Question re VOICE of 1st-person narrator

Sun, Aug 27 2017 03:21pm IST 1
JeanieD
JeanieD
362 Posts
I've written a short story in which the main character is talking directly to the reader (not, of course, in a 'Reader, I married him' sense). I sent my story to a competition and paid extra for a critique (from a professional). Here's what she says:

'I wasn't absolutely convinced by the narrator. It felt as if he was talking directly to someone, which didn't quite ring true. Why would he be addressing an imaginary friend? I'm afraid this one aspect stopped me from believing in him.'

I wonder if she has a point. Do you think I should at least take out the parts where the MC seems to be overtly talking to someone (though they're really just his own thoughts), eg. phrases which end with questions, such as 'We all start off innocent, don't we?' and where I say 'Come on, I'll show you' and suchlike? But to take them out seems to me to actually weaken the voice of my character, which I can hear. Obviously I'm not the best person to be objective about my own work, so I'd really appreciate knowing what you think.

I'll paste the first one or two pages of my story in below so you can see what I mean. (Not sure if this should go in the Critiques section. Apologies if this is the wrong place).


Even Now

There it is. The house with the red gate. Number twenty-one. My age. He lived there for thirteen years. The boy who used to be me.

God, it's creepy. Standing here seeing this house again. First time in eight years. That was his room up there. No, it was my room. Why does it seem strange to say 'me' and 'my' when thinking about him? I could learn how to figure things out. Do some of that therapy stuff. Who am I kidding?Nothing can silence the blood-soaked echoes ringing in my ears. Trumpet it from a mountain. Tattoo it across my forehead in crazy purple letters. I am a murderer.

Anyhow, as I was saying. Up there. The room where they've put those faded pink curtains. What's that wet on my cheeks? Tears? I don't cry. I did then, though. Cried for my mummy. Five years old and scared of the dark. Not that I knew what the dark was. I thought it was a big, black cloud that takes over your room at night. Not something that can get right deep down inside you and squeeze out all the goodness, every last bit.

Mum could put things right. Bad dreams drifted away with her warm, soft fingers stroking my forehead. 'It's okay, Jay. Mummy's here now.' That's all it took. When nightmares weren't reality.

But maybe there was something wrong with me even back then. I used to get this feeling, see. A scary monster with bulging eyes and tiger claws was hiding under my bed. If I let myself go to sleep, it could jump out and rip me to pieces. When I grew up I was going to be big and powerful. I'd kill the monster. So that it couldn't get me or anyone else. I'd save people's lives.

My school's over the road. Come on, I'll show you.

See through the railings here. That's the entrance to the primary school. When I got bigger I went in at the other door over there - the juniors. This was my school till I reached eleven. The world was small then and as pleasing as an ice cream cornet with a Cadbury's chocolate flake sticking out on top.

Not safe now. Can't enter school yard. Neck on a swivel, jerking all the time. No-one around. Careful. Never stop watching. What if my picture's plastered all over the telly channels? I'll give myself up when I'm ready and be back in a cell tonight. But give me a couple of hours longer. Please. Body muscles stretched taut. Ready to run. Don't want to fight anymore. Don't want to run either. Can't stop.

I stare through the railings at my old school and the past springs alive. Through it all, these memories never left a part of my brain, did they? Will they muffle or amplify the noise of my inner torment during the life imprisonment that lies ahead for me? Oh yes, I'll get life. I'm certain of that. It's what I deserve.

I was innocent once. We all start off innocent, don't we? This is the playground where we played footie. I had lots of pals. Dad left Mum and me, but it didn't matter. I wasn't lonely. My schoolmates used to come round to our house. We'd zap each other with our ray guns. Exterminate. Exterminate. Zap, you're dead! It was great. We had a tree in the park. A big, old Oak. Come with me, it's not far. We used to shoot robots from it. Zap, you're dead!

The park is deserted. The earthy smell of damp, moist grass draws me on. Shadows creep behind. It's not yet dark. My boots crunch on orange and crimson leaves. Shush! Who's that stalking? Give me silence and darkness to hide between.

Nearly there now. It's down this path. Our tree. That's the one. Look how its branches extend a welcome. Dead easy to climb. I was twelve last time I went up there.

























Sun, Aug 27 2017 04:46pm IST 2
Yo
Yo
181 Posts
Personally, as a reader, I didn't notice it enough to put me off. I guess that'd be the same for most readers. However, the pro's will be looking beyond that, especially how much editing work will be needed to put it right. I suppose it's wise to listen to them. They know what's needed.

The main culprits appear to be.

"Anyhow, as I was saying."

And then this whole paragraph:

"My school's over the road. Come on, I'll show you.

See through the railings here. That's the entrance to the primary school. When I got bigger I went in at the other door over there - the juniors. This was my school till I reached eleven. The world was small then and as pleasing as an ice cream cornet with a Cadbury's chocolate flake sticking out on top."

Maybe a compromise would be to start off with something like,

"So, my friend, there it is."

This would tell the reader you are talking to someone right from the start.
Sun, Aug 27 2017 04:49pm IST 3
RichardB
RichardB
1140 Posts
Interesting question, seeing that my WIP is also in conversational first-person present tense. I've had a WW critique on it, and I wasn't picked up on it. I play pretty fast and loose, with my narrator making asides, asking rhetorical questions, mentally addressing other characters and even himself in second person (You ought to know better than that by now. You do know it. You learned it the hard way.), etc.

But one thing I do not do is have him address an imaginary companion. I think that's the issue here. Things like We all start off innocent, don't we? are fine: your MC is making a general point. Give me a couple of hours longer is fine too. But I'm afraid that both times he said Come with me jolted me out of the narrative, because it sounds as if he's actually addressing somebody who's with him, and he's alone, isn't he? That's my impression.

Leave all the other stuff in by all means, but I should knock out those 'imaginary companion' moments.
Sun, Aug 27 2017 04:52pm IST 4
John Alty
John Alty
97 Posts
Yes, what RichardB says.
Sun, Aug 27 2017 05:09pm IST 5
L.
L.
123 Posts
Hi JeanieD, I really enjoyed reading this and I think it is a great start but I have to agree with the person who did the critique the talking to an invisible reader did not work for me. It took me out of the story and some of the description about the school felt like telling. At the end of the day it is personal preference but I would loose the telling to an invisible reader and keep the rest (the rest is really good and I would definitely want to read more of it).

I hope this helps.
Mon, Aug 28 2017 09:41am IST 6
Hil
Hil
1024 Posts
This is very interesting. I'm sure we've all read stories where we as readers are 'addressed' by the narrator. Or, we've read stories where the narrator is addressing someone else, and we fairly quickly know who it is. This feels like somewhere in between, to me. It would have me wondering if it will become clear who the 'you' is, and not feeling sure that it's simply me, the reader. So I sort of agree with the 'critiquer'. But it's easily remedied, I think, by some relatively simple editing. Other than that, I think the voice does work, and I like the piece.
Mon, Aug 28 2017 10:51am IST 7
RichardB
RichardB
1140 Posts
Yes, sorry, I should have said that. Apart from that one criticism, I liked it too. An engaging piece of writing with a good strong voice that works. Just needs a little editing.
Mon, Aug 28 2017 11:50am IST 8
JeanieD
JeanieD
362 Posts
Hi folks, thank you for your useful comments. You've helped me see that where I went wrong was in overdoing the 'talking to someone' bits. It's probably okay to do it to some extent as he is telling his story (but to no-one specific). I'll edit out where it sounds like he's talking to someone who is literally standing there next to him: 'My school's over the road.' 'Come on, I'll show you.' 'See through the railings here.' 'Look how its branches extend a welcome.' All these need to go, but maybe I can (just about) get away with the opening sentence.

This has certainly been a learning experience for me. I wasn't consciously aware when writing that I was confusing the reader by making it sound like he's addressing an imaginary companion.

Mon, Aug 28 2017 02:17pm IST 9
Philippa
Philippa
1584 Posts
JeanieD, I think you've got it :)
Mon, Aug 28 2017 04:26pm IST 10
Hil
Hil
1024 Posts
Yes, and no problems with the opening sentence. You might say that to yourself - inner monologue.
Tue, Aug 29 2017 10:31am IST 11
JeanieD
JeanieD
362 Posts
Yes, the penny finally dropped for me. But...

I've just been re-reading Holden Caulfield's words in the opening of Catcher in the Rye.

'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.'

Wonderful! Captures the character's voice brilliantly. And can't get more addressing the reader directly than that! But of course I'm no J D Salinger. If I could write as good as him, I might have been able to make it work.


Tue, Aug 29 2017 01:16pm IST 12
Hil
Hil
1024 Posts

That's a great example, Jeanie. I think the only problems with yours are the 'come on, come with me' bits - which is a bit more than addressing the reader - it seems to be addressing someone who is physically with him. Maybe that's what the 'critiquer' meant by 'imaginary friend'.

Tue, Aug 29 2017 01:38pm IST 13
JeanieD
JeanieD
362 Posts
Yes, I think you're right Hil.
Tue, Aug 29 2017 07:27pm IST 14
Yo
Yo
181 Posts
I think with 'Catcher In The Rye' there is no doubt, right from the off, that the MC is talking to the reader. Nowt wrong with that. I suppose the issue is when it becomes inconsistent.
Wed, Aug 30 2017 12:27am IST 15
Rae
Rae
20 Posts
Can't add much more, I think other contributors have covered it nicely. And, as they said, a little bit of editing sorts it all out quite well.
Writing in the first person is interesting. It allows both the reader and the author to become very intimate with the protagonist. It is a wonderfully contradictory method. It is very simple - all is from his / her perspective - but also very complex - you're dealing with making internalised awareness (in all it's craziness) an everyday normality for the reader. It's refreshing in it's freedom - you can go wherever the mind can travel - but at the same time incredibly limited - all is from one perspective. But it is a lot of fun, especially if your character doesn't always see the world the same way as perhaps other do.
We, the reader, know that we're getting to see all the internal entanglements and the beauty / mystery that can bestow. We know the protagonist is not alone because we've opened up his / her cranium and slipped inside. That's a conceit both writer and reader agree upon from the outset.
However, by allowing the protagonist to converse directly with the reader, to wave to them, call them over, draw attention to themselves, then that - in a fashion - is effectively breaking the fourth wall. As the original critique said, the spell is then over.
Obviously, there are ways of incorporating that into the story if you wish but it has to be consistent, necessary, part and parcel of the planned scheme - think, if you will, Deadpool on the page.
Not sure if all that makes too much sense. If it's any help, I'm about 12k words in on my first person narrative and am only fractionally more insane then when I started ... Sealed
Wed, Aug 30 2017 12:00pm IST 16
JeanieD
JeanieD
362 Posts
I love writing in first-person but, yes, it's both freeing and limiting, and there's plenty of scope for slipping up and not getting the characterisation/voice/tone quite right. Looking back on my story now I find the 'Come with me' parts cringeworthy. When the critiquer said 'Why would he be addressing an imaginary friend?' my first thought was, why not? I pictured the thoughts of the character-narrator as being a bit like how we might write in a diary as if confiding in someone, while at the same time knowing no-one else will read it. But we wouldn't grab the imaginary listener/reader by the arm and say, 'Come here. Look at this.'

All your comments have been great. What a wonderful forum this is. I haven't critiqued for a while so I'll go to that section now and try to give something back.
Thu, Sep 7 2017 11:07am IST 17
Daedalus
Daedalus
720 Posts
This is an interesting one. I think everyone's made all the points I would have done, but it does highlight an issue with first person narration and the suspension of disbelief, in that it can be more difficult to maintain the artifice in such a way that the reader can't see the join. As others have said, I think the issue here is that it falls between the narrator essentially talking to themself and talking to someone else. You probably need to do one or the other but sliding between both could be jarring.

I wrote a rather experimental story in first person a few years ago, and one reader kept asking questions like 'who is she talking to? why is she narrating in this way? Is this written down at a later date?' which I did not have good answers for, and I think this thread has helped me pinpoint why those things were an issue.
Thu, Sep 7 2017 11:28am IST 18
EmmaD
EmmaD
3382 Posts
"I think with 'Catcher In The Rye' there is no doubt, right from the off, that the MC is talking to the reader. Nowt wrong with that. I suppose the issue is when it becomes inconsistent."

I think that's the key. Either do the talking-to-the-reader thing full-fat, max caffeine, 100 degrees proof, like Holden C. It becomes a strong part of the story's flavour, and draws the reader in really strongly as a result (apart from the ones who loathe it!). See also Alan Bennet's Talking Heads, which make fantastic short stories even though they were written for radio.

Or don't do it at all. It's doing it a little bit which doesn't work: the reader feels insecure about where the speaker, and the listener, and the reader all stand in relationship to each other.
Thu, Sep 7 2017 12:23pm IST 19
JeanieD
JeanieD
362 Posts
Ah, well, (sighs) me and Charlotte Bronte will have to do better. I'm joking of course. I absolutely agree with what you've all said. I've gotta learn to be an all or nothin' gal.
Thu, Sep 7 2017 01:18pm IST 20
EmmaD
EmmaD
3382 Posts
"an all or nothin' gal."

This post was partly about that - about what makes a book come across as confident:

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