Here’s Richard Smyth with some thoughts on writing in the first person. Richard’s new novel, Wild Ink, is out now.
‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.’
– TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’
Yeah – who is the third? Who is that, bookending dialogue with he-saids and she-saids, commentating on proceedings with a curiously proper and well-spoken detachment, mind-reading without explanation, casually omniscient, incomprehensibly well-informed, inhumanly objective? Who are these Third People, and what are they doing in our novels?I do most of my writing in the first person. My first novel, Wild Ink, is narrated by its main protagonist, the horridly decrepit but reliably wry Albert Chaliapin. My stories for The Fiction Desk, ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ and ‘Chalklands’, adopted first-person perspectives, too. I’d seldom ever really stopped to wonder why – why have I so often preferred to step into my characters’ shoes, instead of maintaining a decent distance, an appropriate remove?
The way in which language is used on a word-by-word sentence-level basis – style, to use a rather loaded word for it – is very important to me. Writing your stories from inside a character’s head gives you almost unlimited stylistic freedom. Turns of phrase and figures of speech can be used that, coming from the pen of an unidentified third-person narrator, would invite unhelpful questions about who on earth is telling this story, and why they talk the way they do. Complex, original language creates, just by existing, a speaker, a person, a character; do this with a nameless third-person narrator and you will be thought to be playing postmodern games with the reader.
It’s a little unfair, of course. There’s seldom any secret about who is telling the story: their name is right there on the title page. Any quirks of language, flights of invention or unexpected editorialising come, of course, from them.
But modern literature shies away from the self-identifying storyteller. And ‘shy’ is the word: it feels unseemly, importunate, to step into the story one is telling with a bold Dickensian ‘I’; for the modern author, it seems to invite the rebuke ‘Who on earth do you think you are?’ – meant either literally, in the assumption that the author is creating an ‘author’ character, that the narrator is not Richard Smyth but ‘Richard Smyth’, or figuratively and indignantly, to suggest that the author has overstepped the mark. Sure, some writers – Anthony Burgess, James Joyce – get away with it, pushing stylistic limits in third-person narration without ever explaining how or why. But, well, we aren’t all Burgess or Joyce.
Distinctions between first and third persons are not necessarily clear-cut. There are many instances of authors breaking the bonds imposed by third-person conventions by narrating through a secondary character – to each Jay Gatsby his Nick Carraway, to each Ahab his Ishmael. This gives the work an additional layer, another dimension; we are invited to view one character through the filter of another, a double refraction of reality. The catch here is that the narrator – while they may digress, switch between narratives, shift focus from character to character and indulge in other such authorial perks – may not be omniscient.
That may or may not be a problem. Only a true know-all can narrate War And Peace. In other novels, it’s necessary for the narrator to be in the dark (like John Self in Money, for instance).
Personally, I want to be where the fireworks are. I want to know first-hand what Gatsby’s going through. I want to read Ahab’s inner monologue! I want to get as close to the action as I possibly can, which often means taking one’s seat in between the character’s ears – even though what one sees in there might not be particularly pleasant. Good first-person narration brings you face to face with an honest and flawed humanity (if it’s honest, it’s inevitably flawed). For me, that’s really what fiction is for.
— Richard Smyth