Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Narration Part I - First Person Narrators

Tonight I decided to ask my friend Rachel to suggest a topic for me to write about. She suggested that I expand upon my feelings about first person vs. third person narratives and my thoughts on what the positives and negatives of each are. It's perfect really because I routinely have this argument with myself whenever I think about actually writing one of the many books that lives in my brain; I'm never sure if I'd rather write from a first person POV or a third person. Maybe this post will finally help me decide.  

Let's start with some formal definitions, paraphrased (of course!) from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, which I like to assume every former English major and professional writer/author have somewhere in their homes, just to refresh our memories.

First person narratives: the narrator is the "I" voice in the story, relating the events, and specifically their role in the events, from their point of view. Usually for this reason first person narrators are the main characters in a work (usually but not always).
Third person narratives: the narrator is not a character  with a role in the events of the story. The vast majority of third person narrators are considered omniscient, which is helpful because they know everything about everyone and everything going on in the story, non-omniscient third person narrators can happen, and they can be annoying. Third person is the most common form of narrative.

My top 5 Pros & Cons of first person narration

1. Personally invested in events 1. Potential for unreliability
2. Potential for multiple First person POVs 2. Limited insight into thoughts/feelings
 of other characters
3. Enables unique narrative formats
such as correspondence between two
First person narrators
3. Direct connection to the main character
 (it's a con when you hate the main character!)
4. Easier to envision yourself in place of the narrator 4. Can make it hard to see character
development in secondary and minor characters
5. Usually a faster read 5. Hard to balance giving enough info
and not giving away anything important

There's good first person narration...
I have a love hate relationship with the first person narrator. There are first person books that I have loved and some that I have abhorred.  For example, I can't stand The Great Gatsby because of the wholly unreliable narrator; which is also one of the many many reasons I am not a Twilight fan. Bella is one of the worst first person narrators ever, inconsistent, unreliable (hello giant chunk of New Moon that is missing because the narrator was catatonic!?!), and not exactly the brightest bulb in the box. And then there are first person narratives that I adored; like Legend, A Discovery of Witches, Sorcery & Cecelia, and Jumper to name a few...
and some that's not so good...

I like my first person narrators to be whimsical, intelligent and insightful. They need to be observant and relate those observations to me. If they hide things from me, or are continually inconsistent in the information they share with me I become annoyed quickly and my enjoyment of the novel decreases. When there are multiple povs I find first person works well, especially in cases where I don't like one of the narrators, there's an extra who I can get a different prospective of the same situation from. 

In my opinion the quality of the writing and the success of the first person narrator don't necessarily go hand in hand but they usually do. I often find that I get more enjoyment from the very strongly written first person narrators than I do the weakly written ones.

So now you know how I feel about first person narratives. Next week I'll share my thoughts on third person!

-- Ren

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