When you want to tell a story, all of the information you conjure up has to be transmitted via the narrator. The narrator is truly one of the most important aspects of your story, but this element of fiction is often the one that gets the least amount of consideration. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take an in-depth look at narrative orientation and make sure your story doesn’t succumb to this common flaw.
There are five crucial aspects to consider when deciding how you are going to convey the events of your story. In order to have consistent narration, we have to answer five questions:
- Perspective: From what perspective is the narrator telling the story?
- Characterization: Is your narrator participating in the story as a character or is your narrator telling the story from a distance?
- Time: Is the narrator telling us the story as it happens or after it happens? If it’s after the story happens, how much time has passed?
- Omniscience: What outside information does the narrator bring to the events that are unfolding?
- Reliability/Bias: Is the narrator to be believed?
This week, we’re going to look one aspect of the first question: From what perspective is the narrator telling the story? The answer to this question will form the foundation of your narrative orientation. Whichever perspective you decide to adopt, you’re going to have to deal with some limitations, and I’ll make sure to point those out for you as we go.
To illustrate my example, let’s imagine there’s a room in a three-star hotel. We’ve got two people, a male, James, and a female, Julie, sitting at a table across from each other. They’re talking about something. There’s also a bed in the corner and a TV on a stand. Above the TV, there’s a grate that leads to an air duct. Inside the air duct, we have Kent, who is spying on our conversationalists. We know that Julie and James don’t have any idea that Kent is there. (Creepy.)
First Person: General Considerations
First person, for many people, is the default choice for narration. It’s the way we tell stories in our everyday lives. If you’re going to tell your friends about the time you went to the supermarket and ran into a yeti, you’re going to use the first person. It’s the way we share our experiences with our world, and so it’s an easy place to start as a writer.
If we’re going to apply this perspective to our example scene, a first person telling of the story would originate from Kent, Julie, or James. They would use “I” statements to describe the scene as it unfolds around them. Julie might say, “James is frustrated, but I’m not about to give in.” James might say, “I remember that it was hard for me to listen to what she was saying. I wanted to punch the wall.” Kent might say, “Julie and James were fighting again. They were at each other’s throats so often that I couldn’t believe that they actually got anything done.”
You’ll notice that I statements can occur in the present (like Julie), from the distant future (like James), or from the recent future (like Kent). You can also have a first-person narrator that participates in the story (James and Julie) or a first-person narrator that is observing or legend-telling (like Kent). As far as characterization and time are concerned, first person is endlessly flexible.
First person is less flexible when it comes to bias. If Julie, James, or Kent is telling the story from their perspective, how likely is it that they are able to completely distance themselves from their personal experiences or perceptions? Are they going to be able to see the other characters clearly when they’re personally involved? Adopting a first-person perspective generally necessitates adopting a biased narrator–and you have to address that reality when you’re writing from the first person.
First person also limits omnipotence. A first-person narrator can only be where they are. If all the information about the story is coming from a single person’s perspective, it is unlikely they can truly know the entire scope of the situation. This is easily demonstrated by our example. If Julie hasn’t been told that Kent is in the air duct, she can’t know that he’s in the air duct until Kent makes his presence known. As a writer, you have to keep track of the information you know and the information your narrator knows. Don’t let Julie make decisions based on information that she doesn’t actually have.
You’re less limited by omnipotence when you tell the story from the distant future. For example, if Kent jumps out of the air duct later in our scene, James can incorporate this knowledge in his retelling. Keep in mind, though, that this kind of foreshadowing can take a lot of the excitement out of the scene. Also, there is still a limit to the amount of information one human person is able to know. If you want your distant-future, first-person narrator to have access to all of the information possible, consider a third person narrator instead.
Finally, when writing from the first-person perspective of your character, you have to be aware that your narrator is not actually you. Your character is going to have a different literary voice than your personal voice. You need to create a consistent interpretation of that voice throughout your narration if you want your story to be effective. (More on the logistics of achieving that objective later.)
Advantages of First-Person Narration
One of the huge advantages of first person is that there’s a great opportunity to get really, really close to the person who is telling the story. As a writer, you get the opportunity to get really deep with the main character and explore his or her psyche in an unprecedentedly intimate way. This approach (see Raymond Carver, if you’re looking for a good example) doesn’t require that the reader identify with the character. Instead, the reader has the opportunity to explore the depths of someone else’s mind. A common pitfall here is focusing on the character to the detriment of the plot. No matter how awesome your character is, you still need to have something happen to them.
Another huge advantage to first person is the blank-slate approach to character development. Many wildly popular first-person narrative approaches are so successful because the first-person narrator doesn’t really exist as a separate entity from the reader. The book is designed to make the reader feel as though they are actually participating in the events. There’s a reason that books like Twilight are so engrossing. It’s a lot easier to get sucked in when you feel like you’re the one making out with a vampire (if that’s your thing).
Another advantage is that you, as a writer, can easily incorporate the character’s thoughts into the story. There’s little distance between the reader and the character. If Kent is telling us about what he’s watching through the grate, it’s not weird for him to include his thoughts on the matter. If you’re really interested in getting into your character’s head, this can be a huge benefit for you as a writer. As we’ll see later, incorporating character thoughts into a third person perspective can become unwieldy. With first person, you simply don’t have that problem. (However, you still have to effectively accommodate the passage of time.)
Disadvantages of First-Person Narration
The advantages of writing in the first person have to be balanced by the disadvantages of the perspective. One such disadvantage is reader appeal. In some cases, if the story is in first person and the narrator is not a good match for the reader (think a middle-aged man reading Fifty Shades of Gray), it may be very difficult for that reader to appreciate that first-person character’s perspective. I’m not going to suggest that readers only like to read stories about characters that are like them. Still, it’s important to consider audience appeal when deciding how to orient your story.
Another disadvantage is that first-person narration is simply more difficult to pull off. It’s hard for the writer to include unbiased information about the narrative character that isn’t forced. Think about Julie. Do you think she spends a lot of time noting the color of her hair or the way her eyes look? It’s not normal for her to look at James and think, “Oh, there’s James, my business associate. We’ve worked together for five years, and I think he likes me.”
As people, we don’t spend much time narrating our lives to ourselves. When you create a first-person narrator, you have to accommodate the way that people actually think. We don’t think, “Oh, there goes my best friend, Janice. I’m so glad we’ve been friends since Kindergarten,” so you can’t let your first-person narrator think that way either. You have to get really clever with the way you’re letting your reader learn about your character’s past, and that can be hard to do. Proceed with caution.
Examples of Successful First-Person Narration
One of the most important things you can do if you want to be a successful writer is read other people’s writing. Read good books. Read bad books. Read everything you can get your hands on, and then pick it apart to see how it works. If you’re looking for some examples of effective first-person narration, check out these books:
- The Hunger Games (How does Collins narrate the story to encourage the reader to feel Katniss’ stress and exhilaration? How does she give the reader information about Panam and the world Kantiss inhabits?)
- The Help (Stockett weaves the first-person perspectives of three women into a consistent narrative. How does she differentiate between their voices? How does she orient the reader to the speaker when she changes perspectives?)
- The Green Mile (How does King inform the reader about the first-person narrator? This story is told from the distant future. How does King make the story engaging even though it’s being told after long after the events have transpired? What perspective does this allow the first-person narrator to incorporate into his story?)
Are you a fan of first-person narration? I would love to hear your take on this narrative style, whether you refuse to write from this perspective or wouldn’t have it any other way. And stay tuned–we’ll tackle second and third person perspective next Wednesday.