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?

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