I recently picked up a novel based on the premise and back matter alone – always a questionable choice – only to return home and find it was written in the 1st person narrator format. For the non-writerly and readerly types, this means the storytelling comes from one point of view, the narrator, using “I” (as opposed to third person). This novel (which I’m not going to name because it’s not cool to run someone down) juxtaposed an ancient Celtic druid in a contemporary setting, which seems like an interesting take. But I couldn’t get through one chapter. Too much explaining, not character revealing, awkward, and I immediately knew there was no way I was going 300-plus pages with this narrator. Back to the bookstore to trade in for something I will read.
The Beemsville take on 1st person goes something like this: works great great for short stories, Frank Miller graphic novels, and Magnum P.I. For everything else – you better bring it.
In our opinion, 1st person is too limiting and restricting in novels unless the book is short or very well done. Many of us enjoy long-form storytelling because it allows the complexity and interplay of multiple characters. George R.R. Martin and the ‘Ice and Fire’ series blew up in part, due to the always shifting cast of point-of-view characters, allowing for complex world building, political machinations, and despair. True, he’s gone overboard the last few books, shifting too far away from those characters we actually want to follow, but that’s a separate topic. One of the best aspects of Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series (see recent review on The Blade Itself) is getting familiar with the four main point-of-view characters in the first half of the novel, then seeing how they interact with and perceive each other in the second half of the novel when they come together.
Part of the problem with 1st person in longer fiction related to narrative devices like unreliable narrators, the tendency of these narrators to either totally lack introspection or go so completely overboard they drown out the story, and issues with consistency of voice and perception. With short stories, these things end up being a non-issue or an actual benefit. I like reading well-crafted short fiction with unreliable, crazy narrators. Who doesn’t? In a short story, it’s easier to maintain that sense of voice and character – a big reason why so many beginning writers stick to 1st person as they’re learning (and probably a reason I have less patience for it, having survived numerous painful workshops).
This isn’t to say we reject all 1st person novels. After much prodding from the wife, I’m currently reading The Hunger Games books; I’m enjoying Katniss’ narration of the tale as much for what’s omitted for us to fill in as for what’s included. I’ve consistently enjoyed numerous Harry Dresden novels over the years, and most recently liked a couple of 1st person books: Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (Although in reviews of both books I did have complaints about the inherent limitations of the 1st person narrator.)
Much of it just comes down to personal choice, taste, and what you want out of your reading experience. My own patience is much less for a 1st person novel than for something similar in 3rd. I can tell in one chapter or less whether it’s going to work, whereas I might give more traditional narration 50-100 pages to engage me. The writer better bring it – that’s all I’m saying – or it’s back to the bookstore or library with you…