Point of view in a story is important. Most writers are familiar with the first and third person. But how can the collective we, or first person plural, benefit your story? Donald Barthelme, Joshua Ferris, and Hannah Pittard are a few contemporary authors who have utilized this unusual POV, similar to the Greek chorus of classical Greek plays.
You could make the argument that choosing a point of view is one of the most important decisions a writer has to make when he decides to tell a story. I think Vice-president Joe Biden summed it up nicely when he said, “Choosing the right point of view for your story is a big f&*king deal.” (Okay, so Mr. Biden never said that, but if he were to give an off-the-cuff quote about POV, I like to think that’s what he’d say.)
Any writer who’s been told to change the POV of his story will understand how daunting a task that is. Changing point of view is more involved than simply changing the pronouns. POV partly determines the distance between the reader and the characters, so first person is considered a rather intimate point of view because the reader is privy to only the main character’s inner thoughts, whereas third person, especially third person omniscient, has more of an emotional distance.
One unusual point of view I’ve recently become enamored with is the “collective we,” or first person plural. In Laura Miller’s New York Times article “THE LAST WORD; We the characters,” she writes that the collective we can be one of the trickiest POVs for a writer to pull off, that “[m]odern readers find the collective first-person narrators unsettling; … it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one.” And yet as she points out later in the article, the Greeks believed otherwise. Classical Greek plays included a chorus, a group of between 12 and 50 men who spoke in unison and commented on the dramatic action of the play.
Miller also writes that Western literature has traveled far from this idea of the collective we and has embraced the opposite end of the spectrum, the unreliable first person narrator.
But the collective we is a great tool for an author to utilize when he wants to show how a collection of individuals is behaving as one. One immediate benefit to this POV is that the reader can feel like he’s a part of the group, which means he will also feel like he’s part of the story. In a good collective we story, there are distinct voices in the group, but the very nature of this POV highlights the power of the collective.
One of my favorite Donald Barthelme stories is “Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby” from his collection Forty Stories. This story was published on the heels of Watergate and some critics believe it to be a criticism of the CIA, the KKK, or simply a commentary on generalized tyranny, how seemingly normal individuals can commit monstrous crimes as part of a group. This is how the story starts:
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at his hanging. (Barthelme 157)
Philip Nel in his book The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks describes the humor in this story as “unsettling.” Remember Miller also used the word “unsettling” to describe the use of the collective we in her article. This idea of groupthink, of a group of people speaking for everyone, is worrisome to the reader and yet it also pulls him in.
In Barthelme’s story, a party-like atmosphere emerges as Colby’s friends plan his hanging: invitations are ordered for “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams,” a menu is decided upon (“Colby asked if he would be able to have drinks, too, before the event. We said, ‘Certainly’”), and after much debate, a tree for the hanging is finally selected.
Hanging Colby was doubtless against the law, and if the authorities learned in advance what the plan was they would very likely come in and try to mess everything up. I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moral right to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far. (Barthelme 157-8)
As this group of friends plans the hanging, distinct voices emerge from the “we”: there’s Tomás, an architect who is asked to draw up plans for a gibbet for the hanging (which is ultimately vetoed in favor of a simple tree); Howard who runs a car-and-truck rental business and offers up the services of his limousines to shuttle people to and from the event; Hank who suggests they use wire instead of rope for the hanging because it would be “more efficient.”
Clearly this point of view easily lends itself to satire. The idea that a group of people can act and think as one is, on the one hand, simply absurd. And yet anyone who has studied history or psychology understands the power of a group. And the use of the collective we sets an immediate tone. Most readers are more used to the conventions of the first person and third person, which means an unusual point of view can set the reader on high alert because it signals a shift in worldview. The collective we forces the reader to look both out and inward as a way to decipher the story.
Anytime a writer employs an unusual point of view, there’s the risk of a story coming across as gimmicky. One effective way to keep a story from feeling like a cheap trick is to keep it short. But this is not a hard and fast rule, and the collective we has been utilized well in novels as well as short stories, including Joshua Ferris’ critically acclaimed novel Then We Came to the End.
The novel is about a group of co-workers in a Chicago ad agency. When asked about his decision to write in the narrative we, Ferris said this:
Companies tend to refer to themselves in the first-person plural… What used to be the “royal we” might now be thought of as the “corporate we.” It’s not just a company’s way of showing unity and strength; it’s also a matter of making everyone feel as if they’re a member of a club… In Then We Came to the End, you see just who this “we” really is—a collection of messy human beings—stripped of their glossy finish and eternal corporate optimism.
Much like the Barthelme story, there are distinct voices in Ferris’ novel, and these voices are important. This particular group is facing the threat of layoffs; no matter how different they might be, they are united in their desire to keep their jobs, which is another reason the collective we works so well to describe an office environment. Ferris creates distinct characters who are as flawed and believable as our own friends and co-workers. From Joe Pope, the nice guy in the office who distances himself from all the gossip and drama the rest of the co-workers daily indulge in, to Lynn Mason, the boss of the office who might or might not be dying of breast cancer, to Tom Mota, the co-worker with anger management issues. In modern Western society, it’s often our co-workers who we spend the most time with. We know their quirks and habits, we know what they like to eat, how they take their coffee, their hopes and dreams, etc. This is how the novel starts:
We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were universally reviled. (Ferris 1)
As a group, teens heavily identify with their peers. They often dress the same, speak the same, behave the same, etc. as a way to fit in, which is why it’s surprising the collective we isn’t used more often in young adult literature. Hannah Pittard takes on the collective we in her YA novel The Fates Will Find Their Way. Sixteen-year-old Nora Lidell suddenly disappears one Halloween, and the neighborhood boys left behind collectively tell Nora’s story. They can’t stop wondering what happened to Nora—did she willingly leave? Was she taken? As the days and months turn into years, as the boys grow up and get married, Nora continues to haunt them. It becomes clear from this Greek chorus of boys that the idea of Nora represents something to them that was lost, that with the onslaught of middle age they’ve lost something of their selves. The boys tell the story of their own lives all while imagining a different life for Nora. The Philadelphia City Paper said this in their review of the novel: “… as the obsessive ‘we’ telling the story begins to speculate about what happened to Nora, whether she left or disappeared, Pittard uses that pronoun to implicate her readers in that speculation, that uncertainty.” Again, there’s the idea of the reader feeling unsettled all while pulled into the story.
Pittard’s novel ends with these words:
Whatever the memory, we will think of her, wonder what might have been, and we won’t even know it while it’s happening, but it will be the last time we ever think of her. That day will come. It is a certainty now. And it gets no more obvious than this: this—this, all around us—is our life. (Pittard 240)
Barthelme, Donald. Forty Stories. “Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby.” New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Ferris, Joshua. Then We Came to the End. New York: Back Bay Books-Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
Miller, Laura. “THE LAST WORD; We the Characters.” New York Times 18 April 2004.
Nel, Philip. The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Pittard, Hannah. The Fates Will Find Their Way. New York: Ecco-HarperCollins, 2011.