I’ve been working my way through a pile of library books in the snatched moments when NaNoWriMo isn’t eating my life, and I was struck by how many novels are written in the first person. Some of them are pretty good, but many don’t seem to move me. I was pondering why this could be, as Pete’s been asking me why I have a problem with using this perspective.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with first person. You have the usual pitfalls of hearing a biased account of events and trying to avoid ‘I’s sticking up too much like telegraph poles. But, at least for someone more used to writing in omniscient third person, there’s something else wrong.
I’ve just finished Shamanka, which features a 12-year-old girl in the narrative driving seat. There were several flaws, to my mind, the main one being its putdownability. I didn’t feel like I had to rush back to see where the plot was going. But it was the narrator who bothered me most. She ushered me past sections which could do with more explaining. A paragraph after a tearful family reunion genuinely began with ‘There’s no point describing this scene’. Um. She went into detail about bits she obviously found interesting but which I skipped over. And the language she used just didn’t seem… right. The same criticism has been levelled at The Fault In Our Stars, where the teenage protagonist seems to speak with the advanced vocabulary of, say, a 40-something man.
And then it hit me. For first person to work for me as a reader, the style it’s written has to tie in with the narrator in a way that convinces me the person is genuine. So, if a teenager is speaking suspiciously like the author, it’s not going to wash with me. If they can persuade me they’re talking with their own voice, with their own experiences, hopes and fears, then I can get on board.
In short bursts, first person grabs me. I like letters and diary entries thrown in between third person narration, somewhere the character can run wild. Necropolis by Anthony Horowitz does this rather well with Matt Freeman’s diary. In the long haul as a writer, I think I’d struggle to keep up the pretence. This year’s NaNoWriMo begins with a first person chapter, partly as an exercise in ‘just how long will this last’ and partly just to see how it looked.
It switched back to third person fairly rapidly, with the exception of- yep!- some letters and diary entries. Last year’s NaNo was also wholly third, with the exception of a letter in one chapter. If I’d decided to rewrite it as first person, would it have worked? Perhaps. If I let my selkie narrate it, I could keep in a lot of my own gratuitous thesaurus abuse, as it’s the sort of tone he might well take. But if I let my unruly teenager narrate the story, what would happen then? It would be somewhat more interesting, given his short temper and speaking English as a second language. I don’t think describing vermillion rocks and crystalline rain would come easily to him. It would be as easy as getting Kevin the Teenager to write War and Peace. Such is the problem with having an omniscient creator who should probably rein in the verbosity a bit. But that wouldn’t be fun, would it, Terribly Clever Pianist?
Ah well. I’m 9000 words from the end of this year’s effort, and there’s still time for a shift in perspective for a chapter or two…