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The Joys of First Person Narrators

I write a lot of 1st person narrators.  When I first started writing books, back when the earth was young, I felt that it was almost a little… well… lazy… to do too-much 1st person.  A 1st person narrator is a gift to conversational narrative.  It’s the difference between:

‘Kate sat at her computer, her left knee aching from too much walking, trying to focus on writing the blog, the sound of Chinese-language music in the background, in the naive hope that immersing herself in a generic sound of a language might help her speak it.’

… and…

‘I sat at my computer, my left knee aching from a walk too far.  I tried to focus on writing the blog, but the sound of Chinese-language music didn’t help, either the process of writing or language-learning.’

The content is the same; the voice immediately changes.  We don’t merely see the world through the eyes of a character, but we interpret it through a character too. A 1st person narrator isn’t merely in pain, it’s not simply, ‘she felt so much grief she nearly fell over’ but rather, ‘I felt grief, and had to hold onto the ground before the grief smothered my mind’, a voice interpreting its own experiences and, moreover, often doing so unreliably.

Oh the joy of unreliable narrators!  How I love them!  Because, sure, when you’re writing a 3rd person narrative, you can omit information, but too often that’s a trick used by slightly-lazy crime writers who tell the reader absolutely everything they needed to solve the mystery, except for the bit of information about the blood-covered shirt at the back of the garden, which is only revealed on p359.  When you’re writing an omnipotent narrator, such an omission can only be in the interest of a writer stringing a reader along, but when you write 1st-person, it suddenly becomes the joy of a character stringing you along, and that’s entirely different.

Take, for example, Matthew Swift.  He’s a joy to write in 1st-person for two reasons.  Firstly, he’s got baggage.  He’s got great big electrical baggage which forces his narrative voice to jump between ‘I walked down the street’ and ‘we walked down the street’ on a fairly habitual basis.  And joy of joys, whereas ‘I walked down the street and saw people about their daily lives,’ yet at the same time, ‘we walked down the street and saw tiny mortals shuffling through their tiny existence’.  Two voices, same body, same page, looking at the same sight, and interpreting it completely differently.  It makes me happy just thinking about the chaos that can ensue.

However, oddly enough, while the I/we thing is a pleasure to write, one of the other great joys of Matthew Swift is the stuff he doesn’t say.  He’s a very conversational narrator, and very easy to sink into and write, but certain things he doesn’t say to the reader.  He rarely talks about his own state of mind, particularly where it pertains to something that might upset him.  In A Madness of Angels I think it’s fairly safe to say that he’d worked out who the villain of the piece was practically by page 2, but rather than face up to that reality, he barely even mentions the man’s name until absolutely forced to, and never during his stream of consciousnesses.  Suddenly, information being omitted isn’t about the writer stringing a reader along, but about a character stringing themselves along, and that’s far more interesting.

Another question that can sometimes be asked with 1st-person narrators that makes them a joy to write, is the question of why they’re telling this story.  In the case of Harry August, he starts the book very clearly addressing someone, and every now and then slips out of his story to speak to a very-specific you, telling you something that he wants you to understand.  Why is he telling us this?  Who is the ‘you’ that matters so much to him that he feels the need to pour out his life-story?  The question of what is pushing this character to telling us a story floats behind the narrative, and raises more questions than it answers, and this is simply a joy, adding layers of mystery and, hopefully, emotion, to a tale.

That said, there are certain disadvantages to a 1st-person narrator.  The most obvious being that it we are limited to what that character knows.  We don’t get so much insight into other people’s worlds, into the machinations of strangers in far-off places, we don’t get into the heads of a wider cast of characters except through our narrator’s unreliable eyes.  This was one of the reasons for writing Stray Souls as a 3rd-person book, as there’s such a broad cast of characters that just seeing them through one pair of eyes didn’t seem to do them justice.

There’s also the thorny question of how a narrator sees their world.  We’ve already touched on the difference between Matthew Swift seeing the world as a banal thing, and the blue electric angels (the other half of the I/we narrative voice) seeing something completely different.  But if you look at something even more specific – for example, historical fiction – then you run the risk of a 1st-person narrator taking for granted things we modern readers find fascinating.  Thus, with Horatio Lyle, a 3rd person narrator can take us through the mysteries and wonders of Victorian London, as a modern writer for a modern audience, in a way that a 1st-person narrator simply wouldn’t.  Horatio Lyle lives in Victorian London, and therefore takes a lot of it for granted, whereas we want to explore the city above and beyond the interest of that character.

To conclude?

The mode of telling depends on the story being told.  Matthew Swift would be a totally different book if it wasn’t 1st-person.  Harry August would be, I suspect, borderline unintelligable.  Horatio Lyle would lack for much of the history and birds-eye view of events that made it fun to write (and hopefully read!) if it was in 1st-person.  What story you’re telling, and who’s telling it, will completely change a book, and I guess as a writer the only real advice I can give to someone trying to decide which way to go on the 1st/3rd person debate is… ‘feel it’… listen to your characters and look at your world, and try to work out which one shouts loudest…