First Person Imperfect


I’m probably not writing this from the most unbiased perspective right now.  I’d just finished my second consecutive book written in the first person.  They were both enjoyable if not particularly weighty urban fantasies, each the first in their respective series.  But I decided I wanted a break and moved on to another book, what looked to be a gritty fantasy in the vein of Joe Abercrombie.  And barely a paragraph in, there was that capital letter I.  I let out a sigh, and for the briefest of moments, considered reading something else.

Ever since Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files took off, it feels like every supernatural protagonist has to narrate their adventures.  I hesitate to call it “easy mode,” since writing isn’t easy, but I imagine there’s a reason a lot of first-time authors choose that format.  I guess it feels a little more natural; you pick a voice that’s comfortable for you and write your book in it.  Writing as a person telling a story is probably a little easier than developing that omniscient authorial voice, and if you base that character on yourself or someone you know, you’ve got a ready-make guide in your head to pattern them on.  It also means you don’t have to juggle multiple character points of view, since your character can’t talk about what they can’t see.  And from a more creative standpoint, it does allow you to get into the character’s feelings a little more easily and immediately.

But it irks me, and for a typically obsessive reason:  as soon as I see it, I know whoever’s narrating the book makes it out alive.  They have to, or else they wouldn’t be around to be telling me their story.  Not that authors are in the habit of killing their protagonists very often, especially in the first book of a series, but I never said my irritation was logical.  It’s the same with movies and TV shows that start off with a tense scene, then suddenly flash up “Twenty-four hours earlier” or “Last week.”  I know they’re trying to build suspense, to make us wonder what could have possibly led up to the moment we just witnessed, but I immediately know any characters I just saw have to stick around until we reach that scene again.

Now there are some creators who can pull this off, who can make their stories engaging and surprising even with a relatively foregone conclusion hovering over everything.  Butcher, for instance, while not what I would call a great writer, is a great storyteller and world builder, so knowing Harry Dresden has to live long enough to write his files doesn’t detract from the story.  And it doesn’t hurt that he’s whipped up a great supporting cast whose fates aren’t set in stone.  We might know Harry is okay, but his friends aren’t.

I’m probably just being overly fussy though.  There’s that whole willing suspension of disbelief, and I’m not doing a whole lot of willful suspending.  I certainly don’t say, “Oh great, another book with a third person omniscient narrator!”  And hell, this entire blog is written in the first person, so I’m a great big ol’ hypocrite on top of it.  But at least you guys know I’ll live long enough to finish this post.

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