Me, Me, Me – the I Voice

We all live our lives in the first person. And in many ways we narrate our lives, when we tell stories about things that have happened to us or when we simply report the day’s events to our spouses or friends. Some of us engage in internal narration: I put on my red pea coat and walk outside. It is dark and cold, but if I get to the office early, I can leave early to go to the dentist…
Since everybody has one, the first person voice is familiar to everybody. That should make it an easy and obvious choice when writing a book, right? Yes and no. Not every character, witness the one above with the dentist appointment, makes an interesting first person narrator. Not every book lends itself to the first person voice.
So when might you consider writing in the first person? Since everything has to be filtered through the eyes of the narrator in the first person voice, the narrator has to be in a position to know the action of the book first hand, or to learn it from another character. Therefore he/she is usually the main character in the book. Since that character will be taking up a lot of space, it helps if she/he has a distinctive voice like Holden Caulfield in CATCHER IN THE RYE.
First-person narrators can also be reporters, relatively minor characters who observe and report on primary characters as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, where Nick Carraway tells the story of Jay Gatsby.
Once you have opted for a first person voice, then you have to decide:
1) How the person is telling the story. Is it an interior monologue? A tale the narrator is telling to someone else? A letter or series of e mail messages? A dramatic monologue? Something the narrator is sitting down to write?
2) Past or present tense. Is the story ongoing? Did it already happen?
3) Is your narrator reliable? Beginning writers should probably always use a first person narrator who is telling the truth. To adopt a narrator who isn’t factual is to add a whole level of complexity to the writing of the story.
4) Voice. How does your narrator talk or write? This is the hardest part of writing in the first person. It can be very difficult to separate your voice as the writer from the voice of your character. Yet, book narrators speak in very different ways from our own narrative voices. Writers of successful first person narration do not just pour out what’s in their heads. Try it some time, and see if you produce great prose or if it is just annoying. The truth is that characters in books do not write or speak the way people do in life. You will find that developing a first person voice takes considerable working and reworking. You will want to consider your character’s regional and social background. You will want to choose your first person narrators words carefully.
Below are the participants in the conversation from the last blog, all of them great examples of first person narration:
1) JANE EYRE, Charlotte Bronte
2) INVISIBLE MAN, Ralph Ellison
3) ELOISE, Kaye Thompson
4) Holden Caulfield, CATCHER IN THE RYE, J.D. Salinger
5) Balram Halwai, THE WHITE TIGER, Aravind Adiga
6) Ishmael, MOBY DICK, Herman Melville