Oct 28 2009

Writing an Engaging First-Person Narrator

Published by at 10:22 pm under Narration,Voice,Writing Articles

One recurring problem I’ve noticed with first-person narrators written by first-timers is that they tend to narrate their life as though it were a movie script with perhaps a few corny thought lines thrown in. 

I did X.  I was angry.  I punched Y.  Adrenaline pumped through my veins.  Man, that was rough. 

That’s awful.  Switching to third-person wouldn’t address all of the problems with this passage, but I feel it’s generally better at accommodating a movie-like novel with a relatively subdued narrator.   The only thing the first-person perspective does in this case is accentuate how totally bland and unstylish the character sounds.

First-person narration hinges on three critical factors.

1.  An interesting voice for the narrator(s).  We’re going to be hearing the character(s) a lot, so he really needs to communicate with style.  Why would readers want this character to tell the story rather than an objective third-person narrator?  Why will readers want to read this character narrating 300 or 400 pages?  If your answer to either of the previous questions is just “because she’s the main character,” I would highly recommend revamping her voice, particularly if you’re deadset on using her as a first-person narrator. 

2.  The narrator thinks in an interesting way.  For example, he might make odd interjections that show us what his thought process is like.  For example, a fashionista eyeing another character’s fur coat might let us know that it’s fit to be a rug in a wilderness lodge.  An environmentalist looking at the same coat might describe it in a gruesome manner that brings grisly homicides to mind.  What sort of life experiences, goals, feelings and mannerisms does your narrator bring to the story? 

3.  The character needs an interesting perspective.  If a character  isn’t actually present at critical scenes and is generally in the dark, he probably isn’t a strong choice for narrator (or point-of-view, for that matter).  If the character is just idly wondering about the plot that is unfolding somewhere else, the audience’s attention will start to wander towards plots that are unfolding in other books. 

In addition, the character’s perspective will probably influence the way in which he tells the story.   If a fashion blogger, a pickpocket and a Secret Service sniper looked at the same crowd at an inaugural ball, they’d focus on radically different details: the people and props that attract their attention, how they interact with the scenery and atmosphere, etc.  Characters might even interpret the same details in different ways.  For example, the fashion blogger might notice a poorly fitting shirt and make an aside about the perennial peril of hand-me-downs.  If the sniper saw that shirt, he’d only care about whether the bulge is a concealed weapon.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Writing an Engaging First-Person Narrator”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 31 Oct 2009 at 6:59 am

    I think Kyon, narrator of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya light novels, and also narrator of the anime, is particularly effective. I can only access fan-translations of the novels, because they have only recently been licensed and are not yet available in Australia, but I have rented the dubbed anime and the fanslated books are very well-fitting to the characterisation in the show.

    Though he is the narrator, he isn’t the main character, Haruhi Suzumiya is. He is interesting because of the style he tells the story in. For example, the entire story is about a reality warper who is unaware of her ability, a time traveller, ESPer, and alien, along with Kyon, the only normal human, who try to stop the reality warper from unknowingly ending the world by keeping her entertained.

    It is advantageous over third person because if it wasn’t told from his view, it would lack the snappy style and sarcastic wit in many places. Of course, it could be conveyed in dialogue rather than thought, but the wit often comes out in dialogue AND thought, meaning there is twice as much. The more wit the better. Haha. Also he calls Haruhi an idiot, moron etc a LOT, but only in his head, because he’s afraid to invoke her wrath. He probably would say it to her face, if it couldn’t cause her to subconsciously destroy the universe.

    “Damn them! What the hell, those damn teachers! They always get in the way!”
    Unsure why she was so angry, I asked:
    “Is there a problem?”
    “I hadn’t even handed out half the fliers and in comes a stupid teacher asking us to stop handing them out! What the hell is wrong with him?”
    You moron. If the teachers ignored something like students dressing up as bunny girls and handing out flyers at the school entrance, then that’d be abnormal!

    He does think in a really interesting way, complains about stuff Haruhi forces him to do, and makes random observations about the workings of Haruhi’s mind, and then saying something so hilarious I fall out of my chair. Haha. Despite the moments that should be annoying, I never find them to be so. You’d be complaining too if you constantly had to run around looking for non-existent creatures, getting stuck in time loops, making a really stupid movie for a school festival, in which his friend is put into more and more dangerous situations, and nearly getting killed by giant blue things constructed by her subconscious.

    I find the best part about him to be that in a group of five main characters, any one of whom could be used as narrator, it’s the normal, everyday guy who gets picked. It can’t be told from Haruhi’s perspective, because she doesn’t know she’s special, and she never knows about any of the weird things that happen. Furthermore, the time traveller, ESPer and alien are all aware of each other’s statuses, but Kyon, as a human, has no idea. This makes him a good reader-surrogate, because when they explain to him, it’s being explained to us.

    In conclusion, the series would not be as good if Kyon wasn’t the narrator.

  2. Holliequon 31 Oct 2009 at 8:51 am

    I’m writing in first person for my NaNo novel this year (urk) so I’m going to try and keep this in mind whilst I write.

  3. Beccaon 31 Oct 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I always write in first person… it just seems like the character and the story is totally real to me that way. Third person feels gimmicky to me, and I’m never as motivated to write when my story is in third. My NaNo this year is definitely going to be in first person again. The only challenge is making characters distinct from each other. Poppy from my NaNo has to be completely distinguishable from Zach from my other novel.

  4. RikuTomoshibion 13 Nov 2009 at 3:13 pm

    I’m wondering…I’m working on a character that has a history of severe homicidal tendencies, so I’m wondering if it would be interesting to have him think a surprisingly sadistic thought, then flicker back and wonder why he had just said that…
    He also becomes deranged when cats are involved in any way. Is that interesting enough, or do I need to change it to something a bit more…unlikely to be brought up in conversation?

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply