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Speaking of coincidence…

I just realized… in my entire career, I’ve only written two stories in the first person (discounting one aborted story I discussed way back in my “Origin story 2” post), and now they’re both being published in online magazines just six weeks apart — “The Weight of Silence” and “No Dominion.”  Wild, huh?

I generally avoid first person because I find it implausible.  I always wonder, how does the narrator have the skill to tell this story?  How do they get the opportunity to write and publish it?  How do they remember it in such detail, right down to the verbatim dialogue?  In “The Weight of Silence” I actually confront these issues directly in the narrative.  It made sense to do it in first person because the very challenge of telling the story is part of the story.

But in “No Dominion” I didn’t bother to address those issues.  I don’t even know why I went with first person; it just felt like the right idiom for the story, perhaps because it’s common for detective/mystery stories.  And thinking about it in retrospect, I’m thinking that maybe I’ve been taking first-person narration too literally.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the character actually wrote this story down for publication; it could be taken more as a symbolic way of conveying the character’s thought process.  After all, third-person narration has some of the same problems if you take it literally — namely, how does the narrator have that omniscient viewpoint?  If that’s a conceit of storytelling, why can’t first-person narration be too?

So will I use first person in a story again?  If it feels right, I guess.  But only if it feels right.  I’m still more comfortable with third.

  1. March 27, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Six months ago, roughly, I read an urban fantasy by a relatively new author. Urban vampire fantasy doesn’t hold much appeal for me, honestly, but the premise of this particular novel sounded fun, and I decided I would give it a shot.

    It was written first person, present tense.

    And it really made no sense for it to have been written that way. (Some elements of the book were especially strange because of that, like the sex scenes.) I understood the reason the writer chose first person — the narrator was a human, who didn’t know about the supernatural, who went to work for vampires and it turned her world upside down. It made sense for her to be the viewpoint character; she was the reader’s entre to this supernatural story.

    But present tense? It forced the question of how this story was being narrated and to whom it was being told. I firmly believe there’s an implied audience in fiction (or any writing, really), and there was never a sense of who the narrator’s audience was. I’m not unfamiliar with a disconnect between the reader and the narrator’s implied audience; I’ve written several stories that have a great whomping chasm. But in this case, I has no sense that there was supposed to be a disconnect. Maybe we, as readers of this particular novel, were simply supposed to be privy to the thoughts running through the narrator’s mind.

    I don’t normally analyze first-person narration to this extent. For this particular novel, it raised questions because it drew attention to itself. For the mystery novel I read earlier this week, it was more natural; perhaps not entirely natural, but it wasn’t as distracting.

    On a random note, I’ve written more fiction in the past year in first-person than third. This is about to change, I think; the story I’m blocking out won’t lend itself to first-person at all.

    • March 27, 2010 at 10:24 am

      What bugs me is in The Dresden Files where Harry Dresden, narrating to the reader in a first-person, conversational tone, tells all about his fairy cleaning service, including the fact that if he tells anyone about them, they’ll stop cleaning his place. So he’s telling us, once per book, that he can’t tell anyone about what he’s telling us. That’s just freaky.

  2. March 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

    This isn’t the sort of thing that really concerns me, one way or the other, when I’m writing–I just go with whatever feels right for the story–but your concerns are reminiscent of storytellers in past centuries who always felt the need for some sort of justification for why the story (physically) exists. This is where so much early epistolary fiction comes from, why Watson talks about holding back character details or changing names because Holmes’s cases “really” happened, and so forth.

    Some early talkies also felt the need to “explain” the music on the soundtrack for similar reasons (i.e. someone is actually playing music in the vicinity), but if film scores could stop worrying about diegetic justification, so can you. 🙂

    • March 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

      What I found intriguing about Bram Stoker’s Dracula is how much of the story is about the creation of the text itself. The epistolary narrative actually functions as a driving force in the story, as Mina compiles all these journal accounts and interviews and news reports as part of the heroes’ detective work in understanding and hunting Dracula. And to a large extent, the book is one big advertisement for that newfangled invention, the typewriter.

      • March 28, 2010 at 9:16 pm

        I had a university professor who described Bram Stoker’s Dracula as 1897’s high-tech thriller. 😉

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