First-Person Historical

Using the I-voice in narration can be a siren, as in Circe, for the unwary writer. Its intimacy seems like a shortcut to the type of engaging narrator used by skilled authors. What the novice doesn’t understand is that the narrative voice is merely a vehicle for telling a story. It doesn’t change the content of what is told.

This lack of understanding can hamper an author who decides to use first-person narration in order to better connect with the way people acted during a chosen historical era. In terms of content, how is historical drama broken down? You want to narrate plot events, historical research, and characters’ feelings. 

The I-voice can govern to some extent how plot events are told. Depending on how deeply inside a character’s mind you are while narrating, the actual event may be colored by emotions, to the point that the reader hardly can tell what is happening at all. Most beginning writers, however, do not have the ability to write this way. They will narrate plot events pretty much as they happen, with descriptions of physical movements, dialogue, etc. That limits the benefit of the I-voice.

This narrative voice fares worse when recording historical data. The wrong-headedness of this approach is revealed when ordinary facts are related. The description of a log cabin is the same whatever voice is being used. The spiritual beliefs of the Second Awakening are the same whatever voice is used. The I-voice actually does the author a disservice, because the distance created by cold, hard facts pushes the reader further from the person telling the story. I believe the only advantage offered is when the research is put, often literally, in the character’s hand, such as the leather reins to a horse. Note, however, that the character’s comment, which is flavored by emotion, is what makes the research intimate.

Which leads me to the best reason for choosing the first-person narrator: to record the characters’ feelings, particularly those of the protagonist. This happens to be the best reason for using a first-person narrator no matter what type of novel you’re writing. The immediacy of the voice makes emotions more vivid, and that is your main job. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for research passages. As you read them, ask yourself: could the point-of-view character possibly know this? Would he think about the historical data in such a dispassionate way? You may have to dumb down the research in order to make it fit within the qualities you have given the character. If you write the novel from the inside out, you will find that engaging narrator you seek.

“One of the strategies for doing first-person is to make the narrator very knowing, so that the reader is with somebody who has a take on everything they observe.” —Rachel Kushner

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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