Following on yesterday’s post on POV and expanding on some comments I have read and made here and in other sites, I’d like to write a bit about first-person narrators. I used to dislike them, but this last year I have been reading a lot of books that are technically first-person narrations but most people wouldn’t consider them as such because they are not fiction: memoirs. I actually started reading them because I was quite bored with most fiction and quickly found that these people, many with no formal literally talent, were nonetheless able to explain quite awesome stories. Then it dawned on me that perhaps the reason I had disliked first-person narrators was, quite simply, that they had been misused, badly written, unnecessary.
I became very aware of that when I found myself reading a story, I think it was a short story but it could have been a novel, an urban fantasy I believe, with a first-person, past-tense narrator. The narrator was in the middle of a car chase and did all sort of cool stuff, very detailed cool stuff, and I thought, this is it, that’s what is wrong with these stories: there’s no way anybody could remember all that.
All these first-person narrators have an eidetic memory. They keep pointing out the people’s shoe colors, or that they were fiddling with their cuffs, or that their own eyebrows arched at a precise microsecond… And this is supposed to be someone telling you his personal story, his life, perhaps years later after the fact? It’s not, of course, it’s just a traditional third-person narration with the pronouns switched.
Third-person narrators are allowed to have almost perfect recollection and omniscient powers of observation because, well, they don’t really exist or, like some ancient poet, are being inspired by the muses. And they write made-up stuff too. But when someone is talking about his life, when, let’s say, a paranormal detective is telling you about that case or mystery or whatever and he tells you something like “I woke up that morning and put on my dark green jeans. I yawned and leaned on the chair where Caty, my Angora cat, was sleeping,” my first thoughts are… How the hell do you remember any of that and why, of all the things you could tell me, are you telling me that? Unless I’m reading someone’s very, very detailed diary… what exactly I’m reading here?
I’ll admit that it’s not a deal-breaking issue for me, more like a puzzle, but now that I have noticed it, I cannot unsee it. Of course, the answer to this puzzle is, again, that these are actually third-person narrations written in first-person because now it’s a fashionable POV (probably because of the humongous success of The Hunger Games — and I will go on that later.) But what if they were really written in the manner of, let’s say, letters, memoirs, and so on?
If the first-person narrator has any point at all, I believe that should be it, to give your story the quality of being a real-world text, not just something made up by someone. You can’t do that just by switching pronouns. That means that you need to have a goal and an (in-world) audience in mind. Unlike, let’s say, a third-person narrator who wanders off to describe a sunset or something like that, you have to be very focused on the goal of your text.
You have to keep the nature of your text in mind: is this a diary, and if so, a private one or one that expects publication? Is this a memoir, a confession? And who is the expected audience the writer (not the real-world writer, but the narrator as a writer) expects will read his text, if anybody?
For example, Sherlock Holmes stories are written in the first-person POV, by Watson, and it’s explicitly stated that he writes them with publication in mind. They are not the private documents of a detective, otherwise, it would make no sense at all how they are presented. If you are a detective writing down your recollection of, let’s say, The Mystery of the Headless Mummy, just for your personal pleasure or four your professional notes, not as entertainment, you’d probably start the story by spilling the beans, by saying who is the criminal and, then, how you caught him. You don’t need to keep the suspense in your own personal notes, obviously.
However, many of the first-person stories I read are, well, they don’t say what they are supposed to be. They are written as if they were someone’s thoughts, his recollections of past events, but they clearly are not. They are obviously written like you would write a standard third-person mystery, with all the tricks and suspension of disbelief involved. In fact, many follow the Deep POV style of narration I described in the previous post. It’s uncommon to read a reference to the future, although that’s common in real-world memoirs, something like: “I didn’t know it back then, and only years later would I discover that…” etc.
And that’s assuming the text is written in past tense. Some books are written in first person, present tense. For some strange reason, I found that less offensive than what I had just described perhaps because it’s a clearly, openly fictitious style. It’s a literary experiment, to try to catch the inner working of a mind perhaps. One book that does that is American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis. This is how the book starts:
“ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTERS HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the drive he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be my baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”
That isn’t even trying to present itself as someone’s, let’s say, personal diary, it’s just the world seen through the eyes of a quite mentally-screwed man. It’s an experimental style, which I wouldn’t recommend for most (if any) books but I guess it can be used. But what happens when people use it when trying to write normal, everyday fiction books?
Doing a quick research for this post I discovered that The Hungers Games (which I haven’t read) is written in first-person, present tense. I have seen a lot of books now written in that style, some even in present tense, and I have read that it has become especially popular in YA books (along with strong teenage heroines, post-apocalyptic settings, and even bows, I guess,) so the success of the book may be responsible for that.
But here’s the problem, The Hunger Games isn’t American Psycho, although the world it describes and some of its characters are even worse, so… what kind of text is it? I mean, like what manner of text are we supposed to read it? The book doesn’t start with “This is what I remember from the days when I…”, and it couldn’t anyway because it’s in the present tense. The book starts with the character, quite simply… waking up.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them.”
“In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening…”
‘My fingers stretch out‘, ‘I prop myself up on one elbow’, and the strangest of all, ‘I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing‘? Is that supposed to be someone’s thoughts? That’s clearly a third-person narration (probably one written up from a behaviorist’s observation notes,) written, for some reason, into first-person present tense. Nobody goes around thinking (or noticing) “I prop myself up on one elbow.” This is clearly someone explaining this girl’s story to someone else.
The story clearly doesn’t make me think I’m following someone’s thought process or life. For example, that sentence about the forest? That’s not how anybody would think. When you go to a place to meet someone, the first thing you think (or write if you write down your thoughts) is “I’m going to meet that person for reasons X and Y,” not “I want to go to someplace [a two-page digression] I am there. I meet that person.” That’s how a camera would describe her behavior.
And for being someone’s thoughts, they are surprisingly colorless, without personal style, almost robotic (at least the few pages I have read, although there are some good digression in past tense here and there.) That may be understandable in a narration with a more distant narrator but in the first person? Which, I guess, proves what I was trying to say, that most of these stories are pretty much standard (generally Deep) POV narrators with pronouns switches perhaps because it has become fashionable.
Anyway, I don’t remember if this post had any point in the first place, but I think it’s good food for thought. Personally, I’d recommend that if you want to try your luck writing first-person narrations that you pick up memoirs (there are many from soldiers, sailors, and so on that have adventure in them) and learn what makes them tick. Look how authentic their language is and compare it to most other first-person narration in fiction. Hell, you could even compare it with (if you write them) blog posts about your life, I’m sure they are more lively, fast-paced, and interesting. Also, make sure you know what sort of text are you writing, it’s not just about switching pronouns or, at least, it shouldn’t be about that. But it seems to have worked for The Hunger Games… which has sold millions… and her author must be stinking rich sooo… you can ignore the criticism I have dished out. Really, if you can become a millionaire by writing omniscient, eidetic first-person narrators… do it.
Edit: Oh, yes, I remember the “point” now. The first sentence of The Hunger Games? It made me laugh a bit because it reminded me of that scene from Family Guy where Peter narrates his life in real-time.