Saturday, November 8, 2008

Who Goes First?

The first-person narrator haunts the hallways of fiction in the same manner ghosts were alleged to have wandered the battlements, bedchambers, and cellars of old castles, seeking to arrest us with tales, complaints, and sagas of unrequited injustice. Some of us are drawn naturally to the medium, thinking it frees us from our own restraints as an observer and manager of events, while others of us have found ourselves locked in a log jam of the pronoun I, which pops up with the insistence of a grade schooler wanting to show off knowledge of a right answer to a teacher's question.

Many diverse and lovely first-person novels have graced the literature, ranging from the exquisite wrench of Dickens' Great Expectations to the more recent skepticism of the Philip Marlow detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Within this panoply is one of the more dangerous examples of how a mismanaged first-person can lead the writer to limitless agony. I speak of Huckleberry Finn, an exemplary first-person novel because of the depth and honesty of the chore it took on, and as well because of the emotional journey on which it led his creator. Huckleberry Finn also illustrates my greater point about the first-person narrative.

For most of his written work, Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain trying to be Samuel Clemens. Mark Twain was his discovered voice, his mischievous, irreverent self, champing at the bit to get at pomposity, pretension, sanctimoniousness. At the same time, he yearned for the status of his literary friends, the Howells, the Lowell, even the respect of his friend, the Rev. Joe Twitchell. In short, when Twain got into the first-person self of Huck Finn, he was writing about himself again, himself burnished by hundreds of thousands of words and of that many readers. He'd wrestled with his conscience in print before but never over so deeply as in Huck Finn, where he literally took on the issues of slavery and racial equality. The I, the first-person, was a thirteen-year-old boy, a boy that was created the way a trained actor today would create a role. Twain lived that part until he could no longer put up with it, at which point he shelved it for nearly ten years. Lucky for us but not so lucky for Twain, Huck wouldn't let go, kept pestering at Twain until he made himself heard. This time he brought in Tom Sawyer, who had grown enough to show Twain how a more regular boy would have responded to such an adventure. Tom stuck around to do some reprehensible things, particularly to Jim, the runaway slave. For a while, Huck went along with the teasing because of his admiration for Tom, and what a thesis and or deconstruction that would make--but not for now. For now, the first-person drew Twain into an unintended honesty that was transformative.

The detail about Twain and Huck here is to emphasize the point that the author has to create a character no less extensive in the first-person point of view than in any other, say third or multiple, or even the omniscient. The author has to know or discover the intent of the narrator, then portray it through emotion being evoked in the reader. In the calculus of drama, emotion evoked leads to action; action is the spine of the story.

How does one "prepare" for the first-person point of view? One way is to create a biography of the character, including a map of that character's senses: does she profess vegetarianism for instance, or does she secretly love and want Fred, and if so what are her chances of having her love reciprocated, and if they are in her estimation next to nothing, what does she do as Plan B?

Or to put it another way, the I is not you, but you become the I.

Another way for us to prepare for carrying the story is to ask why this character wants to tell her or his version of the events. We had no such problem with No Country for Old Men because the author decided he was the one to tell it, whereupon he did so by his stunning command and vision of the people involved and how they felt and how they were driven by what they did.

Yet another way to help us see those who would relate their versions is to pick a favored poem. In some ways, I'm a sonnet man, so I'll use as examples two of my favorites, the Shakespeare, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and the Wordsworthian trope, "The world is too much with us, late and soon." Both are readily available on Google. Recite one of these as each of your characters would using that practical exercise to help you "get" the tone and attitude of each.

I is a fine medium--provided you know who I is and who I is not.

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

I just love the idea of giving a first person protagonist a favorite poem to read in their voice. I always like to give them favorite books or stories, as themes, but a poem is even more concise and can be included in the text. What a great idea. I also love the expression "unrequited injustices."