First person perspectives & narrative complexity (tip 52) Reply

Having talked previously about when you should and shouldn’t write in the first person, in this video D.D. Johnston considers dramatic irony and how you can add complexity by using a peripheral narrator or an unreliable narrator.

Video transcript follows below

I’ve talked in the past about the problems associated with the first person point of view, so today I want to focus on getting the most out of a first person perspective. In addition to allowing you to create a fresh and interesting narrative voice, writing in the first person is an opportunity to add subtlety and complexity to your story. Here’s Zoe Heller discussing how she found the right viewpoint for her bestselling Notes on a Scandal:

At some point during the summer of 2000, I had an idea of writing a novel about a love affair between a woman teacher and her teenage pupil.  The Mary Kay Letourneau case had recently been in the US news, and a lot of things about that story had intrigued me – not least the amount of journalistic cant it inspired on the subject of female sexuality and “appropriate” sexual relationships.  The line that I had in my mind when I began writing – the motto for the book, in a way – was one of WH Auden’s: “the desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews”.

I made a number of false starts with the book – writing it from the teacher’s point of view, from an omniscient, third-person perspective and so on – until, a couple of months in, it occurred to me to tell the story in the voice of Barbara, an older colleague and friend of the badly-behaved teacher.  Philip Roth once described novel-writing as a process of “problem-solving”, and for me, the discovery of Barbara offered the solution to several problems all at once.  It was a great “aha!” moment.  I felt straight away that I knew Barbara completely, that I had her voice.  It was one of those rare instances in my writing life when I was positively eager to get to the computer and start work every day.  Perhaps the most useful thing that Barbara gave me was a way of opening the book up – of both amplifying and complicating things.  I had a further illustration of love’s crooked ways, but I also had a weird, charismatic narrator, and a new range of Barbara-related subjects – childlessness, loneliness, old-age – to write about.

Barbara is an example of a peripheral narrator. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Barbara tells the story without being the central figure in the drama – she is not directly involved in the scandal that she relays. Peripheral narrators have a limited knowledge of the events that they describe, and this is one of the great advantages of first person narrators. First person narrators know only a fraction of other people’s lives. And this is where much of human drama comes from: from the fundamental mystery of others, from the fact that we will never know what other people think or what they do behind closed doors,

Even when your narrator does know what’s happened, she may not be honest about it; your narrator could be an unreliable narrator. Take Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita. Humbert is a murderer and a paedophile, and not a man whose version of events we should necessary believe. And yet his testimony is the only insight we have into the story. How much to believe his version of events, particularly his depiction of Lolita, is a question that every reader must resolve for herself.

Alternatively, your narrator could experience the key events of the story, and could endeavour to present those events honestly, but may not be able to interpret those events as astutely as the reader can. In this way authors can create dramatic irony, which is when the reader’s understanding is greater than the character’s. For instance, in Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series, a lot of the humour comes from Adrian’s earnest conviction that he’s a mature and serious intellectual, when we, of course, can see that he’s not,

So, if you’re using a first person narrator, take a moment to think what would he not know, what would he distort, and what would he misunderstand.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Franck Vervial. It is covered by a Creative Commons License, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/vervial/

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