It seems counter-intuitive, especially for a collection of memories, but telling someone else’s story is something we do all the time. Think about Christmas. Family stories. We tell stories that have been passed down over generations, even centuries.
We tell other people’s stories because their stories have had a bearing on our journey. They have touched us, informed us, or inspired us. And sadly, we often tell someone else’s story because they never got around to preserving it themselves. The audience becomes the storyteller.
Choosing a Point of View to Tell Someone Else’s Story
Point of view simply refers to what “voice” we use as we tell stories. We can choose between first person (such as “I went to the store,” or “We adopted a puppy.”) or third person (such as “She had her ninth baby in 1921.”).
Third person, the voice of a narrator, offers an intuitive choice for telling someone else’s story. You can take the voice of a bystander, removing yourself from the story. This allows the facts themselves to inform and teach. The reader can form his or her own conclusions. (After all, this is the voice of parables.)
Journalists prefer third person because it projects a lack of bias. Note the emphasis on projects. Make no mistake. You can still influence the reader through your word choices.
Third person works well for stories that have been passed down. You can let your audience read or hear the story the same way you heard it.
Too often, we overlook opportunities to use first person to tell stories. We remember our English teacher in high school telling us that it’s too informal.
I beg to differ. First person offers a warmth and personality difficult to achieve in third person. By using first person, you insert yourself into the story or volunteer yourself to act as a filter for readers.
In his article, 25 Things You Should Know About Narrative Point-Of-View, Chuck Wendig points out that the choice between first and third person often determines the level of intimacy between the storyteller and readers. Third person, though objective, provides a small window through which readers can witness the story. First person, on the other hand, allows readers to experience the story along with you, the narrator.
Telling someone else’s story in first person makes a warm invitation into your family’s past.
Comparing First and Third Person
I’ve used both first and third person to tell my grandmother’s story. Compare the two narratives.
Third Person Narrative Example
Grandma Wilkinson’s mother died when she was six. After that point, because her father ‘elected not to raise her,’ Grandma grew up in a children’s home. She had no memories of her father—she could only remember his surname was Dunaway.
First Person Narrative Example
My Grandma Wilkinson’s mother died when she was six. After that point, she said, her father ‘elected not to raise her.’ Sadly, at the turn of the century—this would have been 1902—it wasn’t unusual for a father to drop a child or children off at an orphanage if they weren’t able, or willing, to raise them. This, grandma said, is what happened to her.
Late in her life, due to what her doctors called arterial sclerosis, Grandma repeated herself often. This is one of the stories she’d retell. I can remember it, plain as if it were yesterday. Grandma in “her” chair, mom on the sofa and me in the floor. Grandma pulling a tissue out of her bra—that’s where she kept them—dabbing her eyes and struggling to remember. “Dunaway,” she’d say through her tears. “I think my father’s last name was Dunaway.” It was heart-wrenching to watch.
Not only was there no genealogist in the family—there were no memories. There was no knowledge of her relatives.