12.27.2016

I Am Ordinary

The key to first-person narration is inhabiting an interesting protagonist. The reason the first-person narrative voice is so hard to do well is because the main character is not you. You can go ahead and tell us about your partners in your office suite, and what time each gets into work in the morning, but you should be prepared for the unsettling reality that your book may grow lonely on the bookshelf. Nobody cares about ordinary life. That’s why we pick up books, to escape our boring lives.

The same imperatives that govern the other narrative voices go double for the first-person. You need to exaggerate your characters, the situations they find themselves in, their reactions to plot turns. The extreme draws our interest, because we want to put ourselves in circumstances we would never dare navigate in real life.

As the first-person narrator, that means you have to write hyper from the inside out. The casual remark dropped to the reader might very well be deranged. You need to explain how you entered the apartment of a virtual stranger and found yourself smoking weed at eleven o’clock in the morning, as in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. Your main character may be notable precisely because she never seems to show up at her job. She’s too busy telling you about all the peculiar things that are happening to her. She doesn’t talk about gay people: she meets one dolled up in studs who is beating the crap out of a street preacher.

That’s the type of person you need to inhabit, and that’s hard work. You have to really stretch yourself to fill out, by way of analogy, your Macy’s parade balloon-sized character. Not just an underdog, but Underdog. Go all the way outside yourself. That way you can bring to us a tale that seems so familiar, it’s written in the first-person.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and be honest with yourself. Have you read this sort of material before? Do you find yourself yawning a little at that political commentary because you’ve heard it before on MSNBC? Instead, why don’t you let your character spike up his hair, add some blue? Now, take that guy out for a stroll.

“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”
― Stephen King

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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