Nitpicking Narrators – Part I: My name is Jake

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.1st person

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

First Person

This is commonly known as I. I did things, I think things, I feel things. The reader feels like they’re in a conversation with the First Person. A lot of the times stories told in the First Person read like a diary, or a story being told by a friend.

On the positive side:

  • You get really personal with the First Person. The reader is, more or less, putting on the narrator’s shoes and looking at the world through their eyes, and so there’s a lot of sympathy here.
  • The thought processes, morality, etc, of every action is spelled out clear as day– everything that the First Person knows should be known by the reader.
  • There are lots of opportunities to show off a fun voice. We can learn so much about a character by the way they choose to describe a person, the details they focus on, and the language they use.
  • Conversely, anything the First Person doesn’t know should be a mystery to the reader. That lends itself to a lot of mystery and suspense, whether you wanted it there or not. You don’t know the thoughts, feelings or motivations other than those belonging to First Person, which leaves the reader out to get blindsided by betrayals, twists and turns galore.
  • There’s tantalizing opportunities behind an unreliable narrator– somebody who’s openly lying to the audience, who’s crazy and letting their delusions color their telling of the story (Spoiler alert: Fight Club.), or who doesn’t fully comprehend what they’re seeing. That last one’s especially useful if you’re looking at something familiar from a different perspective.

On the other hand:

  • You don’t know anything that First Person doesn’t know, and the only way for the reader to find hidden information is either to find out for themselves… or else be told in long, boring, expository conversations. This gets kind of sucky after a while.
  • In Sci-Fi and Fantasy, there’s the problem that First Person has probably grown up in whatever environment they’re currently in. They don’t look at an iPod for hours at a time, thinking to themselves “This device stores thousands of songs on files of data, which are carried to my ears via thin cables ending in tiny bulb-shaped speakers called earbuds.” It might work once in a while, but if not pulled off well, your reader will feel either patronized or very confused.
  • There’s little to no ambiguity about the POV character. We KNOW what they’re thinking or feeling, because they’re telling us so. Their thoughts and emotions can’t be hidden or obfuscated easily.
  • It’s really hard to swallow much dialogue when the story’s framework is a diary or a letter. Some people get too caught up in the story to care, but others go “Really? How many hours do you spend writing in your diary every day, to include every last side conversation you had? Seriously?”

Easy fixes for the tough stuff:

  • When there’s things that the POV character couldn’t possibly know, but the reader absolutely must, it’s sometimes beneficial to include more than one POV character. When you’ve got more than one, make sure to balance it out. Make sure their voices, backgrounds, etc, are different enough that the readers can easily tell them apart. For example, Soon I Shall Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, jumps between a superhero and a supervillain as POV characters. Neither knows the whole story, but between the two you can piece together what’s really going on.
  • There’s nothing as great for exposition as a newbie. A foreigner, a rookie, an alien, some guy who’s lost all his memories, a stranger in a strange land. Somebody who acts as the voice of the audience, asking “What the heck is a glorksmort?” As the other characters explain things to the newbie, the audience is enlightened without too much of a break from the action.
  • If a character’s meant to be a mystery, they’re probably not POV character material (unless, of course, they’re an unreliable narrator). The centerpiece of the action doesn’t always have to be the POV character. More on that later.
  • In diary stories, a lot of people take advantage of written communication: text messages, IMs, letters, passed notes, etc, to get dialogue in verbatim without stretching the believability too far.

Variations:

  • Side Character POV: Everyone knows that V for Vendetta is about V, not Evey. However, she’s easier to understand and identify with, so we look at the movie’s world (slightly different from that of the comic) through her eyes. The same goes for the Phantom of the Opera: it’s about Erik/The Phantom, but it’s viewed through Christine’s eyes (or, if you’re reading the book, more through Raoul’s). The Horrible Harry series did this, as did The Great Gatsby. Essentially, a relatively minor character is looking telling us the story of the actual main character. It’s a great way of keeping the charismatic/enigmaticMC wreathed in mystery without losing a human element, and a good way of letting us see this shadowy figure as other mortals see them, rather than as they actually are.
  • First Person Omniscient: We get a first person voice, complete with all their quirks and color, describing events in which they’re usually not involved at all. Marcus Zusak did this in The Book Thief, in which Death himself narrates the action. He tells you about his take on the actions, but also gets inside the heads of the characters as only an omniscient, eternal, ethereal entity can. Lemony Snicket does the same in A Series of Unfortunate Events. You can get the same effect through ghosts, gods, angels– anything that you can convince the audience is omniscient without losing their unique commentary on things.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Whose POV will you be using? The Hero? The Villain? The Sidekick? The Minstrel who wrote all this down? Someone else entirely?
  • How are they conveying the story? Are they writing it down, like Ponyboy in The Outsiders? Is it a diary or a series of letters, like in Letters from Rifka? A form of self-therapy, like in Monster?
  • What kind of voice does your POV character have? How do they see themselves, and the people around them?
Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Nitpicking Narrators – Part I: My name is Jake

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s