Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Two Cent Tuesdays: Rules Made to Be Broken

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT:  In case 99 cents was too rich for your blood, you can now get my gender-bending superhero novel Girl Power for FREE on Amazon.  (And also Smashwords.)  They were a lot quicker matching Smashwords this time than on other books.

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
The first one I'd agree with.  It's something the other people on a message board had been saying, which is first-person shouldn't be narcissistic.  In other words your narrator should not drone on and on about every little detail of their life or go on and on about their brilliance and good looks and so forth.  Because no one cares.  That's pretty much the second rule too.  It's sort of like Fight Club that way.

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?
Think of those voiceovers in noir movies taken from books like Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories or Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade stories where the detective starts off saying, "A dame walked into my office..."  Who the hell is Marlowe or Spade or whoever talking to?  Me?  But how?  I'm in 2013, not 193_ or 194_!  You can't be talking to me unless you have some kind of time machine or weird Twilight Zone-type telephone.

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.


  1. I loves me first person narration. It's what I'm doing in my WIP, actually. (And clearly in Yoshimi as well.)

  2. Thanks for the free book!
    I didn't know there were rules. I thought the author had literary licence, much like the poet has poetic licence. Great grumpy bulldog rant.

  3. I've tried to narrow down my rules of writing to as few rules as possible, mainly: Be interesting.

    From there, I might have subsets of rules that I at least try to implement, but really, Be Interesting is all there is for me. That way, if I feel like starting a story with dialog, or with the main character stands in front of a mirror, or I want a damned adverb to appear from time to time... or be in passive voice on occasion, well, if it's interesting to read, then I don't have to cut it out.

  4. I made this mistake with my first novel, having it narrated by someone not nearly as interesting as the main characters. I though I was clever doing it this way but in the end I discovered I'd written a boring book.

  5. You sure have had your share of bad reviewers reading your books. For what it's worth, I really loved "Where You Belong." I had no problems with the first person narrative at all. I recommend the book quite often to people, but I don't know if it results in any sales for you. But I do my part.

  6. Bravo!

    Here's what I think: The way you present your story has to serve the story, and that's really the only rule. I chose first person for "Temporary Anne" because part of the idea was that nobody in that story even comes CLOSE to being a likeable person/entity -- but to give the reader a reason to keep reading I had to put them inside her mind, so they could feel what motivates her. That adds a second layer: as you read "I" "I" "I" about all these terrible things you are almost in the character's shoes, which makes it very uncomfortable.

    That worked with Chuck Pahalniuks (Not sure how it's spelled, don't care) "Survivor," which I listened to as an audiobook and which was terribly effective for being told in first person. ("Survivor," though, like Anne, had a bit of a framing device: the character is telling his story to a flight recorder on a doomed plane in the former, and possibly writing a book/letter to people in the latter. In both, the framing device almost never crops up.)

    "Hunger Games" and many YA novels are written first person because tweens and teens like to feel they are part of the action.

    As for pronouns: A reviewer of "Eclipse" complained that in each chapter dealing with Claudius' childhood, nouns were capitalized when they shouldn't be. That ONLY happened in those chapters, and was meant to point out how "child" Claudius perceived the world in a very different way than "Space" or "Committed" (maybe?) Claudius.

    I can't be responsible for, and you can't, and no writer can, readers who don't make that connection. If you've got an uneducated protagonist, he's gonna talk all wronglike, you know whut I mean?

    Way to take a stand in favor of people not following rules just to follow rules!

  7. The best use of bad grammar is in "Flowers for Algernon" since it was part of the narrative.

  8. My issue with first person narration is that, for many authors, it becomes an excuse for lazy and/or bad writing. "It's just the character" when, really, it's "I didn't feel like learning those grammar rules." And I've heard several big(ish) time traditionally published authors say that's why they chose to write first person. That really bothers me.

    The other thing I hate about first person is when the narrator starts describing herself (because it's almost always a "she") to the reader but in the context of, say, admiring herself in a mirror. Or by saying something like "I flashed my piercing, frost blue eyes at him." Seriously? No one thinks like that, and, if that's the kind of descriptions you want in your book, please write in third person so that I don't spend my time dwelling on how lame your character is. (And it's probably stuff like that that leads to the "narcissism" arguments.)

    I tell my students to write in third person. I think that's where they should start. I think it helps to give a better grasp of writing and not take short cuts like "I was sad."

  9. First person can work well when the narrator has a distinct and interesting voice that can hook the reader.



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