J.M. Williams

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When a First-Person Narrator’s Voice Just Doesn’t Jive

Jan
01

I’ve said it many times here, but it bears repeating: if you do not have a specific reason to write in first-person, don’t. It seems the default impulse of many writers is to just write first-person no matter what. That is what’s hip today, right? The problem is that publishers seem apt to take bad first-person writing over technically sound third-person, based on the personal preferences of the age rather than based on objective review.

Here’s a phrase that’s becoming cliche: First-person is easy to do badly but very difficult to do well. It’s cliche but it’s also very true. First-person requires you to write only what your character knows, and only how she can express it, and only what she considers relevant. The fact that the store your story takes place in has a sordid 50-year history might be critical background to the tale, but if the character doesn’t care about that fact, why would she tell us? All of these problems amplify ten-fold when your character is a child.

Please don’t write first-person stories where the narrator is a child unless you really plan to rein in your prose. Kids don’t think in sentences you would find in a James Joyce story. Kids don’t care about Joyce (nor do I very much). You cannot be flashy with a child narrator. You can be stylish but retain the limited perspective, if you write in third-person.

Below is a story that would be perfect in third-person limited, but as it stands, suffers from a disconnect between the narrator’s character and voice.

One of the issues is that the narrative voice does not reflect the character. Some of the prose is too complex or poetic, the background details too specific for a child. Writing first-person really requires a lot of care and focus. You have to consider what the character knows, what she cares about, how she speaks, and so forth.The way mom scooped her up (and the child not knowing the man was her father and calling him a giant) suggests that she is four or five years old. How would a child that age know about the shelves being moved before she was even born, or that grandma’s shop has been open for 20 years, or that the inventory has changed? Why would a child even care enough to tell us?

Along the same lines, I don’t really buy the line that compares mama’s hot breath to a dragon. What experience does this kid have to make that judgment? I get that the kid has a worldview painted by fairy tales (which is great), but to know what a dragon’s breathing is like requires more than just a picture in a book. It requires video/audio experience. I doubt this four-year-old is watching the Hobbit at home. Maybe mama made breathing noises when reading to her about dragons in her fairy tale books? That would help to tease out where she even gets her fairy tale knowledge from. As it stands, we don’t really know where her fairy tale knowledge comes from, which is a core aspect of the story. We can assume, but a reader should never have to guess. We need some foundation to accept the narrator using such metaphors.

First-person is very hard to do well, and I wish writers would think twice before using it without specific purpose. If your story is a recollection, a person describing a memory, that is a perfect reason to use first-person. A story simply relaying events at a specific period in time rarely warrants first-person since third can do all that is necessary without the problem of voice. That being said, this is still a pretty good piece, much better than most (the fairy tale imagery helps a lot).


The Giant by Catina Tanner (posted on Flash Fiction Magazine)

He walked into my grandma’s old shop on Main about the same time the noon sun started to come through the windows. I wasn’t able to see his face, just a sun-kissed ball of thick, curly raven hair. He looked like a giant to me as he walked straight over to where I was playing on the dirty hardwood floor.

He joined my game without me having to tell him the rules. Matter of fact, I didn’t have to say a word, he knew exactly not to step on the round black stains where the feet of an old set of shelves used to stand. Grandma’s store was a book shop when she bought it 20 years ago. Now the shop sold camping and fishing equipment, mainly because there wasn’t much else to do where we lived…Read the Full Story Here

2 Responses to When a First-Person Narrator’s Voice Just Doesn’t Jive

  1. I agree with you. First person is tricky; you have to be careful.

    By the way, I hope the author you offer advice to received it with grace. When I post a story, I would like the reader to offer similar advice because it would help me see the flaws.

    • The story is really nice, but with a little bit more care it could be perfect. Everyone deserves the chance to make their stories perfect, but it’s very hard to do without feedback.

      I’ve written a couple first-person pieces, but they were highly dependent on memory and as such required it. Somebody once read one of my third-person stories and suggested putting it in first. I considered the advice and went through the story with that in mind. But in the end, I saw no justification for it. The advice did help me expand the character and the emotion of the piece though, so I am glad I got it. In the end, it comes down to whether it is necessary or not.

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