Yes or 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?