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I absolutely loved Joshua Ferris's debut novel Then We Came to the End. Critics highly praised his use for the first person plural as a narrator. The work is set in an office and the "we" used represents the group of employees.

I can think of several ideas that seem like they would be candidates for a first person plural narrator - a group of neighbors, students in a high school class, soldiers in a battle unit, any sort of cohesive group you can think of.

What are the pitfalls that I have to look out for when writing in the first person plural? What will jolt the reader out of his or her enjoyment of my story and characters and make him or her focus too much on the narrative voice? What can the first person plural voice not realistically convey? If I were to use the first person plural to write about a group of characters, when should I consider breaking out of it?

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I think Jim nailed it. These "we" characters, as in A Rose for Emily," are peripheral characters. We don't really care about them. It's their narration of the observed character that matters, and we get to see the main character through their collective subjectivity. –  user4382 Nov 19 '12 at 6:43

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I think it's hard because it's hard for readers to relate with a group of people. A group very rarely feels the same things and thinks the same things. So it's not going to be easy to accurately portray what the characters are thinking and feeling throughout the piece in a way a real person can relate to it. One of the benefits of First Person is the chances to really get into the character's head, see things as they do, and relate to how they're feeling. I don't think you really get that same chance for First Person Plural.

Some authors can pull this off, most cannot. It's a very tricky POV and it's very easy to screw up.

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I'd have to disagree. Humans are in nature pack animals and there is such a thing as mob mentality. I personally know quite a few regular, "normal" people who, when they go to a football match, succumb to mob mentality and end up demolishing half the town, getting into fights with opposing team's fans and the police (for example). When you ask them why, they can't explain it, and would have never done any of it if they weren't in a group. If the group is cohesive enough and act like a single mind, a reader can easily relate to it. –  Tannalein Nov 20 '12 at 22:24
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Unfortunately, @Tannalein, the kind of people who end up demolishing half the town and getting into fights with the opposing team's fans are also usually not the kind of people who read many books. –  Aerovistae Nov 21 '12 at 5:46

Personally, I'd never break out of it, since that would probably jolt the reader the most.

Individual thought would have to be avoided, or self-interest, or anything that would separate an individual out of that group.

The biggest problem is the same as with first-person singular: just as you can't have scenes in which the first-person singular character is not present, you can't have scenes where the whole group, or at least most of it is not present. Which could be rather tricky and limiting to the plot.

Of course it's harder writing in first-person plural, just as it's hard writing in second-person, but that doesn't mean it should be avoided at all cost. I've read some pretty good stories in second-person (stories that won Nebulas and similar prizes). It's much easier to mess it up though, you really need to know what you are doing. I'd recommend not attempting it before you can do first-person singular well.

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I have seen some excellent non-fiction written in the first person plural. However, right now I can only recall a few. Travel writers Hugh & Colleen Gantzer have been do this for a long time and with great success.

There is one thing I suspect with regard to the first person plural. Do people start thinking in the first person singular somewhat later in life? It's very common for school children to talk in 'we' terms and past their teens, they are mostly about 'I'. Just a curiosity.

So, firstly, it is about a suitable genre where the fpp can fit well. And secondly, the age of the readership. Any empirical data relevant to this?

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Most powerfull example of that for me in Quran Narrator change suddenly POV from third person omniscient to first person plural... "we" are focused on an external individual

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Taylan's response is immensely helpful to me: makes me understand why I've been using first person plural and switching to third person. The novel I'm writing concerns the Qur'an and a Yemeni in his 'sixties who has just returned to Yemen after living for years in England. Now I see that I had to have this very tricky first person plural: the "we" is, as Taylan says, completely focussed on an external individual. This solves six years of questions for me. –  user3319 Feb 26 '12 at 20:03
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@Rofiah: I've changed your answer into a comment on the pertinent answer. –  Standback Feb 26 '12 at 20:26

I haven't read Then We Came to the End, but other successful works that used first-person plural are The Virgin Suicides and "Watch the Animals" by Alice Elliot Dark. What I take away from these stories is that the first-person plural is similar to the first-person peripheral: although the story is told by an "I" (or a "we"), the true subject of the story is an individual outside of the group, and their words and actions are filtered through the narrator. (For examples of first-person peripheral, think of The Great Gatsby or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

My feeling about first-person plural is that because there's no individual "I" telling the story, it's difficult to write a story about the group as a whole (without relying on generalizations or sweeping declarations, which is often unsatisfying). But if the "we" are focused on an external individual, there is room for real exploration, development, and change.

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Are you talking about a Narrator that's telling a story in the first-person plural, or actual characters that are a part of the story? There is a difference. –  Tannalein Nov 20 '12 at 22:30
    
I'm talking about the latter. I'm not sure I've seen a story that is told using the former. –  Jim Nelson Nov 21 '12 at 23:41

I think Ralph highlighted the biggest challenge of first person plural in particular.

In a more general sense, because 99% of the books we read are in "standard" first person or third person singular form, anything else will stand out to the reader. An unusual point of view is similar to a narrator with an accent or strange mode of speech (Everything is Illuminated, Fight Club). It draws the reader's attention to the words, and away from the story.

As an author, you now have an additional burden. The narration has to be so seamless that the reader gets used to it quickly and can then be sucked in by the story. Any little oddity in the narration risks bringing them "back out", reminding them of the unusual format. Granted, you always have to work hard to achieve smooth narration, but I would argue that an unusual tense or other affectation puts you at an additional handicap.

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