Yesterday I was fretting over the decision of whether to write “Felicity” in first or third person. Needless to say, I’ve spent a huge amount of time pondering and have effectively been set on one and then five minutes later completely changed my mind. So, as of yet, I’m still unsure which way to take my novel.
So, instead of worrying about it, I’ve decided to dedicate today’s post to some of the novels that I’ve read over the past five or so years that are all first person-based, but have been written in a style of writing that’s a bit different to the typical first person scenario, or that just does it incredibly well. Each of these books are in my Top Reads, so if there are any that you haven’t yet read, consider them a personal recommendation 😉
First of all, what is First Person? If an author writes a story in first person then the “narrator” is effectively someone within the story. Generally, they are the eyes and ears of the reader, and they are typically very much involved in the main events of the story. First person allows the reader to become more connected emotionally to a specific character.
Our first novel, is an excellent example of how to get First Person spot-on:
Knowledge is Power
Novel: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Narrator: Katniss Everdeen.
Style: The style of Katniss’ narration is pretty much the traditional idea of first person. Everything that happens in the novel, is solely from her point of view. Everything that she sees and experiences are what we know.
Why this Style works: In The Hunger Games, this style works perfectly because the narration is the only way that the reader can figure a sense of knowledge about the story. And by being 100% from Katniss’ P.O.V. we are only given access to the same information as her. She explains her world from the outset, and then from the moment we’re up-to-date with her life, we are as in-the-dark as she is about events occurring around her.
The Problem with this Style: The only real problem with only experiencing what Katniss does, is that I sometimes felt like I wanted to know what was going on with other characters: Katniss’ mother and Prim for example.
However, as the plot evolves, especially throughout the second book in the Trilogy, you begin to understand the importance of it being written in first-person, because there are a lot of twists and turns that are predominantly possible because of the lack of information that Katniss can offer us.
Novel: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Narrator: Nick Carraway
Style: Nick Carraway’s narrative style is different to traditional first person, because unlike most novels written this way, Nick is not the main character. He is not The Great Gatsby. He is not really even a major part of the overall story that takes place.
Why this Style works: Nick’s background presence as the neighbour of Gatsby, and the cousin of Daisy allows the reader to see important characters in an interesting light as the narrator is able to share things, people and events as he sees them, in a way that isn’t involved. This could be important, because involved characters may have their bias towards information that is being given.
The Problem with this Style: Without being truly involved in all situations and events, it’s impossible for a character like Nick to truly give a wide idea of what is really going on. It’s sort of like Chinese Whispers, where one person might tell Nick something, and he is effectively passing us second-hand information.
The Unreliable Narrator
Novel: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Narrator: Holden Caulfield
Style: The traditional first person style
Why this Styles works: The same reason most first person novels work: Because it allows us to get firmly into Holden’s head, and experience everything he does.
The Problem with this Style: Holden is a very unreliable character, whereby everything he says you initially trust, but when looking back, the reader should question how honest a narrator Holden actually is; take note of the fact that very early on, in the opening line of the third Chapter Holden (quite bluntly) offers evidence to the idea of being an unreliable narrator:
” I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.”
This, however, isn’t necessarily a “problem” as such, but more something that makes you think and question about the novel.
Novel: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Narrator: The local boys
Style: Whilst traditional first person narrative comes from one character, the narrative in Virgin Suicides comes from a group of local boys who have observed the “virgins” from a distance.
Why this Style works: It works because it allows the reader to see how these girls were viewed by others, to the extent that they became this “enigma” of speculation, rumour and fantasy. It works because it shows how cut-off they were from the rest of their neighbourhood, in the sense that these boys wanted to get to know them, but couldn’t.
The Problem with this Style: I constantly felt that I wanted to know more about the girls. I was intrigued by them, but that is what this book is all about. You’re meant to crave more, just as the boys did. And for that reason, the collective narrative works perfectly.
The Varying Narrative
Novel: Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hide
Narrator: Leonard, Pearl and Mitch
Style: Love in the Present Tense uses traditional first person narrative, but each chapter is from the differing points of view of the three main characters: Pearl, Mitch and Pearl’s five-year old son Leonard.
Why this Style works: This style works because it allows you to understand character motivations, and sometimes be more aware of events than other characters might be. Having Pearl’s narrative, for examples, gives us an insight that neither Leonard nor Mitch are ever likely to know. But, by allowing us to know, the reader is able to feel a deeper sense of sadness to the future that faces other characters.
The Problem with this Style: I don’t think that there are any problems with this style. I love it so much, that this is often the style of first person writing that I choose for myself. It is even the style that I used, in the past, for “Felicity”, but as I have so many more characters than this novel, it starts to get confusing.
That is the reason this narrative works: There are only three characters, whereby it doesn’t get confusing for the reader.
It really is interesting to analyse novels that use first-person, because it allows you to see how it can be used to great success, either pushing the story forward or forcing you to question the narrator.