I’ve been reading a lot of first person stories lately,. No reason. Just worked out that way with my to-read list. But it did make me think, so here are my entirely unsolicited thoughts on the first person narrative:
1) The narrator has to sound interesting. Not just be interesting. Lots of characters are interesting but that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good narrator. There needs to be a distinctive voice, a manner of speaking* that draws in the reader. Something I’ve noticed: characters that are a little bit cocky make good narrators, at least for me. Especially if they have a sense of humour. But then I don’t like misery memoirs, so I’m not that interested in listening to some sad bastard go on about their life. It’s among the many reasons I never became a therapist.
2) It has to be the right narrator. First person is automatically limiting. The reader can only see what that person sees. Which is why it’s really fucking annoying when a first person story is solved by someone else at some time when the narrator is not present. All you get then is a recap. And I’m left thinking, “Why the hell are we following the story from inside this fucker’s head? Clearly that guy has more of an impact.” It’s like watching a concert from seats behind a pillar. If you had the chance, why the hell wouldn’t you move to another vantage point?
3) The narrator has to be active. They have to have some fucking impact on the story. Otherwise, why bother with their point of view?
However, they don’t have to be the mover. Sometimes the sidekick, like Watson from Sherlock Holmes, works even better than the main character as narrator because the main character is kind of a dick. Or just a character it’s more fun to watch than to understand.
4) They don’t have to be honest. Ambiguity can be good, whether it’s deliberate lying or just faulty memory. The narrator for Stephen King’s Duma Key states that “when it come to the past, we all stack the deck.” So while his story is a good one, there is room for doubt. For the possibility that he is remembering things differently than they happened.
5) But I shouldn’t want them to die in a fire. A narrator that I actively hate? Not a good read. I should not be rooting for the aliens coming down the hall to pull his guts out through his nose. They don’t have to be a prince among narrators, but they shouldn’t be obviously despicable. Or, if they are, they should save that reveal for the end.
That’s what I’ve got so far about first person. What’s your point of view? Do you like first person? Hate it? Tell me your thoughts so that I may
consume them and steal your powers for my own get a new perspective.
*Or thinking or whatever it is that first person narrators are doing. Sometimes it’s clear—Dolores Claiborne is very clearly speaking to someone—but other times it’s not.