The good thing about the blogosphere is it can help feed me topics when I really can't think of anything to write for posts like these. This one comes from over a month ago. I saw it on Goodreads originally. It's about first-person narration. The author is about the third person I'd heard in a few days who'd said how difficult first-person is. I've never really had much trouble with it, but then I didn't think much about all these supposed "rules."
|Uses 1st Person|
Which hey, wasn't Fight Club a first-person novel? Brilliant accidental segue into my next point! The first rule I don't agree with is about the "uninteresting narrator" and how your narrator needs to be the Most Interesting Man (or Woman) in the World. This is simply not true. Take Fight Club there for instance. The guy narrating the story (Ed Norton in the movie) isn't as interesting as Tyler (Brad Pitt in the movie). Of course then (spoiler!) we find out Ed Norton IS Brad Pitt, which is a big downgrade for Brad Pitt. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is similar where we think the sister narrating is so boring until (spoiler!) it turns out she really wrote the book supposedly written by her sister.
But probably the best example of when this is not true is The Great Gatsby. The whole novel is first-person narrated by Nick, who is not nearly as interesting as Gatsby or Daisy. Breakfast at Tiffany's uses the same sort of narration where the first-person narrator is like an observer of the action, not the focus of the action. The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell is another example of a less-interesting narrator, focusing on Derfel, a soldier and buddy of Arthur. Ian McEwan did it in his Booker Prize-winning Atonement. John Irving, my literary hero, does this in The Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meaney, where John the narrator is not as interesting as those around him.
And who else has done this? This guy! One of the frequent complaints about Where You Belong is that Frost Devereaux isn't assertive enough. As I've said before, that was the point. He's more of an observer narrator than a participant narrator. The Maguire twins and even some of the secondary characters are a lot more interesting in many ways than Frost. The idea, inspired by the Irving novels above, was for Frost to get steered along by these characters until he finally decides to take control of his own life.
That's a pretty good selection of books there to dispute that "rule." I'm sure we could find tons more evidence if we so chose.
The rule about the omniscient first-person narrator is another one I dispute a little. It's one I largely cast aside in Where You Belong, where I applied what I refer to as "four-dimensional narrating." The idea is that Frost is narrating this from some future point and therefore has access to information he wouldn't have in the present of whatever moment in the story. So when people whine about how it's not written like a toddler's point of view at the beginning, well of course not. Who the hell would want to read a toddler's narration? It would be confusing as all hell since they don't know what anything is. Though Room by Emma Donoghue was one case where a child's narration was good as a way to contrast his innocence to the horrible things we knew were going on.
McEwan's Atonement was another one that sort of uses this idea. Though (spoiler!) we find out later that what's going on with other characters the narrator couldn't possibly know about at the time is actually part of a book she's writing. So really she's kind of fictionalizing the events of those other characters to some extent. Still, it helps illustrate that if your narrate is telling the story from some future point, they can add information they wouldn't otherwise know.
Lastly is the "rule" about who is the narrator talking to. You can't have your character be dead or turned into a crocodile. Why the hell not? The former worked pretty well in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty."
Really the problem for me is that if you want to get into that point, first-person narration of any sort doesn't make much sense. Now in some cases maybe the narrator is writing a book or dictating a police statement or writing a blog or something. In most cases we don't really know who they're talking to or why and it doesn't really matter. Because first-person most of the time isn't very logical. I mean, unless your character has a photographic memory, how can they remember exactly what everyone said and what they were thinking at every single point? I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast this morning, let alone what I was thinking while I was eating it.
|Who the hell am I talking to?|
Present-tense in first-person is especially a lot of bunk. In The Hunger Games, how can Katniss be telling us that she's shooting an arrow at someone while she's doing it? Who the hell would she be telling it to? In Chance of a Lifetime how can Steve Fischer tell you that he's turning into a woman while it's happening? Don't make much sense, does it? But we just overlook that because we don't care. So the idea that you have to have some logical framing device in place is a lot of hooey. I think the reader generally accepts that we throw out those kind of logical notions when reading the story.
It kind of bugs me to think these bogus "rules" might be why some authors are getting their stories rejected. That I suppose has always been a problem in the publishing industry; you are pretty much at the mercy of whoever is reading the query and then the story. If that person for instance thinks that someone wearing magic armor to fight crime is too "far out" then you end up getting a rejection. But hey, whoever said it's a perfect system? Sure as hell not me.
I would like to float a "rule" of my own though. Some jerk reviewing Last Chance (the third Stacey Chance book) was whining about "correct pronoun use in prepositional phrases." And my thought was: you really except Stacey to have perfect grammar? I don't know how you could read all three books and not get that Stacey (and Steve before her) was anything but a Rhodes scholar. Steve never went to college and as is indicated a few times, his police reports were almost incomprehensible. Stacey finally graduates college with a degree in music but even then it was a state college and she had about a C grade point average. Nowhere in her background does it suggest that she should have perfect grammar. If anything I should add bad grammar into it to make that clear. So when you're reading first-person, don't whine because the grammar isn't perfect when that narrator isn't a professional writer. Customer reviews are going to be the death of me. (That and bad cholesterol and high blood pressure.)
Tomorrow's Comics Recap features zombies, cannibals, vampires, Death, and a talking frog! You won't want to miss that.