Monday, 21 June 2010

More Me Me Me - Writing in First Person

Jenny's comment yesterday has pointed out one of the big advantages of using first person - the unreliable narrator. As human beings we live a lot of our lives on trust which is why con men can be so successful. We just don't expect people to make up stuff about themselves. If I told you I have two children, or was brought up in London you'd believe me. Even people who put more of a shine on things that is usual - Jeffrey Archer springs to mind - stick fairly closely to the truth. So when a first person narrator tells you X, you don't automatically assume it's a lie. The unreliable narrator may be deliberately unreliable, or they may have been deceiving themselves as well as the reader. Part of the joy of reading the unreliable narrator is the slow dawning that all is not as it seems. Jenny mentioned Robert Browning's My Last Duchess; my example would be Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal.

Other first person advantages. I mentioned yesterday that if the reader doesn't like the character then the writer is stuffed, but the opposite is also true: if the reader likes the character then the writer has it easy. It's very easy to identify with a first person narrator if you like them, probably one of the reasons so many teenage/young adult books have a first person narrator. You've got a hot line into someone's brain, and they're thinking just the same stuff you do! Reader identification is a big plus.

Voice is another advantage. I can remember reading the first page of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. It was before I started writing myself and didn't know about technical words like voice, but I could hear the first person narrator's voice zing off the page and knew I was reading something different and exciting. Your character may not be likeable, but if they have a great voice, people will read on.

A first person narrator is telling you, the reader, a story. This has the disadvantage that you know that they must have survived to tell the tale (otherwise they wouldn't be telling you) so if the denouement hinges on whether they survived going off the cliff or not, you've got problems. But because they're telling the tale it means they can explain stuff to the reader. I love the Mary Stewart trilogy about Merlin - The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment - which are all first person. Merlin tells us things that would be hard to convey quickly using other methods - the background to the Saxon invasions, the complicated kingdoms of Wales for example.

I've got a How To book which says that the other big advantage of first person is humour. I've had a quick look at three writers who I find funny - Terry Pratchett, Tom Sharpe and Stephen Fry - and they're all writing in third. I think humour is tied into voice: some people can say anything and it's hilarious. I mean, just thinking about the titles of Louise Rennison's books and I'm smiling - Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging, Knocked Out by my Nunga-Nungas, Startled by his Furry Shorts - but it's the voice that's funny.

So there we go, some advantages, some disadvantages. I think I might try writing something in first later on this year and see what happens, but I'll also remember the big big disadvantage that I forgot yesterday: people generally prefer reading third person. It's a very general rule and there are lots of exceptions, but...perhaps I'll stick to third.

Who lives near Birmingham? On 23rd June 6.30 - 8.30 Lucy Diamond, Milly Johnson, Veronica Henry and me will be talking about writing at Birmingham Library. Come and meet us!

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