Having a conversation with either my father-in-law or my friend Karen requires little from me. I love this. I am a lazy conversationalist myself; I’d rather listen. I respond appropriately and never interrupt either of them unless it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, at the end, applause is in order.
These two have a knack for shaping experience into story. I think it’s intuitive for both of them, but it’s also a skill they’ve learned. My father-in-law is a truck-driver; he spends weeks on the road, swapping stories at truck-stops or over his CB radio. My friend Karen is a writer; she has been practicing her craft, orally and on paper, for years. (And, I might add, she’s brilliant at both.)
What strikes me, the listener, is how very like my favorite narrators in fiction both my father-in-law and Karen are. They know how to capture an audience, how to transport their listeners.
Though I could never take it all in, I observe the two of them and learn what I can about first person point of view. I’m starting today with voice.
An old writing instructor of mine once said: “When using first person point of view, the narrative voice has to be the star.”
Some years ago, my father-in-law spent the good part of an hour explaining to me and my husband a perfectly boring medical procedure with such sauce and wry humor, I still remember it. It was all voice: the words he used and the attitude and insight those words conveyed. He knew how to work his own lack of medical knowledge against the affected importance of the procedure. It was brilliant. I wished I’d taped his monologue.
Voice. With first person, the voice really has to be absolutely engrossing. Surprising. Both original and familiar: this must feel like a person you’ve never encountered in real life, but one you nevertheless somehow know.
What’s endearing and also a little frightening about Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is the disconnect between the bravado surly teenager Holden is trying to show the rest of the world and the really vulnerable and scared little boy he actually is. Like my father-in-law using trucker-speak to highlight the ridiculous simplicity of angiograms, Salinger uses Holden’s bold talk to betray how scared and unsure of himself he really is: Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.
Much of my friend Karen’s humor comes from the wild analogies she makes. (I’ll not list any of them here; she’s a writer! I can’t steal her stuff, not even for my blog.) It reminds me of how Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone begins:
In one of my earliest memories, my mother and I are on the front porch of our rented Carter Avenue house watching two delivery men carry our brand-new television set up the steps. I’m excited because I’ve heard about but never seen television. The men are wearing work clothes the same color as the box they’re hefting between them. Like the crabs at Fisherman’s Cove, they ascend the cement stairs sideways. Here’s the undependable part: my visual memory stubbornly insists that these men are President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon.
The narrator has cast Eisenhower and Nixon as television-delivery men. She’s funny and self-deprecating and charming; I’ll follow her anywhere.
Like my friend Karen, we find that Lamb’s narrator here uses humor in a way that makes the most painful of her stories palatable (which in turn, because we can sit with them long enough to really experience them, makes them all the more painful). She observes: Speight had raped me and Ma was dead and Mr. Nord still wore that coat.
Not only can a funny and wise narrator make unbearable experiences bearable, an especially odious first person narrator is tolerable only if there is something to like—or at least engage with—about the character’s voice. I think Nabokov’s Lolita, told from the perspective of a murderer and a pedophile, is the best example of this:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
Passages like this both creep me out and wow me. It’s a terrible and wonderful experience as the reader to be transported this way. To hate Humbert Humbert so very much…and yet to find I cannot stop reading.
A few exercises to try:
- Take a second look at a novel or story you particularly like that has a first person narrator. What is it about this narrator that appeals to you? How does he/she use language to keep you engaged?
- Take one of your own works-in-progress and free-write from the perspective of one of the main characters. Try to write from inside the character. In this voice, describe something ordinary like a pair of delivery men delivering something. Concentrate on using your character’s particular language: the rhythm and syntax, as well as the word choices and analogies/metaphors.
- Practice writing from the perspective of a truly horrible human being. Allow your narrator to describe his/her most evil desire in very specific, very beautiful or otherwise engaging language.