It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing in the first-person throws up a whole load of different challenges to writing in the third-person. In first-person, every single word is a product of the mind of the protagonist, is in the voice of the protagonist – every description, every thought, every feeling. You don’t get to hop from mind to mind, POV to POV. You don’t get to pontificate, to be poetic, or to look on your protagonist as an object. Dammit, it’s tricky enough trying to get a physical description in there at all without using a rather contrived mirror sequence.
However, as well as the challenges, there are great joys to be had from writing first-person. Ask Raymond Chandler. Mark Twain (Huck Finn). Dog in the Night-time guy.
I’ve written two novels so far, Becoming Mary, my Pride and Prejudice sequel, and The Advice Lady, a northern noir with a young female sleuth (is northern noir a thing?). (It’ll be published soon, be calm, be patient)
Both of them are written in the first person, and here’s why.
1) Inner Turmoil. I love inner turmoil. And nothing expresses inner turmoil like the first-person pronoun. (Jane Eyre. I rest my case)
2) Unreliable Narrator. Everything in the action is seen through the eyes of your first-person protagonist. This will be by definition unreliable, as a subjective view is a subjective view.
In Mary’s case, the reader usually knows how wrong she is, and that (I submit) is part of the fun of the book; in The Advice Lady, Clare, the sleuth, is often in the dark, but so is the reader. Clare is a reliable narrator: her doubt is your doubt, her ignorance your ignorance. Such is the way of crime fiction. She’s not unreliable as such, just the blind leading the blind.
3) No snarky and omniscient narrator (this is a quote from someone who reviewed Becoming Mary on Amazon, and is not a Jane Austen fan….[weird that. I think they read it by accident]). Anyway, it’s an interesting one. In P and P, Jane Austen’s own well, yes, somewhat snarky voice is there right from the beginning, right there in your face. Let me explain….
Remember the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice? (of course you do! You wouldn’t be here otherwise). It opens:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
I don’t know the names of all the rhetorical tricks that are so densely packed into that sentence, but here’s my two cents.
It starts with a grand flourish – a truth – unarguable, almost an article of faith – universally acknowledged, like religion or something – an absolute, that everyone, yes, everyone, agrees on (how big is this universe?). So unless this is the opening of something like Fordyce’s Sermons, you’re already aware of the author’s sarcasm, and it’s already funny.
Then comes the bathos (you see I do know something – ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’). From this grand, flourishing, absolute truth, you suddenly realise it’s actually about a little local difficulty, a specific person in a specific time and place; Jane Austen is observing a group of people with shared beliefs which they don’t see beyond, which are so basic to them that they have the quality of a universal truth. You can hear the assumptions and prejudices of Mrs Bennet straight away, and – clearly flagged up – the two inextricable issues of the novel: love and money, venality and romance.
That’s a helluva lot of info to get into one sentence. It’s then followed by a chapter where an enormous amount of information about both plot and character is revealed, in dialogue and in nuances and fragments. E.g.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
How much that tiny exchange tells us about Mr and Mrs Bennet! – his laconic and sardonic manner, her obliviousness to his put-down and his irony, her eagerness to talk at any price. That’s only one example of many.
Come the end of the chapter, and Jane Austen herself steps out from behind the puppet theatre from where she has been manipulating the characters to tell us plainly:
“Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
Jane Austen shooting from the hip. Ouch. Just in case we hadn’t already got it.
OK, so that’s Jane Austen, both indirectly and directly telling us what to think about her characters. She IS absolutely the snarky and omniscient narrator. And I love her for it with every particle of my being.
But in a novel narrated in the first-person, where is the authorial, authoritative voice? How does the reader know what to think? How does the reader know what the author thinks?
Well, here’s where the big lie comes in. Because it might look like there’s no omniscient narrator, but of course there is. I know this is probably just stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I contend that I am every bit as opinionated, didactic and judgemental as Jane Austen. I have a lot of beliefs and theories about human behaviour, society and morality etc. etc., and I want to convey them to the reader.
The difference is, that with a first-person narrator, I have to say it at one further remove than Austen, because my ‘voice’ resides in the opposite of what Mary thinks, in Mary’s lack of self-knowledge. I can’t tell the reader directly what to think, because officially I’m not there. I have to tell you by subterfuge. I hope I succeed.