First-Person Narration and the Novel

by | March 3, 2017 |

I originally published this article on my Goodreads page and I’m reposting it here. It centers on first-person narration.

It is a truism that many first novels are written in first-person narration. This choice makes sense for a couple of reasons. For one, the first-time novelist is probably bursting with the story of a particular character with a particular point of view that he or she is just dying to tell. For another, it may well be the case that handling a single point of view is easier for the first-time novelist than juggling multiple points of view. Nothing precludes a first-time novelist from tackling multiple points of view. I notice here only a first-novel tendency toward first-person narration.

Among multi-published authors in the romance genre, the choice of first-person narration has become a recent trend. I label it:

First-Person Narration: The Erotic Anthropological Choice

This trend may have begun with Fifty Shades, but I don’t know that for sure. For all I know, Fifty Shades followed it and popularized it. And I attribute the popularity of this trilogy – to a certain degree – to the first-person narration. The narrator is absolutely ordinary in every respect, except, presumably, for being above average attractive, given the hero’s sexual interest in her. In her first encounter with him, she’s so ordinary that she literally stumbles into his office. This first-person narrative frame is one any woman can insert herself into.

At the same time, the hero is absolutely extraordinary in every respect. He is GQ handsome, a self-made billionaire at a young age, and a concert-level pianist. He also has a deep and dark side that has produced what in the vanilla world would be called sexual perversions. These come with the desire on his part to give the heroine easily two to three times as many orgasms as he gets. Given that we see everything through the narrator’s eyes, the reader is spared the pain of the deep and dark side of the hero; she only has to know of it. Then there’s the added benefit that she gets to experience all the orgasms along with the heroine first-hand. Win/win.

The term ‘anthropological’ captures the idea that the author is taking the reader into an unfamiliar world, say, the practices of the BDSM community, and has chosen a narrator who is as unfamiliar with the world as is the reader. The narrator and the reader both enter this strange new world as wide-eyed initiates, as anthropological observer/participants. The narrator and the reader experience the same hesitations and confusions and embarrassments. Together they learn the new rules and customs, the new terminology, even the new dress code.

Part of the pleasure of reading about BDSM is to learn about the social/sexual organization operating in a world perhaps outside of the reader’s experience. There are many such worlds. Lately I’ve been reading hyper sexualized Motorcycle Club romances.

First-Person Narration: The Quirky Choice

Here I have in mind Elizabeth Peters and her wonderful Amelia Peabody series. Sure, the series brings us into the unfamiliar world of nineteenth-century Egyptology, but more importantly, the series sucks us into the deliciously skewed first-person perspective of Amelia Peabody – and delightfully so. Peabody completely believes in her point of view. However, the reader is not necessarily supposed to identify with her; the reader happily goes along for the ride. Spending a few hours inside the head of such a narrator is good fun.

The second is:

First-Person Narration: The Painter’s Choice

I became interested in the possibilities of first-person narration upon encountering Jan Cox Speas’s My Lord Monleigh a number of years ago. Speas did not write many books, and Monleigh is the only one she wrote in first person. As I read and reread it, I came to understand that Speas’s narrator was creating a portrait of Monleigh, the man she loved, and in the end it was clear why the narrator loved him. I then considered why Monleigh would love the narrator, and that was when I realized that in creating his portrait, the narrator had also painted her self-portrait, and it was one of a woman worthy of his love. A nifty feat of writing.

Few painterly feats top Daphne DuMaurier’s first-person narrated Rebecca. The title character is the deceased first wife of the narrator’s new husband, and Rebecca was a woman of unparalleled beauty renowned for her charm. The narrator is unfailingly curious to know more about this complex woman, and through the twists and turns of the story Rebecca’s complete portrait is revealed. The visual potential of this gripping Gothic mystery was fully exploited by Alfred Hitchcock. Remarkably, the narrator’s own name is never once introduced, making her both a non-entity and the sole point of view.

Part of novel writing involves camera work. First-person narration is like a hand-held camera. Its limitations are offset by the possibilities of where to aim it and how to hold it.

See also: All My Writing Blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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