Challenged from Without

The first-person observer voice seems like a wonderful choice for many writers first starting off. Writing in the I-voice allows instant access inside the narrator’s mind. The position of observer is a natural one for souls more given to reflection than argument. It seems like an ideal marriage of strengths.

Of the three main narrative voices (also first-person active and omniscient), this one is the most difficult to master. The implication is that the author need only find an interesting story, populated with colorful characters, to observe. The author adds in a heady brew of personal opinions, giving the narrative an individual flavor, and out comes a distinctive goulash.

Along the way, though, the narrator’s comfort in his armchair may become readily apparent. The font of witty opinions, expressing such a pointed view of the world, may be reduced to repetition after a while. Worse, the constant barrage may start to resemble nattering about a world that has become depressingly familiar. The parade of events and characters continues to be entertaining. So why do I feel the onset of ennui?

An impeccable novel, The Door by Hungarian writer Magda Szab√≥, provides an illuminating answer. Briefly, the story features Emerence, a cantankerous old maid, hired by a younger woman writer. The maid rips into the writer’s comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, continually levying pronouncements on what is just. You would think that the relationship of a woman and her maid is not exactly riveting material, but in fact it is the very relationship that makes all the difference.

That’s because the world being observed is relentlessly impinging on the comfort of the observer. The positions of mistress and maid are turned upside down. The observer is outraged, humiliated, baffled by turns. That armchair? The dog has already gnawed off one of its lion feet, and the seat is leaning precariously. There is no question who is driving the tension of the novel: it’s Emerence. Yet the observer remains interesting to the reader because her opinions have become deeply colored by the action.

Even better, the observer continues to not only probe the secrets of Emerence, but to evolve herself. This master-servant clash pits two people, with their panoply of emotions, on a collision course. Of course I want to keep reading. I want to stay inside the lives of these two women as they become inextricably bound. 

Exercise: When you are selecting the characters who will be observed, see if at least one of them can develop an intimate hold over the narrator. The more that character challenges the narrator, the more likely that the witty opinions will achieve a satisfying depth over the course of the book. As in any character arc, familiarity can breed knowledge of the human condition.


I Am Ordinary

Coupled with the need for interesting events in a first-person narration is the never-changing imperative of 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 Amazon. 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 a TV news station? Instead, why don’t you let your character spike up his hair, add some blue? Now, take that guy out for a stroll.


Wandering Astray

Writing in the first-person voice is a seductive prospect for an author. The tone is so immediate, and spilling out the character’s thoughts comes so much more easily. What is less apparent is how hard it is for an inexperienced writer to control that narrative voice. Vibrancy of tone does not ensure a riveting read.

This caution applies especially to the writer who wishes to write organically. When you have only a vague idea of where the story is going, you can go too far afield in the thoughts the character has, at the expense of moving the story forward. The reasoning goes: Unlike a short story, a novel permits the space to expand on what interests the main character. As long as he is delivering insightful commentary on where he is, that’s good enough, right?

Delight in the ease of writing in the first person should be your first warning signal. Writing is hard, laborious, fretful work. A narrative point of view is only a way of telling a story. It does not replace the imperative to tell an interesting story. 

Your character may wander to Israel, say, but that does not mean that her observations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will engross the reader. The power of Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici depends on that third verb: conquer. Caesar came and saw, but he also did something about it. If your protagonist goes to Israel, she’d better get in up to her neck in trouble if you expect the reader to care less about her ruminations about ethnic relations.

An excuse I have heard on this topic reflects further confusion about this type of narration. Oh, but it is the first-person observer voice. I want the narrator to observe and comment. I won’t get into the extreme difficulty of mastering this variation of first-person narration. I’ll only point out that the other characters being observed have to be doing something interesting. And how, in the example above, is an American going to insinuate himself deeply enough into the intrigues of a foreign land to observe much of anything?

Let’s return to the starting point. The protagonist’s thoughts are a vital asset in putting the reader in her shoes. Yet unless you have the writing chops of Alain Robbe-Grillet, you’d better have a plot. You’d better have vivid characters around the protagonist that are causing her a lot of trouble. Sure, the reader wants to be along for the ride, but where are you going? 

Exercise: How can you tell how interesting your first-person narrative is? Take a scene and convert it into the omniscient voice. How does it work when told in the third-person? Forget about the loss of immediacy. Focus on the subject matter. Is what is happening grab you by the lapels, refusing to let go?


Stuck on a Flashpoint

Zeroing in on a significant detail deepens your prose. That principle makes intuitive sense, because a more exact verbal picture is more illustrative than a passing sketch.  Let’s take that idea one step further. How do you apply it in a way that will have the most emotional impact on the reader? Describing the pebbly corrosion on a rusty nail head is all well and good, but the reader isn’t going to be moved by it.

You can try lingering on an important detail. First consider a physical act, since that is closer to a description than a mental state. Let’s say Ted, in trying to find out why his law partner has been acting so strange lately, ends up in a back hallway of a bar. Out of the dark appears Bruno, who wants to warn Ted off by delivering a methodical beat-down.

You could give us a litany of all the dreadful blows Bruno deals out, but that’s not really going to move us. You have to expend so many words on describing actions that we likely know from many other books. Instead, bring the reader in fully by describing one source of excruciating pain. That dominates Ted’s thoughts above all other blows.

Maybe a shot to Ted’s stomach is so painful that he feels like the end of one of his ribs has been pulled out of its capsule. It feels like it is sticking right through his skin. Linger on that. What damage could the end of a bone do to Ted’s body in that region? Maybe he briefly recalls a childhood injury playing football, only this pain is much more agonizing. That gives the reader a reference point by which to gauge how much pain Ted is experiencing. The other punches can be described in passing, but remember, most people experience amnesia during an assault, so past a certain point those blows aren’t registering anyway.

This technique can be expanded beyond physical description. Let’s take the example of a conversation. While two women are exchanging gossip, your lead character, Madeline, can be struck by one thing her friend says. Sally is getting a divorce? As the conversation keeps running—because the friend has the dirt on absolutely everyone—Madeline is stuck on that one revelation. Maybe she just talked to Sally last week, and Sally didn’t say a thing to her about any trouble with Frank. Madeline might recall a picnic in which Sally was so happy with Frank, and the reason Madeline remembers is because that night she had unexpectedly great sex with her own husband. You can take advantage of the fact that Madeline doesn’t care about most of the people being discussed; the names pass in a blur. But you zero in on Sally because that divorce is going to impact Madeline later in the book. By focusing on the one, you can find a way to burrow inside your character.

Exercise: Review a scene that features a lot of information and/or action. What items have the most bearing on the novel as a whole? You can single that out with an eye for setting up events in the story’s future. You can also make up related stories that influence the character’s past. Out of the many emerges the one point you really want to make.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.