Thoughts on First Person narrators
Imagine sitting in a pub, café, on a beach, at a campfire, telling a friend or friends a story of something that happened to you. Your narrative will include common references, but won’t go into unnecessary detail. You know your friends know what you’re talking about, and even if they aren’t familiar with all the minutiae, those aren’t really necessary for the narration to be effective.
In my opinion, the same holds true for any kind of story, no matter the genre.
I’ve read some hard-boiled detective stories by Chandler, and while I did put them aside after a while, I do love his style. The Continental Op gives the reader almost a report of his cases. There’s very little excess baggage, a few terms a modern reader will be unfamiliar with are explained via footnote, but all in all the stories stand on their own.
There are numerous pitfalls a writer, especially a new writer, can stumble into. We all think in first person, so far so true. But this does not mean writing in first person is easier. Our thoughts are jumbled, fragmented. We rarely think in complete sentences. “Gotta buy toilet paper.” “Need apples.” “The oven! Did I? Yes. I think.” People’s thoughts aren’t perfectly punctuated and edited. It’s a mess.
We also don’t tell our friends every single detail of what our way to work looks like. Imagine a story beginning with a detailed retelling of how someone “left their home, turned the key to lock the door, opened their car, searched for the right key on their key chain to then insert the key into the ignition, left their parking spot, turned left at the next traffic light, only to then drive 10 minutes down that road, took a right at the big intersection of Main and Elm Street, hit the brakes to not kill a squirrel, hummed along to their favorite song of their youth whose title they can’t remember, turned left at another intersection…” and so on and so forth. Frankly, I tuned out after the key chain, and I wrote the damn passage!
Yes, these are all details one might think are important, but, honestly, no one gives a shit. “I drove to work.” Four words that pretty much sum up the entire useless passage.
Now imagine standing in your bathroom, in front of the mirror, brushing your hair. Do you think of how you run your comb or brush through your luscious, blonde (or red, or black, or brown, or whatever else color) hair? No! You think about all kinds of other things. Maybe you notice how you can see your scalp when the light falls at a wrong angle. Maybe you notice a gray hair. Maybe you think of the big speech you still need to work on, or the test you’ll write tomorrow. But the one thing you do not think of is your bloody hair color.
Most things we encounter on a daily basis are routine, they drift into the periphery of our perception. Think of this: You wake up and get out of bed. You go to the kitchen to start the coffee maker. Now, unless you stumble over the crap you dropped right in your way, you will not notice anything on your way from your bedroom to your kitchen. Not because it’s invisible but to you it might as well be.
I live about 100 meters away from a 600-year-old church, or some such. As I write this the bell actually rang 6 times, 6 PM. Now, under normal circumstances I do not think “the 600-year-old church’s bell rang six times.” I might think something like “6… another day wasted.”
Now, the novice writer might rage and scream that such details are important… and there’s the rub. To the person experiencing the umpteenth time of the church bell ringing (they bloody ring every hour, no matter the time of day) this does not matter one bit! Just because you want to wax about your wonderfully detailed world, a first-person narrator lives in this world, they know their way to work, they know their apartment, they know how old the church is, and they don’t fucking care.
In a fantasy or science fiction setting, things aren’t much different.
First off, we’re dealing with the same thing: the narrator lives in this world. They don’t care about certain details. A sword is a sword, a pistol a pistol. Measurements and type of weapons aren’t really of any interest to the narrator. Think about it… when you write on your phone or computer, do you think about the various chipsets and boards and whatnots that make up your writing machine while you’re writing? Do you think about chipsets when playing videogames? What about tire width when you’re riding the bus? I’m pretty sure the only ones worrying about tire width are the maintenance people.
We don’t think about such things. Especially not, when we’re telling a story. We want to keep the listener’s or reader’s attention, and the only thing superfluous details get you is less attention. You’re not trying to teach people about weapons or chipsets or tire widths, you’re telling a story.
Some might say that the reader needs to know certain things. Ask yourself, do you tell your friends every single detail about your workplace when the main story is actually a really funny mishap that covered your boss in paint? No, you lead up to what’s going on, fill in the details that are essential to the punch line, and then get on with the story.
What clothes were you wearing when this happened to your boss? Who cares? As long as you didn’t hop around stark naked, it doesn’t matter to the story. What’s the color of your apartment walls? Who cares? Unless the color is now stained by a huge splatter of arterial blood, it does not matter.
What about weapon types? Ever been in a fight? Did you pay attention to what your opponent was wearing? If you did, you probably lost the fight because there are more important things than the opponent’s attire while fists are flying.
But…but…but… it’s a fantasy (or science fiction) story, the reader needs to know what things look like. Yep, the reader needs to know, but the narrator doesn’t. If you want the reader to know what’s what, write in third person, this way you can throw all the many details you think the reader needs to know (oh look, the Argonath) into the text. A first-person narrator tells the story to someone who actually knows these things. Why? Because the narrator has not crossed space and time to sit down before a reader of 2022 to explain what a bloody warpdrive does, or some such stuff. I mean, if it’s a diary, fine, but overall, we must assume the narrator writes for people who survive him, if in diary form…
Think about it. When you tell a story, you have an audience consisting of friends, family etc. Why would it be any different for the first-person narrator? It’s not like Brzzklm from Betelgeuse has jumped back in time to our solar system to planet Earth in the year 2022 to tell us puny earthlings their story, is it?
Imagine a pub you enter. Now, what’s your first action? That depends on your reason for being here: looking to hook up? Meeting a mate? Just for a pint? You’re meeting a mate. Are you early, late, on time? Early, you’ll assume your mate isn’t there yet, so you look for a free table or spot to park your rear in while you wait. You spot a table, sit down, and wait. Now what do you do? I tend to watch people, or read, depending on the time of day and so on. So I look around. Fifty per cent of the people in the club are of minor interest to me. Why? Because statistically speaking they’ll be men, and I’m not that interested in men. Unless I know them, in which case I nod a brief hello. Oooh, pretty woman. Too young but still pretty. Waiter asks what I’d like to drink. A hot toddy.
Now, in this scenario, the reader doesn’t know what the pub looks like, what kind of music is playing, what time of year it is (although the hot toddy is an indicator). And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The reader is free to imagine such things. Music is non-intrusive; otherwise, it would’ve been mentioned. Pub… it’s a pub, who cares what it looks like?
I could write more, most people will probably dismiss it anyway, but I still wanted to get this off my chest.
Actually, there’s one more thing…
Tension. Imagine a friend tells you a story of them being in mortal danger. You already know they’ll survive. Why? Because they are telling you the bloody story! There are ways around this particular dilemma. You write in form of a diary or memoir, and you go the extra mile and create a more personal tension: the character lives, they have survived, but what exactly are the horrors they have survived. Sammy Smith’s ANNA is one of the most intense and terrifying books I have ever read, and it doesn’t lack any tension. Same goes for Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novellas, for entirely different reasons, and Nnedi even goes one step further, doing something that actually caught me off guard, and the way she executes this particular plot point is beyond brilliant.
It all depends on the delivery method, but in order to do this, you have got to master the craft.
First Person POV is hard to master. And even professionals stumble, at times. Case in point, my favorite novel for the longest time was I, Jedi by Michael Stackpole. I wanted to give it a reread a while back, having read the book numerous times over the years, and I needed some comfort food. It’s written in first person, and it had been years since I last read it. In those years I had learned a LOT about perspective and delivery. I also read books differently than I used to, more intensively… what can I say? I can’t really take off my editor’s hat, no matter what I read. When I come across a passage I dislike, I try to rearrange or rephrase it.
I love I, Jedi… but my enthusiasm received a gut punch when I read “I blinked my green eyes.”
And now I’m done!