader interest and adds variation to the overall story.
Next week: Avoid common mistakes – make your writing better