I read Ursula LeGuin’s revision of her excellent craft book, Steering the Craft. In it, LeGuin says that first person (“I”) is the easiest voice to write in.
I—what? Are you kidding me? It may seem natural to write in, but for my money it’s the hardest voice to tell a story in, or at least, tell a story well.
First person has great immediacy and an illusion of closeness. In a first-person narrative, there is an “I” and a “you;” even if the “you” is the reader. In real life, when we meet a person who is engaging, there’s nothing we like better than hearing their stories. When a person is self-centered, bitter, or arrogant, there is nothing we like less than hearing their stories, and we edge away. In readers’ terms, we put down the book. Writers who can create unlikeable but fascinating first-person narrators are usually highly gifted writers who have worked damn hard to create that push-pull of fascination.
First-person also limits what the narrator can know. For people like me who read a lot of genre books (fantasy, science fiction and mysteries especially) this is a common first-person problem. Usually the writer breaks down part way through and drops into third-person to share information the narrator doesn’t have. This never reads as natural in the book; it’s clearly the desperate move of someone who picked the wrong narrative voice to start with, or who didn’t think through how vital information would get shared with the reader if the narrator didn’t have it.
People seem to think that first person is somehow “natural” because we tweet, update Facebook, blog and post essays in it. When I’m blogging, I use, to a large extent, my “natural” voice. It isn’t consciously the narrative voice of a character. A character voice is what I should be creating when I’m writing fiction. This leads to my pet peeve of first-person; writers who use alternating first-person, and don’t do it well, so that there is no change of narrative voice. Becky the monster hunter sounds exactly like Justin, the hunky but mysterious werewolf she is so drawn to. Or, to leave genre for a moment; Becky, the single-mother bartender sounds just like Justin, the world-weary veteran who has returned to his father’s failing farm.
David Mitchell’s latest book, Slade House, is written in various first-person points of view; each section is discrete and each narrator only narrates in his or her section. Each voice is distinctly different; not only the eccentric ones, like the boy who is probably on the autism spectrum, but the others, who seem more ordinary, too. The book is a tour de force, and I’d love to use it as an example of how to write in first-person, but I don’t even know how Mitchell did this. He’s too good, and too hard-working, a writer for me to even be able to decipher it. Mitchell manages to pull off stream-of-consciousness first person, something I didn’t think was possible. From very early on in the book, I as the reader understood that I wasn’t the “you;” I wasn’t a listener or a known audience. The stories unfold within the consciousness of each narrator. At the risk of sounding truly silly, I’d say it’s close third person POV within first person. That might make sense to people who have read the book, or I might be completely off-base. And, Mitchell makes it looks natural and easy.
An easier book to use as a template for how to get around the restrictions of first person narration is Ursula LeGuin’s 1969 award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is the Envoy from the Ekumen of Known Worlds, assigned to the planet Gethen. The humans of Gethen have mutated or been genetically altered millennia ago and they are androgynous 22 days out of their 26-day months. During “kemmer,” they morph into one of two genders; male or female. They can morph into either, and do not consciously control which gender they change to. At the end of kemmer, unless they are pregnant, they return to an androgynous state.
Ai is not an “innocent” first-person narrator; he is an educated, trained, sophisticated man, but he can’t stop himself from trying to fit people into the sex roles with which he is familiar. He uses pejorative feminine terms, describing a person arguing as “shrill;” mocking the man who runs his boarding house as a “landlady” because he likes to gossip and has wide hips. There is no conscious meanness in Ai’s comments, but there is prejudice, and the story pulls him up short each time he engages in one of the women-diminishing comments. A large part of the story (not all of it, by any means) is about Ai’s growth to accept humans who are “a man who is a woman, or a woman who is a man.”
After an unsatisfactory result in the kingdom of Karhide, Ai goes to a nearby nation, which is ruled by a collective and is a bureaucracy. Ai is welcomed, at first, as an honored guest, but soon finds himself arrested and imprisoned. While Ai, and the reader, can probably guess why this has happened, first-person-narrator Ai doesn’t have the whole story. LeGuin prepares for this by giving us passages from the journal of Estraven, the Karhidan Genethian who is convinced that Ai, and the Ekumen, represent the future for his planet. Knowing my own writing process, I can imagine that LeGuin might have started The Left Hand of Darkness intending to have it only from Ai’s point of view, but she soon realized that the reader needed to know more. Passages from Estraven’s journal are included before they needed, giving us a taste of Estraven’s writing style; we are prepared to see more of it, and when the important information comes in, it feels very smooth.
Estraven’s journal also provides the reader with a view of Ai, the alien, from a native viewpoint. Many first contact stories show us the high-tech visitors observing the primitive locals. Invasion novels show us the aliens from the point of view of those plucky locals. LeGuin shows us both.
There is so much more to The Left Hand of Darkness than I’ve touched on here; you really should read it just for its own sake; but when you read it, pay attention to how the alternating first person is used. Note, too, that Ai and Estraven speak very differently. This is the trick to alternating first person POV.
Another book that successfully alternates first person viewpoints is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Flynn pulls this off, but remember that since both characters are unlikeable, many people didn’t like this book, and didn’t finish it. It’s a risk.
When I think of all the things we think about when we start a work of fiction – setting, descriptions of character, plot – I wonder if we include narrative voice on that list. I have trouble writing successfully in first person, so I rarely use it. When I use it, it means I have prioritized a certain voice – or maybe sense of urgency – above other story elements. A writer who knows their main character is going to die or leave the story before the story ends may choose a “first person observer” character, like John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson was necessary in first-person for more reasons than just “living to tell the tale.” A war hero, a healer, and a smart, capable man, Watson represented the best of regular people in those stories. He was our gateway into the tale. Try to imagine what those stories would have read like if they had been written in third person about Holmes… I think we would have tired of his perfection and intellect quickly.
You can play with “first person observer” the way F. Scott Fitzgerald does in The Great Gatsby; Gatsby is the title character, Nick the observer, but Nick is the character who grows and changes.
If you’re going to use it, you owe it to us, your readers, to make it a distinctive voice; not the same voice we read on your blog. It needs to reflect the character, and it needs to engage us, even if we don’t approve or, or like, the person who’s speaking to us.
And I love Ursula LeGuin. She is a genius writer, mentor, champion and teacher; but in this case, she is dead wrong. “I” is not the easiest voice to write in.