The narrative voice in fiction relates to a number of other issues which I find exceedingly interesting. The most important of these is the approach the novel takes to the subjective nature of reality, the fact that events differ when recited from a different point of view. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, or the short stories on which it is based, but I have neither seen the film nor read the stories. This tells a story from a number of narrative perspectives, each shining a different light on events, each story slightly different. I am getting ahead of myself. The point is that the narrative voice is incredibly interesting and yet I doubt that many authors put much thought into their use of voice. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Would some things be better in a different voice to the one in which they are told? These are some of the questions which have been on my mind recently.*
Reading back over an old diary/notebook of mine recently I came across my discussion of this theme on 6th August 2010. I read it out to my girlfriend, and she told me about a story by a friend of hers which she had read recently which had been written in the first person. It was clearly a very personal piece, she told me, and she had questioned her friend’s decision to write it in the first person. Her reason for the questioning was the issue of “show, don’t tell” and its relationship to the emotions of the narrative voice. Her basic argument was that in the first person feelings can be stated, whereas in the third person they have to be carefully shown. The issue of “show, don’t tell” is a complicated one, which will come up a few more times I think, but I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of it now. I think that it is a good guideline, but believe that there are some things which need to be shown and others which need to be told. The key is to know which, and to have a reason.
My preference has usually been for the third-person narrative. As of August 6th 2010 I had read 32 books that year of which 12 had been, at least in part, first person. One of these was the book Gateway by Frederik Pohl, which has become a byword for bad first-person narratives in my mind not due to any explicit problems with the book, but because I could not stand the narrator, Robinette Stetley Broadhead. This isn’t really a legitimate reason – you can dislike main characters in third person narratives, although in those circumstances it is less likely to be so strongly rubbed in your face. I wonder if this is a guide: if your main character is likable, then you can get away with first person narrative. Emilio Sandoz, one of the main protagonists in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, is very likable, but he could not be the narrator for two reasons: the first is that he would have to be an unreliable narrator; the second is that the book contains a mystery.
This brings me to the first “legitimate” use of the first person: the investigator. Crime novels are perfect examples of an opportunity to use the first person narrator, for when there is a mystery to be solved who is better to take you through it than the person charged with solving it? In 2010 my first example was China Miéville’s The City and The City; another would be Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and any number of others. For the Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, we cannot solve the mystery as quickly as Holmes does – that would be too easy – and so Conan Doyle uses Watson as a medium through which we see the events, gather all the evidence, but who is equally stunned by Holmes’ deductive powers as we are. Taking us through the path to a discovery – this is a use of the first person.
Then there is the narrator who knows something which we do not – and who often tries to hide it. Gateway falls into this category; another book I read in 2010 which does is Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is essentially the story of a revelation, which must be revealed by the individual who received the revelation. A further dimension of this is the unreliable narrator. I have only read one/four books which are explicitly known to have an “unreliable” narrator, which are Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. I think these will need a re-read before I can comment fully on this use of the first person. The naive narrator, however, is aptly presented in The Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss Everdeen is so painfully unaware of her own circumstances at times that it’s hard not to shake your head and wonder at her.
A couple more thoughts emerge from The Hunger Games. I think that Suzanne Collins is fairly brave, especially in Mockingjay, not to push Katniss into every event of importance in order to show it. She allows some things to be told. We are taken by surprise, and we don’t know everything because Katniss doesn’t, even if we sometimes have more insight than she does. On the other hand, Katniss often has to explain things about her world which she shouldn’t have to do, unless she knows to whom she is talking (i.e. us, in the far past of her world) about which she gives no other indication. The finest examples of first person literature must be those when the audience is known, and it is believably the reader. Addressing the reader and pulling them in – “Call me Ishmael” – is the trick to the first person, it seems to me.
The Hunger Games and The Book of the New Sun also fall into a category of books which are the “first person historical narrative”; in these cases a major figure from a historical period is discussing the events which they lived through. In my opinion, regardless of what Graves himself says about them, one of the most interesting examples of this are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I read I, Claudius from Christmas day 2006 to an early point in 2007, but had to stop reading Claudius the God as I was studying Roman history I.vi, from Caesar to Claudius, at the time, and it was terribly confusing. But Graves was (very, very) well read in his Roman history, and I believe Claudius is made to highlight the fact that he makes a conscious decision contrary to that of the (real human being) Caius Julius Caesar when he choses to write in the first person. This, it seems, is an admission of bias, and of a subjective perspective on the history through which Claudius lived – and indeed, who else could have seen through Clau-Clau’s act of always playing the fool but the man himself? You wouldn’t trust a historian who told you he was not an idiot unless it was the man himself, prooving the contrary.
Once we are this far back in history it seems no greater difficulty to leap to the first example of a first-person narrative in the western literary tradition: Books 9 through 12 of The Odyssey, in which the travels of the hero are recited by the man himself. We cannot say whether or not there is any element of the unreliable narrator in “Homer”‘s consciousness – after all, we know Odysseus sits down and converses with gods, as he does with Athena when he returns to Ithaca. But we can interpret it as such now – Odysseus is the only survivour of the Ithacan ships which departed Troy ten years earlier; there are no voices to counter his account. If there is a modern literary novel based on this premise I would really, really like to read it, so please let me know.
The Odyssey follows a narrative structure which was common in the epistolary novel; that is the narrative-within-a-narrative. One of my first encounters with this method was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which features a framing narrative by a Mr. Lockwood, who in turn recites the story which was told to him by the housekeeper at the Grange, Nelly Dean. It is questionable how successful this is, as Nelly is places in several scenes where perhaps one might not expect a nursemaid to appear; it does, however, allow for a great deal of speculation about what Cathy and Heathcliff got up to when she wasn’t around.** Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein also uses the device of diaries and reporting-direct-speech within letters etcetera to tell the story. This is perhaps the best way to use multiple-first person narratives, short of the means used in Rashomon and the short stories on which it is based, which I still haven’t read, even though it’s been more than an hour.
The alternation of narrative viewpoint is a feature I still find strange in novels. The first novel in which I came across this feature was Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. I cannot tell you the reason why it was used in this book, or the sequels which followed it. I could understand if there were two separate first person accounts, that of Takeo and that of Kaede, but there are not – Takeo has a voice, Kaede has a third person narration. But it isn’t told in any really different way, except that Takeo calls himself “I” and Kaede does not. I also ought to point out that I don’t like either of these characters, although I did enjoy the series. Especially the end of the third book, for some reason. The short story “The Tain” by China Miéville changes voice in this way, with one character acting as a first person narrator type figure, which I dubbed “the expositionist” in my diary, on the basis that he sets the scene against which the third person narrative is told. I did find the first person narrative more interesting in this case though, and I wasn’t really that concerned with the third person protagonist.
Christopher Priest’s Inverted World uses this mode in a particularly effective way. The topic of the book is, in some ways, the subjective nature of reality and the way in which our perspectives are changed. I can’t go into any more details without risking spoiling the plot of the book, but there is a good reason for the person change and it is used well.
A final, bad use of the first person must be the “wish-fulfillment” first person. This is where the author inhabits the character about which they are writing and thus the character receives a great deal of favour and will often be infuriating – to me at least. In 2010 I read a fun fantasy story called Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin which essentially fulfilled this. It wasn’t a terrible thing, except that it wasn’t “for me”, and as I said on 6th August 2010: “I do find Severian’s [Book of the New Sun] claims about the beauty of the women he encounters as infuriating as Raine [Magic Lost, Trouble Found] lusting over the men in her life.” A real concern on this front would be the Twilight series – but I must be fair, and I haven’t read them, so I cannot comment.
It seems to me that the third person narrative is the norm, and I would expect this to be the natural way in which to tell a story and an alternative choice is just that – a decision to do something different. But it seems as if so many books in the nineteenth century were first person, that this actually seems to be the norm. That The Iliad is third and it is not until The Odyssey that we have an extensive first person narrative suggests that it is foolish to think one is more “normal” than the other. But it is certainly the case that in my experience third person narratives are more common, and so I’m not so sure that I have that much to say about them.
The advantage is that multiple points of view, or the omniscient narrator following more than one character, becomes more possible and believable to follow. There’s no question why a third person narrative changes protagonist from time to time, and some uses of the third person take the view from inside a character’s – or several characters’ – head. But the depth of this is limited, if the “show, don’t tell” risk is not to leach into the third person narrative, at least for emotions, too. My girlfriend seemed to think that there was more art to the third person, as you have to find ways to show emotions which you can tell in the first; I would argue that what you tell in the first is not necessarily the truth, unless you show it to be. But this is not the be-all and end-all of the choice of voice.
I wonder sometimes about the choice of voice. Why, for example, aren’t the Harry Potter books told in the first person, when most of what we see is through Harry and not (for example) Hermione or Ron? In this case, I think it is a question of the ability to relate to the character. Harry is a lot more believable as an “everychild” in the third person, rather than telling a unique story. We can empathise with his feelings without having them shoved down our throats. Do I think this was a conscious choice on the part of J.K. Rowling? I seriously doubt it, to be honest. Why would she have considered this, if Harry sounded to her in the third person?
My girlfriend questioned her friend’s use of the first person, and I think, if you are a friend of a person writing a book or short story who is reading it, it might be worth asking them about their use of voice. They might not have thought about it, and you might make them really self-conscious about it so that they have great difficulty writing. Uh, but don’t let that put you off. It might stimulate some interesting thoughts in their writing. Or it might just be that the story sounds better to them in the voice it’s in – that is their decision, and it’s unlikely to be a mistake if it feels right to them. First person, third person – their choice of voice is all about finding their own voice, and that is the best way to write.
* I have never read a book in the second person, so I am not going to mention it again in this blog. But that is also interesting and everything, of course, although it’s also really weird.
** They were totally doing it, FYI.