You must have encountered them too. Readers who tell you they don’t like novels written with an “I” as narrator. To them, first person modes of narration smack of egotism, of self-advancement, of pushy confession.
Don’t pay too much heed.
In some non-fictional prose, travelogues for instance, the use of “I” is regarded as an asset, even to those who detest it in fiction. It implies the author was an eye-witness; the reader is given access to first-hand experience. Which is why a writer of fiction may be tempted to deploy first person narrative too: the device will enhance the ‘directness’ of the story, even if the narrator was no real witness and the ‘events witnessed’ sprang from the imagination. In a sense, this writer creates a scam.
In any kind of fiction, “I” is a character, or akin to a character. The person or entity who says “I” is not—I repeat: NOT!—the author. Readers readily acknowledge this when the one called “I” will inhabit a ranch in the Brazilian backlands, or hold a position at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. However, as soon as the ‘world’ inside the narrative resembles that of the reader or presumably the author, especially when presented as a memoir, chances are that the story will be seen as a confession or an ego-document.
Some works of fiction go to great lengths to create that very impression. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that many readers—represented by Oprah Winfrey—took offence when it was revealed that A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a glaring account of his struggles with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, during which the author had to spend 87 days in jail, was a scam. BUT. It was a scam because the book catered to the reading public’s hunger for hard-luck memoirs. Frey had initially presented the work as a novel, a proposal overruled by publishers who were after the big buck.
Memoirs sold better, the publishers opined; and right they were. Frey played along when the novel was selected for Oprah’s book club. When the scandal broke loose at last, Oprah had him back on the show to chide him for lying.
Why not praise him for his successful attempt to create an illusion of veracity? After all, an ‘illusion of veracity’ is the mark of fiction. But the real issue is that boundaries were blurred and distinctions erased. Fiction was presented as fact; fact turned out to be fiction.
In the 1900’s, a Dutch novelist of the realist school wrote a novel called A Posthumous Confession in which “I”, unbeknownst to anyone, including the police, has poisoned his recently deceased wife. He proceeds to narrate all events and reasons leading up to his crime, in naturalist style. Though the author’s second wife died in the year the book was published, nobody thought anything of it back then; no one confounded the narrator with the author. It was quite convenient that the narrator should kill himself at the end of the book, whereas the author Marcellus Emants continued to live and write for another twenty-three years.
One cannot help wondering whether Emants would have been left in peace by law enforcers in the modern age.
Sadder and wiser
When you decide to ignore your best friend’s abhorrence of first person narration, one option would be to have your “I” look back on events. This almost inevitably creates a kind of wistfulness or reflective mood. More importantly perhaps, this particular perspective testifies to the life-altering, or life-shattering, quality of your story, at least in hind-sight.
Oddly enough, hindsight may enhance suspense and create an atmosphere of expectation. This is how Moon Palace (Paul Auster) opens:
It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it. Little by little, I saw my money dwindle into zero; I lost my apartment; I wound up living in the streets. If not for a girl named Kitty Wu, I probably would have starved to death. I met her by chance as a form of readiness, a way of saving myself through the minds of others. That was the first part. From then on, strange things happened to me. I took the job with the old man in the wheelchair. I found out who my father was. I walked across the desert from Utah to California. That was a long time ago, of course, but I remember those days well, I remember them as the beginning of my life.
I came to New York in the fall of 1965.…
As the excerpt shows, this mode enhances the narrator’s tone-of-voice: an odd mixture of testiness and vulnerability. You sense ragged edges, hard-won wisdom, the promise of tough times, making for breathtaking tales. However, as the first sentence of the next paragraph suggests, your narrator can’t remain on that cloud. Soon he will have to zero in on things as they really were.
I as witness
Contrary to popular misconception, the “I” need not be the protagonist of the book. In his last novel, Just Above My Head, James Baldwin introduces Hall as the narrator for the major part of his grandiose novel; and this Hall wonders what went wrong, why his—now famous—young brother should die at the hands of queer bashers while on tour in Ireland. As the novel unfolds, Hall begins to suspect that he and his family, plus the evangelical milieu in Harlem and the racism surrounding it, aggravated his brother’s problems; and that he himself had failed miserably in the role of Arthur’s protector. Hall goes as far as acting as road-manager to his brother and his friends, four unknown black gospel singers, touring the southern states, yet he feels powerless to shield them from danger in places where bigotry and racism are rampant at the time. Almost as an act of penance (if shot through with furtive curiosity), Hall imagines—and describes—how Arthur first makes love with one of those friends while on tour; an event he himself never witnessed.
Thus, Hall builds a touching monument in honour of his brother; it is only fitting that he, in another self-effacing if noble gesture, like a musician in a combo who temporarily recedes to the background, should make room for piano-playing Jimmy, Arthur’s bereaved lover, to recount the closing scenes—in other words, there is a final shift in perspective, the story is told by another “I”.
Using “I” as a witness to momentous events he or she plays no major part in is taxing for any writer, to say the least. It requires that you create a character who is involved and who has the sensitivity, or at least the will, to understand others. You must be able to render scenes in a vivid, direct manner, so that the witness does not become a fourth wall, so to speak, between those scenes and your reader.
Back in the ‘here and then’
Thus far, we have mentioned first person narrators who aren’t center stage: witnesses to another, more important protagonist; narrators who reminisce over—or relive—momentous events in a remote past. At the same time, they must capture the gist of the story as it unfolds. You cannot avoid the turns, the clashes, and the pain that define your story.
Hall, the brother, portrays Arthur in a way that Arthur, too enmeshed in his problems, could not have done for himself. Sadder & wiser narrators recline in armchairs in order to relive the catastrophes that beset them in the past.
Study the masters
Whatever specific mode first person narration may assume, remember that any “I” in a story or novel plays doubles. The “I” is both a narrator and one of the characters. This lends depth to the story, but may easily lead to failure. As a narrator, the “I” might stand between the reader and events as they unfold; an inexperienced writer may lapse into verbiage and avoidance of drama; the narrative stops in its tracks. When Paul Auster—the Moon Palace author gets stuck, he tells himself to be ‘swift and mean’—which presumably means: cut the crap, don’t beat about the bush, face the hidden pain. Tips and tricks are to no avail here; better to learn at the feet of the great.
- One outstanding, and classic, example of direct first person narration is Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Directness, passionate opinions and scathing cynicism—as well as tenderness for his young sister Phoebe—lend the novel its bite. Holden Cauldfield seems to recount his findings as he muddles along, though there is a backstory: his expulsion from school. During the course of the finale it is revealed that Holden tells his story as an inmate of a psychiatric institution. The format, however, is that of direct first person narration: we suffer—and enjoy—as we go along with Holden’s sufferings.
- In First Love (1861), by Ivan Turgenev, men in their middle years agree to exchange stories of their first loves—insipid affairs, as it turns out. However, the narrator says his first encounter with love was so out of the ordinary that he needs time to write it all down—and that will be the substance of Turgenev’s novella. So much so, that we are made to forget the original setting. We are swept away by the main story, in which the narrator is a fourteen-year-old virgin, enthralled by Zinaida’s magic. This is not to say that Turgenev should have removed that opening scene. It partakes in a wafer-thin web of signals indicating that things in the adult world are not what they might seem to the receptive eye of an innocent adolescent—which is what lends the story its heart-rending quality.
- In My Old Home (1921), a story by Chinese author Lu Xun, the narrator is struck by the utter dreariness of his home town, where he returns after many years to assist his mother in relocating and the necessary winding up of her affairs. The gloom of the landscape influences the narrator, who is appalled by the prospect of selling family heirlooms to the highest bidder. Then he hears his mother mention his boyhood friend, Jun-tu:
[H]e always inquires after you, and wants very much to see you again. I told him the probable date of your return home, and he may be coming any time.
And all of the sudden, the narrator’s gloom is gone:
At this point a strange picture suddenly flashed into my mind: a golden moon suspended in a deep blue sky and beneath it the seashore, planted as far as the eye could see with jade-green watermelons, while in their midst a boy of eleven or twelve, wearing a silver necklet and grasping a steel pitchfork in his hand, was thrusting with all his might at a zha [a kind of weasel] which dodged the blow and escaped between his legs.
The main story is related in a straightforward manner; the backstory is rendered in moments of reminiscing or in short, dreamlike sequences like the paragraph quoted above. The reunion with his friend of yore will ultimately deepen the narrator’s gloom: Jun-tu, fallen from grace as it were, no longer partakes in the dreamscape they once shared. The past may temporarily kindle hope, but it will never come back.
The narrator, the character, and you
You, the writer, know it all. Your narrator does not know it, or—in case he’s a sadder and wiser “I” looking back—only partially; in principle, the knowledge or understanding of the narrator is as limited as that of any other character.
Hopefully, the above examples suggest the boundless possibilities embedded in the pronoun “I”. Remember that “I” is not you, the writer. Even if you write in an autobiographical vein, it is only a version of you, an ‘alter ego’—in other words, a narrator who might be your twin, or you at some juncture in your biography, or you in some particular role or capacity.
This is no injunction to cultivate mendacity. However, the “I” who hovers at the threshold of your story does play doubles. He is both the narrator who describes the action and reflects on it, and a character partaking in it. And the more he merges with the character, the more limited his point-of-view; which is a great asset if you need to avoid spoilers within the narrative itself.