Thursday, May 9, 2013

Repost: Narrators- The Challenge of 1st Person

This is from the archives given that this week has been kinda bat-crap crazy for me.  It also reminds me that I need to get some serious work done on my next few chapters too....

The 2011 Smurf movie introduced us to a variety of unique smurfs, among them Gutsy (a kilted smurf) and Narrator (shown above).  At one point in the movie, while Narrator is describing the ongoing battle scene another smurf looks at him and shouts "Really?  Now?"  At this Narrator shrugs and says "It's what I do."

When it comes to 1st Person Past Tense writing I find that the idea of the narrator is profoundly problematic and one of the least understood or acknowledged challenges in writing, especially among young or new writers.  There is a distinctive appeal to having someone relate their accounts of events in their own words.  We, as readers, are treated to their thoughts, their statements of their feelings, and their interpretations of the story.

But we are also treated to their selective memory, their bias, and their agenda, hidden or otherwise.

Reading something in 1st Person, I need to know what the context of this dialogue with the narrator is.  Is this, as is the case in Catcher in the Rye, a single therapy session?  In the case of World War Z, it is the first hand stories of multiple survivors, talking to a historian and journalist.    Or is it a diary, as Twilight is implied to be?

Once I have context I then move to asking how much I should believe the narrator.  In the case of World War Z, I believe that most of what we read is honest.  Without spoilers, the characters admit to some pretty horrible things that they were forced to do as part of surviving the zombie apocalypse.  They are not stories that someone would make up to look good.

In contrast, consider Bella's self descriptions in Twilight and compare them to the actions of those around her.  She insists that she is unattractive, plain, and clumsy.  Yet she is so much an object of affection of the boys around her that they ask her to go to the girl's choice dance.  She insists that she has no redeeming qualities, yet the most attractive boys in the school demand to be with her.  Simply put, someone is not telling the whole truth.

When I first started writing short stories I mostly focused on 1st person.  I wanted to tell stories as I imagined myself living them.  I wanted to be the main character and I think that makes that narrative style a popular one, especially among young writers.  Now, I don't mean to imply that everyone who writes in this format is an immature narcissist.  Many great books (the aforementioned Catcher in the Rye for example) use this style to great effect.

I do believe, however, that it is one of the more challenging styles to use well.  A writer has to either make the character believable and reliable, or to account for that unreliability and thus be certain that it is not just the narrative but the character's view of the narrative that we, as readers, are given.

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