So in that other post about first person, my friend Ashley brought up that a lot of the things I’d pointed out as pros and cons of first person could also be altered by voice. Now in my mind, first and third person have different effects on me as a reader. That doesn’t mean that they can’t cross over or at least attempt to. There are some writers who manage to effectively use a third person narration in different and unique ways, and so I want to take a look at some authors I’ve read recently who have used third person a bit differently from the norm.
Again, a disclaimer: This is just opinion, and hardly an in-depth look. I’m looking at how these narrative structures affect me as a reader and how I react to the story because of them.
“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
–From Peter and Wendy
I used to looooove this book when I was a kid. Seriously, I read it all the time, and now I’m revisiting it as an adult. I picked it up just a few days ago and read this opening paragraph (which is probably what
got me thinking about narrators). A smile immediately came to my face the second I started reading.
So we have someone sharing this story with us. It’s very much like my father sitting down to tell me a story. Is it intimate? Yes. It is very comforting and quite intimate. Do I distrust this narrator? Now that is the big question. Clearly, this narrator is a bit tongue in cheek, but that doesn’t mean I distrust him the way I would if, say, Wendy were telling this story.
Held at a distance by third person, the question of “how true is this story” is not important. Now if the story were one told in first person, there would be much more resistance on my part. I’d be constantly questioning the narrator, whether they believe this story to be true and just how crazy are they.
Plus, this particular narrator is not a character in the story. He’s an observer/teller of tales, and I think that in my mind that’s exactly what lends him some of his credibility even though he’s clearly telling a tale that is suspect.
“Orbiting this [small unregarded yellow sun] at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green plant whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
–From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Again, an opening paragraph that sets the tone for the book. Is there any wonder why Adams is so loved? This is another opening that surprises me again, even though I’ve read it twice now. He’s the same man who explained in one of the stories in this series that in order to fly you have to aim for the ground and miss. Simple right? Why haven’t I thought of that before? *makes note to give this a try from a low altitude*
Is this intimate? Yes, in a way. I mean, someone is telling me this story with every aside that he thinks I should know and sometimes side stories he thinks are funny. I LOVE this narrator. But this also holds me away from the characters, specifically Arthur Dent. Do I feel for Dent when his planet is blown up? Well, yeah, kinda, but that could be because it’s our home planet that Adams blows up in this first book (thanks to those paper pushing Vogons and their sneaky administrative ways).
Do I trust this narrator? Well that is questionable. I sort of get the feeling that I’m a therapist and this narrator is sitting on my couch telling me this crazy story he saw when he traveled to the future. But once again, because this is a third person narrative and because I feel at a distance from the story, the issue of trustworthiness becomes less important than the messages hidden throughout the satire.
“These days the nights and mornings have a tendency to bleed into one another. Old-fashioned notions of a.m. and p.m. have become obsolete and Dexter is seeing a lot more dawns than he once used to.
On the 15th of July 1993 the sun rises at 05.01 a.m. Dexter watches it from the back of a decrepit mini-cab as he returns home from a stranger’s flat in Brixton. Not a stranger exactly, but a brand new friend, one of many he is making these days, this time a graphic designer called Gibbs or Gibbsy, or was it maybe Biggsy, and his friend, this mad girl called Tara, a tiny birdlike thing with woozy, heavy eyelids and a wide scarlet mouth who doesn’t talk much, preferring to communicate through the medium of massage.”
-From One Day (beginning of Chapter 6)
I read this book recently with friends, and I found it a fascinating study in techniques. First off, it’s told in the third person omniscient. The focus will slip from Emma to Dex with little transition. There isn’t even a scene break to indicate that there’s going to be a refocusing, but it’s effective. At no point did I feel lost. The first time it happened, I think there was something of a bump as I went back to read over the paragraphs where the shift happens. Unfortunately, it happens right in that blank line between the two, so there was nothing much to do but accept it.
Now this story starts off being told in the usual third person past tense, but this quote here is in present tense. It took me a moment to notice the transition, and when I discussed it with friends, at least one or two of them confessed that they hadn’t noticed the change until it was mentioned. One friend (one who hadn’t noticed it) brought up a good point—it seems to be used to mark the routine of this character’s days. (Part of it all being that his average isn’t average for the normal person.)
Now this narrative is a little more serious than the last two, but it’s still somewhat quirky. One Day is a literary fiction novel that is supposed to have elements of humor in it as well as some truths about life, love, relationships. The narrator is not a character. No one is sharing a story with us. I can’t even call the narrator a “he” here. It’s more of a narration system/technique. There is nothing getting between the reader and the characters.
Except the words. “He” or “she” when referencing the main characters does push me back which is not a bad thing. It helps me transition easily when the focus snaps from Emma over to Dex. This is possibly the type of story that could be told from the first person point of view and focused on only one character, but then it would have gotten messy with their personal bias. A first person narrator would not have been trustworthy in the same way this non-entity narrator happens to be. How can a non-entity/narration system lie? They can’t, they’re just telling us what Emma and Dex are thinking and doing.
Quirky third person narrators add interesting energy to a story. I think I have one more piece I’d like to look at, and that is one specific example of a quirky first person narrative which happens to be told by the writer. It’s all very meta, but it was nearly maddening with the questions it brought up that weren’t even posed by the text, but just by his choice of narration system.
I’ve been doing a bit of writing and reading over the weekend, and something sort of occurred to me– writing first person in the present tense feels more natural than writing first person in the past tense.
First off, uh oh, a post about writing. Let me make it clear that I’m not arrogant enough or confident enough to suddenly start giving lessons on writing, so that is not what I mean to do here. If anything, I would like to just start the discussion because it’s interesting and I might learn something or come away with some evolved thoughts on the subject. So to get on with it…
First person can be good to tell a story where you want the reader to be intimately close. Personally, I find first person stories easier to fall into. I like the idea of looking through the world from someone else’s eyes, even if it’s someone I might not agree with. Another possibility with first person is the narrator who is telling a story as if the reader is one of their friends, which is also an interesting way to get a story across.
But there are problems with first person. What if the reader doesn’t want to be that particular character? What if they don’t like them or can’t identify with them? I don’t think it’s possible to create a first person narrator that will connect with every single reader.
Another issue is the tense. If the narrator is telling the story in the past tense about one of their adventures, well then we can assume that they have lived to tell this tale. There is a possibility this will diffuse some of the tension of the story that is being told.
So what’s the easiest way to retain tension? Write it in present tense. Have the character tell you the story as it happens to them. This is my preferred method. I use it to purposely make the reader feel a little anxious– not about the story though. The use of present tense just seems to have this effect on people, which is why many don’t like to read stories written in present tense.
But of course there are still issues. The big one is the fact that your narrator is narrating their life as they live it. They’re telling you and themselves when they’re opening doors or when they’re sitting down and picking on their nails. It is sort of strange, and I try to be aware of just how strange. One of the things I do to get around this is have the character talk about physical sensations against their bodies and leave narration for other characters’ actions. But nothing is perfect, and neither is this method. Sometimes, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, the character just has to say what they’re doing.
I choose the point of view based on the experience I imagine I’d like the reader to have. Of course there’s one other thing about my first person narrators in particular. You can’t really trust them. I mean, they’re telling you the truth as far as they’re concerned, but that doesn’t mean it is the absolute truth. They could have been lied to or they could have formed a wrong opinion based on what they’ve been told. I try to use this as part of the narration, characterization of the speaker and the story. First person is really just one technique I enjoy messing with.