The Problematic First Person

I’m off to Phillip Island for an impromptu writing retreat this weekend, hoping to kick some serious Novel the Second butt. Things are stagnating a little right now (mainly because I’ve been insanely busy with non-writing life stuff) and it will be wonderful to have an entire, internet-free, intensive weekend away to focus on nothing but my novel.

But first, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts regarding first person narratives which have been knocking about in my head this past week. These were sparked off by a blog post from one of my favourite writers, Caitlin R Kiernan. Both the post and the discussion in the comments which follows it are well worth a read. The pertinent section begins:

When you’re reading a first-person narration, you’re reading a story that’s being told by a fictional author, and that fictional author— or interauthor —is, essentially, the central character. Their motivations are extremely important to the story. The simple fact that they are telling the story, in some fictional universe, raises questions that I believe have to be addressed by first-person narratives. Why is the interauthor writing all this down? How long is it taking her or him? Do they intend it to be read by others? Is it a confessional? Reflection? A warning? Also (and this is a BIG one), what happens to the interauthor while the story is being written, especially if it’s a novel-length work of fiction?

At the centre of Kiernan’s discussion about first person narratives, and the role of their interauthor, is the presumption that the narrative is actually being written down. That the interauthor has, consciously, written the book that you are reading. “A first-person narrative is, by definition, an artifact,” Kiernan notes, “and should be treated as such.”  If this is the case, then all sorts of problems regarding motivation and the passage of time do come into play and need to be considered — by both the writer and the reader.

But for myself — as both writer and reader — I never assume that a first person narrative is an actual artifact, any more than I assume this for third person narratives. Unless the narrator tells me that, yes, they are writing this story down, or it is apparent from the style (a journal, a series of letters, a collection of documents), then I don’t consider to be a “told story” as such. Although, I am necessarily aware that I am reading (or writing) an actual book — a fictional narrative created by a real world author — I put this knowledge aside when I embark on the journey. It’s part of my contract, as reader (or writer), with the story. I don’t think about the interauthor as an author unless it is clear that this is the case, and therefore I do not consider why they maybe writing the narrative down, how much time the process takes, what purpose it is meant to serve, and so on — because, for me, it is not being written down.

(This is why I have no problem, in principle, with a first person narration that ends with the death of the protagonist. It just better be written well!)

So what is the first person narrative then, if it is not a story written down by the interauthor? Where does it exist, and how? For me, it exists in the same place, and in the way, as third person narratives. When I read a story in the third person, I don’t consciously think, for example, “Caitlin Kiernan is telling me this”. The author disappears as much in third person as she does in first person, and the story becomes a thing which exists in its own right, somewhere between the page and my mind. It needs to be well written, it needs to follow its own internal logic, it needs have something — characters, plot, an idea — that I care enough about to interest me for the duration, but it does not necessarily need to ask/answer the question, “Why/how/when was this written?”

I’m thinking about this kind of stuff because, while mired in the middle of Novel the Second, I am already looking ahead to Novel the Third. My first novel, Madigan Mine, was written in the first person, but I don’t consider it to be an artifact The narrator/protagonist is not writing the story down in any way — that is, in the world of the story, the novel does not exist. My second novel is being told in third person, albeit third person limited, which brings its own set of problems and advantages. But my third novel will be a first person narrative once again — a narrative that, this time, is being self-consciously created by the interauthor.

I’m looking forward to working like that very much, as most of my fiction is written without this sort of self-consciousness, with an attempt to keep the “author” invisible and non-existent. The idea of writing a book that unashamedly proclaims itself to be a book, where the narrator — the interauthor — is explicitly acknowledging that they have created the story you are reading, feels both liberating and terrifying. There’s a whole swag of author tricks I won’t have to use for this story, but at the same time, there’s a whole swag of author tricks I won’t be able to use for this story. It will be a challenge. It’s very early days, but I’m already feeling my way into the story and the characters, and I can’t wait until I’m ready to begin.

First things first, though. Novel the Second, how about you and me run away to an island and make some sweet words together?

6 thoughts on “The Problematic First Person

  1. I’ve never really considered first person to be an artefact either unless it has been indicated by the narrator. It is simply seeing a story through the eyes of one of the characters instead of floating above the whole thing or behind a character. The choice to write in first person usually comes from the author wanting the reader to really understand where one particular character is coming from and being inside their head makes that work.

    Still it is an interesting argument that first person should be considered to be something that is actually being written down. There are a number of books that do this and do it quite well.

    Thanks for sharing an interesting discussion.

  2. Yeah I think you are right. I don’t see that there’s an implicit suggestion of a written artifact, unless there are signals to that effect.

  3. I completely agree with you on this too. The idea that a first person narration is the work of an interauthor sounds to me very distancing.

    1. I don’t know that it’s “distancing” as such. When you read a novel, you’re identifying with the fictional characters and I think this works whether you are being asked to believe in the story told *about* them or *by* them (even explicitly by them). In a way, there is the potential for greater veracity in storytelling with an interauthor, but there are also limitations and pitfalls.

      Kiernan’s most recent novel, The Red Tree, is brilliant example of first person narrative as artifact. I love that book, and the conceit of it being a “found manuscript” written by the protagonist works very well and adds to the texture of the whole experience.

      But I’ve read more than one first person narrative as artifact that fails miserably, and quite a few first person non-artifacts that take my breath away.

  4. with respect to Ms Kiernan, I completely disagree with her opinion on this matter. I don’t understand the ‘by definition an artifact’ thing. A first person narrator is, by definition, a storyteller, but the audience is open to contention as is the manner in which they receive the data. I’ve read books narrated by dead characters — the this is the story of how I died and who killed me type of thing. Such books can’t exist if the narrator has to have written their story down, yet I found them worthy. And, hypothetically, what about a story told by an illiterate character? Are they to be denied their first person stories altogether?

    1. A first person narrative from the point of view of an illiterate character would be very interesting indeed. Someone who has neither writes nor reads and, presumably, has had little fiction read to them (at least in their adult lives), would have a different approach to story-telling altogether. Different tropes, different sentence structures, different style. I wonder if there have been novels with such a protagonist?

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