My battered copy
One of my favourite books and certainly one of the most influential on me as a writer is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I loved that book as a teenager and I still do. The narrator of the book is Jane herself and she speaks directly to me and the millions of Bronte’s fans. There is something wonderful about the way the character engages us in her story: it is as if Jane is in the room with us. She is as honest a narrator as she is a character and you are immediately on her side. That immediacy is one of the strengths of first-person narration. But there are downsides, as I discovered when I wrote my trilogy The Healer’s Shadow.
I soon discovered that not all readers are fans of first-person narration. One reviewer told me categorically that she didn’t like first-person narration because there was no suspense – she knew that the hero/heroine would survive to the end of the book. Actually that isn’t always true, but I can understand where she was coming from.
I also discovered that not everyone understands some of the devices and rules of first-person narration. One criticism my book Girl in the Glass has occasionally received is that the tense sometimes changes to the present, even though the majority of the book is written in the past tense. This happens when the central character is talking about an incident which is particularly vivid to her. This is acceptable in a first-person narrative, because the narration is reflecting what happens in real speech. When we start to relive the past, we will often start talking in the present tense. I could play safe and not shift tenses, but I feel that loses something.
I was reminded of the problems of first-person narration recently because I was reading a lovely book also written in the first person – When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld. The problem first-person narration gives a writer is that you can’t jump out of the head of the narrator and into someone else’s, which means that the story is filtered by what the narrator can see and know. At the macro level this means either the narrator has to see what happens or be told it by someone else who has seen it. Some readers (and reviewers) believe that a good book explains everything at the end – they want to understand the motivation of all the main characters, they want to know what happened to so-and-so who leaves the narrator’s world at the end of part one. If you are using a first-person narrator you will either disappoint them or create a narrator whose omniscience is not credible. Be honest – do you understand your own motivation, let alone anyone else’s?
Of course there is an upside to this problem and that is the games you can play with your narrator misinterpreting other characters and circumstances: an unreliable narrator as they say in the trade. It does seem to me that all narrators should be unreliable (to varying degrees) if they are human beings. My central character regularly gets things wrong and part of her character arc over the trilogy is how she comes to realize how wrong she has been.
On the micro level there are certain things that I have learned to look out for when I am going over my books. The most obvious of these are descriptions of things that are not visible to the narrator. These can be quite minor, but I find they can jolt me out of the first-person narrator’s consciousness. Another issue I try to tackle is the overuse of phrases such as “I saw”, “I heard” “I tasted” etc. In a way they are redundant in the first person – of course I saw it, I wouldn’t be describing it otherwise. There is a very real danger that you will overuse the word “I” in first-person narration, which is just as off-putting in a novel as when you are listening to someone. First-person narration’s very strength – its immediacy – can be negated by the overuse of the word.
First-person narration is a minefield for the writer. As I have outlined above, you will alienate some of readers just by using it, and others you will upset because of the limitations of the first-person narrative. There are even some agents who refuse to accept manuscripts written in the first person, but then some of the most successful books ever written recently and in the past have had a first-person narrator.