first person narratives

There’s a lovely commentary about first person narration here by Caitlín, who is a novelist, writer and a Farscape person. She has articulated (at various points in her blogging) some of the reasons I dislike reading first person stories. Here’s a bit of what she wrote:

This is not to say that first-person narratives can’t excel. They certainly can, despite the fact that they almost never do. Examples of excellent first-person narratives are easy enough to list. But I think they require a writer of unusual talent to do well. And I consider myself only a writer of usual talent.

I find it hard to list many excellent examples of first-person narration. Generally they just irritate me. If I pick up a novel and find it to be in first person, I will put it down four times out of five. I suppose the problem is, I don’t like being stuck in one person’s head. I want the broader story, the bigger picture. First person stories are by definition insular, and I usually don’t have the patience to deal with that, these days. It’s a little frustrating, I’ll admit, as it seems to me that there are more of them being published all the time.

Certainly students I’ve worked with seem to gravitate toward first person narrative, out of fear or familiarity, I’m not sure. What I do know is, I chase them out of that yard as fast as they can run. I don’t accept any first person work when I’ teaching an intro to fiction course. The same way I make them submit all their work in double spaced Courier 12: because I want to make them focus elsewhere, and forget about the way the print looks on the paper.

Which reminds me of one of the funnier things I ever heard a faculty member say. This was at Princeton, when I was a grad student. Imagine a bald, serious professor of medieval literature with a heavy German accent saying: “No, this word processing nonsense, this will never do. If the sentence looks nice on the paper, an undergraduate thinks it must automatically mean something.”

And since I’m on the subject, the funniest thing I ever heard an undergraduate student say at Princeton. A crowd of them were coming out of a seminar in the German department and one turned to the other and said: “I don’t get it. Why was Nietsche so hung up on cows?”

The last word is the key. Pronounce it with a German accent; it’s worth the effort.


edited to add that the link to
Caitlín is via Sillybean. Silly me.

7 Replies to “first person narratives”

  1. After a quick glance at my shelf, I’ve found three instances of first person done well. Two are mystery writers: Elizabeth Peters and Charlaine Harris. I think first person works well in mystery, since both the protagonist and the reader are necessarily operating on limited information.

    The other example is Jacqueline Carey. Her books (Kushiel’s Dart and sequels) are lush, epic fantasies, but the heroine is constantly trying to unravel mysteries, navigate court intrigue, or — as she’s abducted with alarming regularity — learn enough about her captors to win her freedom. She works as a courtesan to gather information from varied sources. (These books come with a disclaimer for potential readers: the heroine’s work-related activities are, shall we say, less than conventional, and very vividly described.)

    What I take away from my little survey is that first person is useful when the narrator is simply trying to learn something. In a less restricted plot, a less restricted point of view makes more sense.

  2. and there’s always To Kill a Mockingbird, of course. I’ll have a look at Kushiel’s Dart, and see what other titles I can put here that (1) are in first person and (2) I like enough to re-read.

  3. Outlander by Gabaldon. Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager, as well, but in Drums of Autumn I think Gabaldon branched into other POVs.

  4. “Tomorrow When the War Began” by John Marsden is a wonderful, brilliant novel written entirely in first person. I also liked Geraldine Brook’s “The Year of Wonders”, mostly because the first person narrative was so unreliable…

  5. Even though it can be tedious in some situations i think that sometimes first person narrative can add something unique if it is well thought out, i just read a short story called the biography or something to that effect (i wish i could remeber) and it was narrated in first person – and the beauty of the story was in the very eccentric voice of the character, it had such texture (i can’t articulate its magic very well) and it accomplished so much through the first person narrative that would be hard to do in other narratives – i think 1st person has a place in literature, and if someone knows what they are doing a first person narrative can be fabulous b/c although it narrows the focus it opens a world of different perspective and insight.

  6. Ah.

    Perhaps you don’t read detective fiction.

    I read a lot of first person narrative, because I enjoy the feeling of being a told a story, as if the narrator left me a long personal message. I’m reading less and less fiction that isn’t in first person, simply because I found I was skimming to get over The Writing and back to the telling.

    Sometimes the what-if premise of speculative fiction works well in first person, when that gives the reader a chance to be in the mind of a being unlike most humans.

  7. I’m glad people have come up with examples of first person narratives that work well for them, but in the end, I think this is primarily a matter of taste, no?

    Ter: I do read a great deal of detective fiction, actually. The stuff I like best is invariably in third, though there are exceptions.

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