Beginning story writers love to employ the first-person narrator, a common and useful technique for creating immediate, seductive, captivating fiction. The trouble comes when the story's narrator is too closely based on the author. A reader pauses: Is this fiction, or an essay, or what? It's true that most of us began writing by writing about ourselves, and that an author's life often yields engaging and even powerful writing. But fiction is its own discipline; you might even say it's more challenging than non-fiction, because you have to invent a life before you can begin to interpret it.
The Narrator Is Not You To make the first person work effectively, keep one thought in mind: The narrator is not you. An essay is not a short story. A memoir is not a novel. In fiction, the first-person narrator is a character you create. Since you have created him and decided to let him tell the story, it is your duty to remember that he is no one but himself. Allow him his own voice, his own beliefs, his own eccentricities, however distant they may be from your own. Think of the first-person narrator as your chance to be somebody else for a while, like an actor playing a role.
The problem of author-as-narrator is only compounded when the events being described in the story "actually happened." Real-life events rendered as fiction almost always fail, because our editing radar doesn't work very well with stories too close to our own experience. We end up putting everything in, because everything that happened to us in this particular scenario is remembered as important. The softies among us may also take out key scenes so as not to hurt Mom's or Uncle Bill's feelings. If you must fictionalize an actual event, then take the point of view of someone else involved in the event and use him or her as your narrator. Take a key item and change it dramatically—a lost love becomes a lost job, a plane crash becomes a fender-bender, a pet dog becomes a herd of sheep. You can mine the emotional territory that interests you while inventing fiction that is fresh and new.
The worst defense for a failed story is "It really happened."
You may not like your first-person narrator, and that's fine. Let her talk. She has a story to tell in her own way; the worst thing you can do to her story is impose yourself on it. Don't be afraid your son will think you had a short career as a loan shark. Or, worse, that your readers will think you're a bigot, with a mouth like the one on the narrator you've created. This is one of a writer's occupational hazards. Don't censor your narrators! (Mom will understand.) If a reader insists that your narrator is you, then score one for your descriptive powers.
Once you've established a proper distance between the first-person narrator and yourself, and between yourself and the events being narrated, your challenge isn't over. In fact, it's just beginning. First-person narration comes with problems—some enjoyable, some aggravating, all of them approachable. Let's begin with the problem of observation.
The First-Person Narrator As Observer The first-person narrator is, above all else, an observer. A first-person narrative has a distinctive "voice"; voice becomes character, character becomes story. But what makes that voice worth listening to? Sometimes it is the grammatical miscues and syntactical detours that define a voice—regional idioms, occupational buzz words, grammatical pyrotechnics—but even a narrator with a quirky voice is not interesting unless he or she has a good story to tell. Celie, the narrator (by way of letters to God and her sister) of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, has a distinctive grammar, but what makes her so compelling is the way she observes her world:
Us dress Squeak like she a white woman, only her clothes patch. She got on a starch and iron dress, high heel shoes with scuffs, and a old hat somebody give Shug. Us give her a old pocketbook look like a quilt and a little black bible. Us wash her hair and git all the grease out, then I put it up in two plaits that cross over her head. Us bathe her so clean she smell like a good clean floor.
This passage is breathtaking not simply because of the "accent" of the speaker, but because of her acute and telling observations. What she chooses to observe tells us a lot about her world. Her similes make use of the homely objects within her own grasp. The pocket-book looks like a quilt; the clean smells like a floor.
Holden Caulfield, narrator of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, reveals himself similarly:
This family that you could tell just came out of some church were walking right in front of me—a father, a mother, and a little kid about six years old. They looked sort of poor. The father had on one of those pearl-gray hats that poor guys wear a lot when they want to look sharp. He and his wife were just walking along, talking, not paying any attention to their kid. The kid was swell. He was walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalk, but right next to the curb. He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming.
Holden's slang, which is a delight to listen to, pins him to a certain age and era, but what makes him real is his series of heartbreaking observations. He finds sorrow and poignancy and pathos everywhere, especially in children. "Kids' notebooks kill me," he tells us after reading his little sister's. Describing a boy who fell out a window, he says,
Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. I was in the shower and all, and even I could hear him land outside. But I just thought something fell out the window, a radio or a desk or something, not a boy or anything.
Through his distinctive observations, Holden reveals his own alienation and despair.
The trick of making a first-person narrator's observations authentic is to make sure that the narrator speaks from his own experience. Holden's use of the phrase "poor guys" clues us to the fact that he is one of the "rich guys." Celie's "clean floor" shows us something about her unadorned world. A different kind of narrator might compare that clean smell to newly printed money. A narrator other than Holden might not have noticed the child's walking in a straight line, but rather the cut of the child's coat. Consider the differences in the following line delivered by different narrators:
Sandra's son reminded me of a prince, only more imperious.
Sandra's kid looked kind of like my cousin Gino, only loads cuter.
Sandra's little boy reminded me of that boy in the shelter, only fatter, and a cleaner face.
Sandra's boy reminded me of a hush puppy, only stupider and higher strung.
All of these narrators have a set of experiences and prejudices and obsessions that is unique to them. As their author you must allow them their own visions.
Lest you become too discouraged, remember that the "right" observations don't come in the first and second drafts. It takes almost as long to get to know a fictional person as it does a real person. For example, you may not know how your narrator would observe a flooded basement until you have seen her in other situations. In the first draft, she would probably see the flooded basement in more or less the way you would see it:
I stuttered down the steps, groping for the light. I grabbed the pull-chain and cursed out loud at what the light revealed. Two feet of water, enough to unloose my books from their shelves. They drifted languidly on the water's surface, darkening horribly as the grainy water crept up their innocent spines.
This is the observation of a narrator who loves books. Clearly, she is pained to see the books in such a state. The word "spines," though it obviously refers to book spines, feels strangely human, as if the narrator were imagining herself in the creeping water. The books seem to have a life of their own, drifting "languidly." Through this keenly observed moment, you show your readers something about the narrator. But this is only a first draft; you have no idea who this person really is. What if it turns out, by the end of the story, that the floating books is the only suggestion that this woman has an intellectual life? Perhaps the story is all about her compulsion to keep this flooded house in the best possible condition so that she can sell it out from under her two-timing husband. Three or four drafts later, this woman has become much more solid in your mind. Her single-minded vindictiveness fascinates you. You go back through the scenes, scouring the piece for false notes, and the flooded basement is the first alarm. Books? This woman, you suddenly realize, hasn't read a book since she was sixteen. Even if there were books floating around down there, she wouldn't see them in this panicky way. She would have a completely different view from yours:
I stuttered down the stairs, groping for the light. I grabbed the pull-chain and nearly laughed out loud at what the light revealed. Books. A little marina of books floating on at least two feet of grimy water, some of them sinking already, some of them light enough to float forever. There must have been a hundred of them, all Barry's silly books he'd kept from college, bobbing like mini ice floes in the basement of the house I resolved right then and there would be sold before summer. I kicked one with my foot. Getting to the sump pump was going to be a problem.
In this revision, the narrator doesn't have any feeling for the books except as a hindrance to her action. In the first draft you had no way of knowing this, so you "filled in" with observations of your own. Now you have no choice but to muster the fortitude to go back and erase yourself from the first-person narrator's experience, to allow the story to be hers and hers alone.
Good first-person observation rests on imagination—your ability to envision how one particular character might perceive the world around him. To observe through another's eyes takes practice, and this is one area in which writing exercises actually help. Try describing a car wreck from the perspective of five different passers-by: one might notice the blood, another the dented hood ornament, another the stunned face of the driver. Imagine how each of them might be standing, or breathing; what inaudible words might be escaping their lips? Imagine where they might just have come from, or where they are on their way to. A funeral? A playground? Put on their clothes, take up their space on the sidewalk, and then, looking through their eyes, write what you see.
First Person and the Child Narrator Creating a first-person narrator is a special joy as long as you remember that every sprig of description, every observation, belongs to that narrator alone. This "ownership" becomes a particular challenge when your narrator is a child. Sometimes it seems as if your only choice is between some Dickensian orphan and the precocious little brother on a television sitcom. Don't despair; your choices are actually endless, as varied as the number of children in the world. The challenge is to find one child's unique voice, a voice readers are willing to believe.
If you are in the habit of listening to real-life children, however, you see your problem. Who, really, wants to listen to a 10-year-old (unless he's yours) tell a story of any considerable length, with his pauses and detours, faulty logic, limited insight and vocabulary, and self-absorbed world view? The trick is to make the child seem ten (good luck working with a first-person narrator any younger than that) while giving him the gifts a good storyteller needs. Remember the fundamentals—the telling detail, simile and metaphor, use of the senses—and keep the language simple:
For a second I wasn't sure it was really Grandma in that bed. At first I thought maybe she was a ghost, but the hissing turned out to be her trying to breathe. There was something wrong with her skin, little cracks all over, like somebody dipped a spider's feet in red paint and let him walk on her. Her mouth left a wrinkled little hole where her teeth were supposed to be. "Hey, Grandma," I said. "It's me, Freddy!" She looked right at me with grandma eyes and that's when I knew it was her.
The passage is descriptive in several ways. You convey a physical picture of the dying woman; you suggest the child's fear (the hissing) that eventually gives way to his natural enthusiasm (the sudden dialogue); and you add a poignant little punch when he recognizes "grandma eyes." This is a sophisticated picture rendered in language that befits a ten-year-old.
You want to avoid fancy vocabulary, of course, but don't underestimate your narrator, either. Some child narrators end up sounding like this:
I looked in the bed but I wasn't sure it was Grandma. She sounded just like a big, scary ghost 'cause it was hard to breathe. Boy was I scared. Her face was marked all over with little red lines that looked just like spider legs. And she didn't have her teeth in, so her mouth was real tiny and wrinkly. "Hey, Grandma," I said. "It's me, Freddy!" She looked at me real slow. Her eyes were just like Grandma's, so I knew it was her.
This second example probably sounds more like a "real life" 10-year-old, but "real life" dialogue rarely translates well. You have to manipulate it to make it sound real on the page. Don't shortchange your child narrator. He can manage complex sentences and good rhythms as well as any adult. Keep the vocabulary simple, don't skimp on metaphor (he can handle that, too), and let him talk.
First Person and the Reminiscent Narrator The reminiscent narrator is an adult looking back on a turning-point experience, usually one from childhood or early adulthood. Your challenge and responsibility as the writer is to make sure the description doesn't get too mushy. Reminiscence is dangerous stuff; the reminiscent narrator treads the fine line between sentiment and sentimentality. In the following example the adult narrator tells the story of his father's dying, back when the narrator was ten years old:
I was sadder than I had ever been before, looking out the window of the room where my father lay dying. He was trying to sing my song, but he was so sick by then he couldn't bring it off. My heart sank and I fought back tears as I listened. Finally I ran to him and threw myself on the bed and hugged him as hard as I could, fighting back a river of tears.
This narrative manipulates readers into feeling sad, because it takes a pretty hard heart not to be moved by these circumstances. But the passage is nothing more than cheap melodrama, with the cliches of sinking hearts and rivers of tears. And notice that the passage contains not one concrete image: it is simply an explanation of how the narrator felt, in abstractions. Compare this to the following passage, which is from the end of "Leo," a short story by Sharon Sheehe Stark:
From behind me came a thin strand of sound, low and broken. I thought he was moaning and, frozen, I could not turn to him at first. Minutes passed, the rain drummed down, and in the same instant I recognized the tune, it came to me, like shocking news, that on this day of measured time I, Jeremiah, was still a child. I left the window and went to him, driving myself tight against the bony harp that was my father's body. He went on humming my song, stopping often for breath, until we both went to sleep.
In this profoundly moving passage, specific detail summons our deepest emotions. The "thin strand of sound," the "bony harp," the "stopping often for breath" are things we see and hear and feel. This narrator never tells us that he still faces a well of grief over a long-ago death; rather, he leads us through his experience as if it were our own, and this is what makes the story so unforgettable. When treading deeply emotional material, your reminiscent narrator must rely not on easy abstractions ("I was sadder than I had ever been") but on fresh, specific, and relevant details. By embracing the specific you can usually keep yourself clear of melodrama. Tears and heartaches are a dime a dozen and touch us only briefly; the image of a "bony harp" is unique and touches us forever. Don't aim to make your readers cry. Aim to make them remember.
First Person and Physical Description How the first-person narrator observes the world is one matter; how he observes himself is another, much thornier matter that has flummoxed inexperienced writers since forever. How does a first-person narrator describe herself? Let's say a character named Julia is a physically beautiful woman, for reasons that are important to your story.
In the third person, you can describe Julia as thoroughly as you wish without sounding self-conscious:
Julia fidgeted at the study carrel on the third floor of the library, winding a strand of auburn hair around her finger. She had the look of a Botticelli maiden, her wide, flat face composed and pale, delicate blue veins pulsing under the translucent skin of her brow.
Try converting the above passage to first person and see what happens. What you get is a cloying, self-indulgent passage that begins, "I fidgeted at the study carrel" and goes on to say, "I had the look of a Botticelli maiden," ending with, ". . . the translucent skin of my brow." What a drastically different character from the ingenuous young woman reading in the library!
The physical description of a first-person narrator presents a perplexing problem that has more than one solution. Try some of the following solutions to see which techniques best fit the purposes of your story.
Let the narrator describe herself outright.A first-person narrator can sometimes describe herself without resorting to the self-indulgence of the preceding example. It's up to you to find a descriptive tone that fits the narrator's personality. How direct you allow the narrator to be depends on what kind of character you wish to create.
A wry, self-confident Julia might describe herself this way:
Because I'm red-haired and grey-eyed and fond of tight clothes, men keep mistaking me for their old girlfriends. "Wanda!" they'll holler, charging across the street, against the light. "Marlene? Is that you?" they'll ask, scanning my chest as if looking for a name tag.
A narrator like this one reveals not only her appearance, but her personality. We expect an unsentimental story from a self-confident woman. Although she hasn't come right out and said it, she obviously appreciates her own good looks. She doesn't tell us that "some men" or "most men" look at her. "Men" look at her; in fact, they risk life and limb to get to her side of the street! A narrator like this is a true challenge—she demands a linguistic flair that you must sustain over the dozen or so pages of a short story. You have to give this version of Julia a rollicking syntax and quick wit in order to do justice to her joie de vivre. She's got pizazz, so the writing's got to have a little extra fizz, too.
A less confident Julia might sound more like this:
At the finishing school I attended in my nineteenth year, Jessica Lange was the rage. Meryl Streep, Kathleen Turner. Blonde was in. My hair was a blemish they were too polite to mention, like a scar or leg brace. I was the only girl in my dorm who didn't have call-waiting. "Redhead," my roommate would whisper mournfully when describing me to a potential blind date.
Here we have the beginnings of a physical description from a different kind of storyteller. In this version of Julia, her wryness is tempered by a certain restraint. She sounds reserved (". . . in my nineteenth year . . ."); indeed, she sounds like the product of a finishing school. We may expect a bit of self-deprecating humor (the last line could be tongue-in-cheek, we don't quite know yet), but that humor will exist only in the context of longing or reflection.
Self-description does not have to contain wryness or irony to sound natural. As long as there is a logical reason for self-description, even the most self-effacing character can get away with it. Let's reinvent Julia yet again. This time she is just beginning to emerge from a shut-away life:
After my father died I lost one hundred and twenty pounds—a whole person—and my true face began to appear: the high cheekbones I remembered from my youth, the grey eyes larger somehow in so much less flesh. Even my hair seemed more prominent—red and curly—now that my extra face was gone.
Here Julia is solemn and reflective; we don't expect pizazz. We expect a more thoughtful, even meandering story, something that matches Julia's reflective tone. Her self-description, though direct, has a chilling subtext, because Julia is really talking about an emotional metamorphosis, not a physical one.
Use description by association.If your first-person narrator is not the type to describe herself at all, then you've got to get sneaky. How about letting her compare herself to someone else? In the following example, Julia is shy and confiding; you can let her speak of her beauty this way:
I have my mother's hair, thick and red. She used to braid it for me, her trembly fingers sifting the strands as I stood before her, paying attention. I have her eyes, too, grey and wide set, and her pinked lips. I inherited her face when what I wanted was her spirit.
In this version, we infer Julia's beauty from the unusual coloring and the fact that she's comparing herself with her mother, who has "spirit," which is a form of beauty all by itself. Because she is speaking of her appearance in terms of inherited traits, the self-description seems neither too self-conscious nor too self-congratulatory. After all, she has nothing to do with her looks, she got them from her mother. Do you see how you have slipped Julia's appearance into her own narrative while offering your readers some clues to her personality? She remembers her mother lovingly, and looks back on her childhood with benevolence.
Notice also how you've woven in the phrase "paying attention"; it's an evocative phrasing that probably has something to do with the emotional content of the story. Maybe Julia missed something after all: she didn't pay enough attention. Or, maybe something she did pay attention to at her mother's knee is now coming back to help or hinder her. Remember, always: Description is rarely used for its own sake, but to present a story in a certain way. If Julia had been "wriggling and writhing" instead of "paying attention," then you would have yet another version of Julia on your hands.
You needn't stick with family members to make associative descriptions. Consider this example:
Bobby was Irish, I was Italian. Though our appearance was a study in contrasts (his hair was flame orange, mine so black it looked blue), we were both poor and in need of longer pants, so our teachers often took us for brothers.
Notice that the narrator's description draws on ethnic proclivities that paint a vivid picture. Because their hair color is described in such extremes, we know that Bobby looks not just Irish, but very Irish, and that the narrator looks not just Italian, but very Italian. Doesn't it go without saying that Bobby's eyes are blue, his skin pale? That the narrator's skin is dark, his eyes brown, maybe even black?
Besides giving your readers a physical description of the narrator, you give your story a powerful context. Ethnic differences contrasted with economic similarities is evocative and intriguing, hinting at a rich and complex story.
Use your plot. If a certain physical feature—a scar, a limp, baldness, obesity—is important to the plot, then your best bet is to introduce it in context:
Because I had always been the biggest kid in the class, I was accustomed to being last in line.
I boarded the bus (jammed as usual) and scanned the faces. Usually there was at least one—a wizened grandmother or a good-natured child—who didn't mind sharing space with a white man.
"One life jacket," Jamie murmured. "Only one of us can jump."
Frank's eyes flew open. "But we'll die on board. The boat is sinking!"
"We have ten minutes, tops," Jamie said evenly. "Who's it going to be?"
Each of them slid a resentful little glance my way, and I leaned on my crutches with a thrill of defiance.
In the first example, the narrator is a loser who attributes his bad luck to his large size. In the second, the narrator is a stranger in a strange land, whose color is the heart of the story. In the third example, the narrator's handicap will become his triumph as he uses it to manipulate his comrades into saving his life. In each example, the physical characteristic contributes to the story: because he's big, he's always last; because he's white, he encounters hostility; because he's on crutches, he is resented but saved. The physical description feels natural because it is essential to the plot.
The observant second party.Let another character do the narrator's work for her. Observant second parties can point out a bad dye job or a club foot more naturally than the narrator can—they are on the outside looking in. The observer can describe directly, or the narrator can report what the observer says. Careful here. A report like "He told me I was the most exotic, breathtaking beauty he had ever seen" makes the narrator look bad, unless she is being ironic or naive. Consider the following examples, which use second parties who are in a position to observe Julia:
My mother was always telling me how pretty I was, how grey my eyes, how red my hair, the color of rusted fall leaves, she said. I carried myself like a queen, she said, over and over, like a preemptive strike against the neighborhood boys who might not share her enthusiasm. To my sister, whose beauty went without saying, she offered nothing at all.
"Where did you get those pretty grey eyes?" Mrs. Lawson cooed, her plump and dimpled self bent over to look me in the face. Her own eyes loomed large, blue and full of questions. I backed up, not knowing what to say. Where did eyes come from? I retreated to my playhouse, away from Mrs. Lawson and all the other adults who pelted me daily with questions to which I didn't know the answers.
"I wish I had your hair," my sister sighed. "Red is all the rage right now." She laughed. "You're finally in style, Julia."
"Imagine that," I said dully. I knew what she was up to.
"Of course we'll have to cut it. It's too long the way it is now. Too heavy." She lifted the front of my hair as if parting a curtain.
In each of these examples the physical description is parceled out only as it belongs to and illuminates the story. The first example reveals a daughter's remembrance of her own appearance, but more important, her mother's indulgence; the second example reveals a child's appearance, but more important, that child's terror of the ordinary adult world; the third example reveals a woman's appearance, but more important, her combative relationship with her sister.
You may have your own solutions for describing a first-person narrator, or you may use a combination of the above solutions, which overlap anyway. Be careful, however, of solutions that seem too easy. In the rush to get a story down, you might be tempted to resort to hackneyed devices, which do nothing for your story except mark it as a beginner's. The following suggestions should keep you out of trouble.
Avoid the mirror. In the mirror technique, the narrator is passing by a hall mirror, or shaving in front of the bathroom mirror, or catching a glimpse of himself in a storefront just about the time a physical description is in order. "A haunted face stared back at me." "I saw a woman with grey eyes and red hair." "I realized I still had blood on my face." This device isn't always bad—sometimes a character can be effectively startled by his own appearance—but often it feels too obvious, and besides, it's been done to death. Unless the mirror is an integral part of the story, such as a magic mirror, a vain narrator, avoid using it.
Avoid the overly observant second party.This solution is what you get when you try too hard. "But you're so beautiful!" the overly observant second party might say. "Those lovely grey eyes, and that thick, auburn hair you inherited from your mother. Your slim waist and delicate hands. How can you think you're plain?" Unless the observant friend has an urgent reason to be going on like this, the description looks staged, calls attention to itself, turns the observer into a nitwit, and robs the narrator of her own voice. You must constantly remind yourself how people really speak. "You're so beautiful!" a second party might reasonably say, but would she include the color, texture, and origin of the hair, the color of the eyes, the look of the hands and waist? Not likely. Let the observant second party gush over Julia's beauty if she must, but slip in the specific details with a subtler stroke, using the aforementioned solutions.
Avoid staged details. We've discussed this already, but it bears repeating: Don't stage details for the readers. Details of physical appearance should appear naturally in the story, not like this:
Joe drew his gun. I backed up, clutching at the loose strands of my ash-blond hair.
Goodness, your readers ask, this woman's about to die and she's telling us what her hair looks like? First-person narrators almost never "just happen" to think of their hair or eye color, or their height or girth or anything else. Usually they are fixed outward, on what they themselves are seeing, not what others are seeing in them. If you find yourself placing physical details at illogical spots in your story, go back to the above "good" solutions for physical description.