Do You Like First-Person Narration?

Yes or no?

Personally: yes.

And no.

Well, which is it?

This isn’t an attempt to be non-committal in my answer.  Rather, I find there are certain circumstances where I love it and all the intimacy and insight it offers into the narrator’s character, and other times where it leaves me cold.

It goes without saying that stories in first-person are told by I – from the point of view of the narrator (who is typically also the protagonist), and likewise told in the narrator’s voice.  As a style of telling a story, it can be found in any genre, but is particularly common in YA, chick lit, memoir, and occasionally historical and romance.

It’s popularity among those who like it seems to be due to the extreme closeness it allows to develop between narrator and reader.

Such ready access to the narrator’s thoughts and observations can be incredibly instructive to the reader in understanding what this person is all about.  So instructive, in fact, that the reader may come to feel like s/he is the narrator, vicariously living every joy and pain that befalls the narrator as his/her their own.  The constant appearance of the word “I” – of the reader hearing it echo over and over within his/her thoughts – can further contribute to this.

What I described above is not the case for me, though.

I’ve never placed my own self in the role of any first-person narrator while reading; the “I” has never equated to me.

Rather, I tend to think of each first-person narrator as a friend – a dear companion who’d tell me his/her innermost emotions and secrets without hesitation – who’s conveying a past experience to me while I just sit and listen.

For that reason, I only tend to like first-person when the narration reads like the way a real person relates a story.

That is to say, I like it when the narrator breaks the fourth wall.

And the walls came a-tumblin’ down

The fourth wall is a concept borrowed from theatre.  It represents an imaginary wall that closes off the three other sides of the stage to create a box within which all the action takes place, thereby symbolically separating it from the audience.

According to Wikipedia:

Speaking directly to or otherwise acknowledging the audience through the camera in a film or television program, or through this imaginary wall in a play, is referred to as “breaking the fourth wall” and is considered a technique of metafiction, as it penetrates the boundaries normally set up by works of fiction.

The Wikipedia definition for metafiction goes on the say:

It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.

Or perhaps more accurately, metafiction doesn’t let the reader forget s/he is being told a story by someone who lived through it.

What this tends to look like in fiction, rather than an exclusively past tense recounting of what befell the narrator – “I did this; I did that; I said; he informed me; I felt; I loved”, etc. – is the occasional commentary in present tense.

An extreme example of this can be seen in Melville’s Moby Dick, where most of the entire first chapter is written in present tense.

The book does go on to return to a past tense more judiciously mixed with present tense in subsequent chapters.  But in any case, it is indeed impossible to forget that one is being told a story by, for all intents and purposes, a living, breathing character.

For a more contemporary example, here’s an example from one of the books which inspired me to adopt this narrative style for my novel-in-progress: Firethorn by fantasy author Sarah Micklem:

After my caches of food were gone, I began to eat unnamed plants from deep in the forest where the Dame had never gone.  I sucked on frozen roots, gnawed twigs and tender inner bark, wood ears and lichens, and the powdery, worm-eaten wood from hollow logs.

Poisons come in many guises, not all bitter or foul smelling.  All signs given us by the gods are true, no doubt, but our reading is often at fault; so I found I couldn’t rely on the signs the Dame had shown me.  I made a trail of each new plant by sniffing it and holding a morsel on my tongue.(pp. 8-9).

Maybe it’s just me

For readers who come to embody the first-person narrator while reading, such present-day character asides may be highly intrusive.  They may be an unwelcome (and rather ironic) reminder that the story has already happened rather than taking place that very moment, unfolding in real-time with each turn of the page.

For me, however, I’m of the opinion that if a first-person narrator doesn’t break the fourth wall – doesn’t occasionally reflect upon events of the past through the clearer lens of the present – then there’s no real advantage to writing first-person at all – that a close third-person limited will do the exact same thing.

But that’s just me.

There may be completely different things that others like or dislike about first-person.  So again, I ask the question,

Do you like first-person narration?

(Image source #1)

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18 thoughts on “Do You Like First-Person Narration?

  1. Great topic!

    I use first-person a bit, and I do find its immediacy and warmth to be quite attractive. But it is something that needs to be used judiciously and carefully – too much “I” without that reflective component you speak of comes across as self-indulgent. I find it works better when the narrator is by nature self-effacing – it helps tremendously to create space for the reader to get into the story.

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    • “Warmth” is a great way to describe it, Isaac. I do find it to be a bit more relatable as a way to tell a story, since, as individuals, we’re more likely to tell stories about ourselves than other people (i.e. third-person). Whether self-effacing or not, I agree that a first-person narrator has to work harder at holding the reader and eliciting his/her sympathy. After all, no one really likes someone who speaks incessantly about him-/herself unless it serves some greater purpose.

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  2. What I like about first-person is its limitations. You only know what the POV character knows. You only see what he/she sees. If there’s a monster sneaking up from behind, you’ll only see it when the character turns around.

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    • I like the limitations as well, Kay, as well as the fact that the reader has to take the narrator at his/her word. It’s kind of like real life in that regard: what we all perceive is reality to us, but everyone in turn has their own individual reality. These same limitations are possible with third-person limited, but to me, with first-person, the effect is so much more visceral.

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  3. I should comment when I have more time.

    I like first person because there is more mystery. We only know what the character knows. Third-person is a bit of a cheat, in a sense, because the narrator already knows everything, so why string us along? Of course, I say that in jest, but there is philosophical truth in it. I don’t do it often, but I like writing in first person because of the chance to try out a different voice. The problem is justifying why this character decided to write everything down. Certain types of people just aren’t going to sit down and spend ages writing a story, so I sometimes wonder why a writer would choose that person to tell it.

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    • The problem is justifying why this character decided to write everything down.

      I once read this same critique of first-person in a writing craft book. It’s not a thought that ever would have occurred to me because when I read, I don’t actually consider myself to be reading. Rather, I interpret it as being told a story that just happens to be in written form, if that makes sense. Kinda like a transcript, but not really. I just don’t envision the narrator as having written it him-/herself, unless, of course, it’s an epistolary story.

      I don’t really feel like I’m being strung along, either, for most stories don’t make much sense or have the same impact when not told in a suspenseful manner. Just think of the last time two or more people were relaying a shared experience to you and one person, overcome by excitement, blurted out the ending prematurely.

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  4. I like first person narration in some forms of writing. In classic Gothic novels many of them were written in epistolary format which meant their stories were told through letters, journal entries, etc. and so it really only made sense if it was told in the first person. Besides that, a format when first person is necessary, as the reader it feels like you’re being cheated because you only get one perspective on the events of the story. Great blog! Check mine out sometime! Ta-ta for now dear!

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    • It’s always so interesting to hear other people’s perspectives. I don’t actually like epistolary – perhaps because I’m selfish, and would rather the narrator talk to me than someone else. And I really like only have one perspective of the story. To me, this feels more like real life, for as individuals, we only truly know what we actually know to be true; we’re not able to dip into the minds of others to better understand a situation. But hey – they say that opposites attract. 🙂 Thanks for the follow. I’ll come a-knockin’ your way.

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      • You know I never used to like epistolary novels either. They felt a but dry, but then I took a course in college which focused on the Gothic Lit of the Romantic Era but also included a bit of the Victorian and I had to get used to it. We read countless short stories, novellas and poems but the novels we read were The Woman in White and Dracula. At first I felt a bit disconnected from the stories, but then when I got into the rhythm I like it more. It’s still not one of my favorite formats though. I think The Woman in White is the best version of an epistolary novel I’ve found so far because it’s a Gothic mystery. The characters are sorting out the facts and solving things at the same time the reader does which adds another level of connection with the story.

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      • There you go: we’re less opposite than we thought. 😉

        I also read Dracula and found it very hard to get into. I’m not familiar with The Woman in White, but maybe I too would find it more enjoyable, it being a mystery.

        Overall, though, I don’t think epistolaries are for me. I can’t ever see myself writing one. (Although never say never: I didn’t think I’d ever write a novel in first-person either! I used to utterly despise it before I discovered its full potential.)

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    • I think first-person is a good strategy for getting unstuck, for it’s a chance for the character to speak for him-/herself rather than someone else doing so on his/her behalf. Even if a writer ultimately ends up using third-person, allowing a character to write a little first-person manifesto can be freeing for the creative juices.

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