In Defense of the First-Person Narrator

narrator Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

From the first time I read Rebecca, these words have been pure magic to me. Though the people around her never even call her by name, this narrator ushers the reader into an unforgettable story. The brooding atmosphere, the slow revelation of horrible secrets, the gradual unveiling of layers of character – none of this would have been there were it not for this particular narrator. Readers get to know Maxim de Winter, Mrs. Danvers and the others through her eyes and it’s this aspect of the novel that really makes it work.

When the topic comes up, readers often comment that they prefer third-person narration. Readers say that they want to experience a romance knowing what both the hero and heroine are thinking. Certainly, for some stories this type of narration works best. However, I just do not get the reluctance to read first-person narration. I find it fascinating to see a story world through someone else’s eyes, and first-person narration lets me do that. In a way, the author who employs a first-person narrator takes a big risk. Much of the book will rest on the narrator’s shoulders, so if the narrator’s voice is insufferable, the story will be very hard to enjoy. However, if the author writes a good voice for the narrator, the story could also end up being unforgettable in a way that a third-person narrative cannot deliver. Just try to imagine Rebecca without that meek voice quietly telling her chilling tale and letting us see everything as she learns it.

A first-person narrator can serve a number of purposes. An engaging voice can befriend the reader and make the book feel as if the narrator is a good friend pulling up a chair and talking to me about her life. This works especially well in chick lit. There’s a certain immediacy to this style of narrative and when I read books like Bridget Jones’ Diary, Separation Anxiety, or many others I’ve enjoyed, I feel as though I’m listening to a friend tell me about her life. In addition, it’s interesting to see the narrator fall in love with her hero and take the reader deep inside her emotions. Though I can’t think of any offhand, I’d also love to see an author use the hero as narrator. I’d be curious to experience a romance through his eyes and get to know him as a person, too.

Whether romance or chick lit, first-person narration also gives the reader a window deep into the emotions of the narrator. This can be very powerful. For instance, in A Clean Slate by Laura Caldwell, the narrator has lost months’ worth of her memory. Not only do we experience her rebuilding her life, but we get to feel the emotions of what such an experience would be like. The immediacy of the narration really makes this story and readers who avoid first-person narration would be missing a treasure if they passed up this one simply because it’s not the third-person style they’re used to.

As I read a good book, the story engages me and I almost feel as though I am part of the conversation. When the heroine finds herself in a bind, I want to argue with her. And when she meets her hero, I want to jump in, telling her, “This guy is perfect for you!” It’s true that something is missing by not having the perspective of other characters, but it’s nothing that wouldn’t be missing if we were hanging out with friends in real life and listening to them tell us what has been happening in their lives.

From a more romantic perspective, getting inside the head of a narrator allows us a window into what it is like to fall in love and the ways in which we get to know the different layers of another person. In the erotic romance The Diary of Cozette, Amanda McIntyre uses her narration for this. We get to follow her heroine over several years of adventures, see her develop attitudes about sex and love, and eventually see her fall in love. The book has weak points, but is interesting read and it’s largely the narrative style that holds the reader’s attention.

This is true of other novels I’ve read as well. Victoria Holt’s novels use first-person narration, and there’s something about experiencing the romance through the heroine’s eyes that makes her heroes seem that much more brooding. The settings feel more isolated and the mysteries a little more inscutable at first. This is likewise true of Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting. Without its narrator, it would have been impossible to experience Valmy from the outside looking in in quite the same way.

Linda Martin, the book’s narrator, comes to Valmy as a governess. Her observations about the family at Valmy start with her first impressions and then deepen as she witnesses more of the goings-on in the home. There’s something dangerous about the place and Linda pulls the reader right into the home with her. When Linda meets Raoul, it’s true that we do not have insight into his mind. However, we get to know him at the same pace that Linda does and that in and of itself makes for an interesting journey.

I have tried reading Nine Coaches Waiting while mentally transforming the narration from first-person to third-person. The breathless immediacy that keeps the reader turning pages quickly gets lost. There’s a certain bond that can form between reader and narrator in a first-person perspective that is different from that of third-person narrated books, and if one never reads books in the first person, that unique experience is lost.

Would I want to read all first-person, all the time? No. Third-person narration also brings insights that are unique to that particular perspective and I wouldn’t want to miss out on those. However, those who do not read books with first-person narration are giving up a variety of experiences. Figuring out a world through another’s eyes, bonding with a narrator/friend and getting to know a beloved person through the eyes of the one that loves them are all incredible experiences when done well, and I think my reading life would be so much poorer if I had closed my mind to the possibilities of going there.

– Lynn Spencer

25 thoughts on “In Defense of the First-Person Narrator

  1. I so agree with your comments, Lynn. I think a well-written 1st person narrative can feel very intimate and almost like having a conversation with the character. Like you, I wouldn’t want it all of the time but I would never rule out a book written from this perspective. I recently finished reading Deanna Raybourn’s The Dead Travel Fast. It is a great example of how fulfilling a 1st person narrative can be and it works well in the Gothic genre.

  2. The early novels in the “Outlander” series are also good examples of first-person narration that works well. That’s because Claire (the narrator) is a contemporary woman time-traveling to the eighteenth century, and so if she says something that sounds jarring to eighteenth-century ears–well, she IS from the twentieth century! Several years ago, I read a couple of novels by Kathleen Givens that were also set in eighteenth-century Scotland. They also featured first-person narration by the heroine, but Givens had her saying things that were just not said in eighteenth-century conversation! I was so turned off by the anachronistic dialogue that I never read anything by Givens again. (I understand that she passed away recently, and I AM sorry to hear that.) At any rate, if someone who is writing a historical and chooses a first-person narrative can write dialogue appropriate to the time (or go the time-travel route!) first-person narrative can be a great way to tell a story!

  3. I too have been a strong advocate of first-person narrative, but will also be one of the first to admit that it doesn’t work everywhere. I’m sorry for those who fight it to the degree that they will never read a book written this way, for I feel they sometimes miss some great stories. The more light-hearted romance fiction probably does best in third-person, but the rest could work occasionally first-person. A good example is Kleypas’ “Sugar Daddy.” The change-up from one book to another is good sometimes. In truth, though, not all authors handle first-person as well as others.

  4. Great post. I first became exposed to romance fiction through the books of Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden and Mary Stewart and the first person narration sucked me in immediately to the atmosphere and tension of the stories. I sometimes feel now that the first person narrative is a lost art and that many writers are not even attempting it because some many readers do not embrace it. I am looking forward to reading Deanna Raybourn’s new novel. Can anyone recommend any other recently published first person narrative novels that I might try?

  5. “It is a great example of how fulfilling a 1st person narrative can be and it works well in the Gothic genre.” Tinabelle

    I think Gothics are best told in 1st person. I think it would be hard to capture the atmosphere as well in 3rd person.

    It would be interesting to read a 1st person from the perspective of the hero. Is there such a book?

  6. I am always surprised when people say “I don’t like first person narration” or “I almost stopped reading the book because I haven’t heard the hero’s point of view yet” etc.

    I have never considered a particular viewpoint necessary for me to enjoy a book. For me it comes down to the book itself. If it is well written and enjoyable I don’t care who is telling the story, from first person to a series of letters, to shifting back and forth between narrators.

    For me first-person narratives offer a true mystery as there is no “omniscient narrator” who provides peeks into who the murderer is, if the hero really is in love etc. You experience the story with the same knowlege and clues the hero/heroine does. In many cases it makes the book far more suspenseful and exciting.

    In my opinion, it all comes down to the skill of the author. If they can sweep me up in their tale, I will enjoy it however it is presented.

    Christine

  7. I’m another fan of first person narration when it is done well and is appropriate to the story. I think that maybe many readers don’t like first person narration because of its prevalence in chick lit; they didn’t like the genre or the heroines so were turned off to the entire method of presenting the story/characters. As has been noted, it’s hard to imagine a Gothic told in third person — if we got into the hero’s mind we’d know he was the hero and much of the suspense would drain from the story. If we met the second Mrs. de Winter in third person, we’d probably find her too bland to be sympathetic.

  8. Re: gothics – I completely agree with first- person narration for these. There’s something about the atmosphere in a good gothic that works best in 1st person. A few years ago, there were a few gothic-style books out there, but they tended to be in the third-person and even the good ones just didn’t work quite as well for me.

  9. I have never understood the dislike of first-person narrative. In the hands of a good author, the reader isn’t constantly reminded that they are only getting one POV. Your example The Diary Of Cozette is a favorite of mine in the romance genre. Another…The Sookie Stackhouse series is written in first-person. Also, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Second Coming Of Lucy Hatch and of course Outlander. I think it is a rare thing in the romance genre, possibly because we need both POV’s to establish intentions within the relationship?

  10. My experience as a reader is that if its done well, it can really draw me in and add to my enjoyment. If its not done well, then it bothers me a lot. I have to be drawn to/invested into the character more than if the story is told third person.

    Other than Gabaldon, some examples of first person usage that I’ve really enjoyed is Robin McKinley’s Beauty and her Sunshine. Also Linda Howard’s To Die For and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I really liked the characters and their voices are real to me (if very different than my own self). And they allowed me to experience life from someone else’s POV.

  11. I have never understood the dislike of first-person narrative. Oh, me too, Xina. It’s a literary device, people, that’s all. Since I write in first person I must admit I’m rather biased, but it I believe it does give an immediacy and tone to the writing, and crowd control–where you have a lot of characters together–is much easier. It also calls for a great deal of (hopefully) invisible author involvement to weed out the extraneous details and keep the action moving.

  12. I’m not against 1st person narratives overall, and agree that there are times when they are the best possible choice for the story. You enumerated all the reasons 1st person can be a treat and not a trial. But I have my limits, and some writers use 1st person narrative poorly. The reader ends up with little more than the not-so-interesting musings of a rather silly female narrator.

    One facet of 1st person is 1st person present tense, and I have to admit that I almost never enjoy that. A few times I’ve picked up a book and written in 1st person present and not realized it immediately, and those books are winners. Otherwise I have personally found 1st person present tense to be jarring, and it pulls me out of the story.

    I have found one major exception: Deidre Knight in Butterfly Tattoo. Ms. Knight moves her 1st person present narrative between Michael and Rebecca, and the tense is absolutely perfect for the feel and tone of her prose. It’s a quiet yet emotionally powerful book, and the narration pulls you in. It’s an amazing book, and I honestly can’t imagine any other tense being nearly as effective. Anyone wanting to see a novel written (in part) from the 1st person perspective of a man, this is a good one to read.

  13. Janet…cool catch…but wouldn’t it be iambic hexameter? There are six. (last night) (I went) (to Man) (derly) (again). It is hypnotic, no matter how many are in there.

    On the first person, I love it. Always have. Of course, it depends on the book, but that’s true for any plot device. I don’t necessarily love it in romances because I love the hero’s POV, but I have read successful ones. I do love it in Women’s Fiction. It makes the action so much more immediate.

    Loved Nine Coaches Waiting and Rebecca…great, old style Gothics!

    • JulieLeto: Janet…cool catch…but wouldn’t it be iambic hexameter?There are six. (last night) (I went) (to Man) (derly) (again).It is hypnotic, no matter how many are in there.On the first person, I love it.Always have.Of course, it depends on the book, but that’s true for any plot device.I don’t necessarily love it in romances because I love the hero’s POV, but I have read successful ones.I do love it in Women’s Fiction.It makes the action so much more immediate.Loved Nine Coaches Waiting and Rebecca…great, old style Gothics!

      Oops. Obviously I can’t count!

  14. If a book is good and the author knows how to write, I will read it. I don’t care what POV it is.

  15. My dislike of first person stems from overuse and misuse. It’s wonderful in books like “Rebecca” and “Ellen Foster”. It’s not so wonderful when it’s used in every other romance, fantasy, chick lit book out there. First person is so specific, so pointed in its narrative, that most mass market authors out there don’t do it justice. In my opinion, first person should be used sparingly. Even the Stephanie Plum and Anita Blake would be better in third person, imo. It’s hard for me to get into first person narratives. I’ve tried to “get over it” but just can’t. It’s like peas. I’ve never liked them, and I probably never will.

  16. @ Janey Mullany and JulieLeto – No, I didn’t realize that, but thanks for pointing it out. I noticed the hypnotic quality of it, but that was all. Very cool catch!

  17. This is a weird question, but where do you get the image that is at the top of this blog (white gumby man with the pen) …. I would like to purchase the clips to add to presentations?

  18. “The Gargoyle” is a fabulous first person read and the narrator is a man. For an even better treat get the audio read by Lincoln Hoppe. It has everything. Romance, mystery,suspence I could go on and on. What a great blog. I learned a new word today too. iambic.

  19. Sadly, I tend to avoid first person POV nowadays because I have read so many books where it was poorly done.

    If I am interested enough in the plot, I will still read it. As others have said, a good book is a good book regardless of the POV. But for the most part I prefer getting both the protagonists’ POV when I read a romance.

    My favorite first person POV book is Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. It was one of those books I stayed up to finish because I couldn’t put it down.

  20. I’m glad this is being discussed, because I’m one of the “can’t-read-first-person” individuals, and always have been.

    It isn’t so much that I have any animosity or stubborn refusal to simply NOT read first person, quite the opposite actually. I’ve tried time and again to read this writing style, and it never fails- regardless of how amazing the plot sounds, once I start reading, my mind just can’t connect with any of the characters, least of all the narrator. (Which is a bit sad and random, I know, but true nonetheless).

    One of the book series that I have tried time and again, one that I find SO interesting and would love to be able to enjoy is Karen Marie Moning’s Fae Fever series. Yet no matter how many times I try, my mind won’t stay focused on the story, and I end up just putting aside and moving on.

    It’s very frustrating, knowing that I’m missing many great stories out there, and yet despite my desire to WANT to read these types of books, I just can’t make my mind stay interested in the story. I don’t get “sucked in” like I do with third person writing.

  21. No one mentioned Jane Eyre, another gothic. It is written first person, too as I recall–Don’t some chapters begin Dear Reader?

    The other great gothic–Wuthering Heights–is also in first person, but from different points of view–never Catherine or Heathcliff, again, as I recall.

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