Most people struggle with first person point-of-view narrators. Successful first person can make the reader feel close to the narrator, what they’re feeling and thinking. But what about a narrator who is bizarre, mentally ill, or different in a way that affects not only their voice but their whole world-view? How can you write a character like that and convince your reader? How do you stay credible?
Ever since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, it seems more and more novels are being written with extra-ordinary narrators. That novel has a narrator with Aspberger’s syndrome, and in an article written for The Guardian, Haddon says nothing about Aspberger’s at all. Instead he says about the book: “The legs aren’t quite the same length. It isn’t entirely comfortable. It’s about how little separates us from those we turn away from in the street. It’s about how badly we communicate with one another. It’s about accepting that every life is narrow and that our only escape from this is not to run away (to another country, another relationship, a slimmer, more confident self) but to learn to love the people we are and the world in which we find ourselves.”
What are the challenges of this kind of narrator? Are you creating something like an unreliable narrator, or are you in fact creating one that is more reliable than usual? In order for him or her to convince the reader, everything has to work. The voice, the language, the world view, the emotions. If you create a narrator who is just like yourself, all of those things are already there. As soon as you step further and further away from your own experience, you have to use research and imagination and, most of all, you have to be consistent.
Consistency is the fence. Stay inside it (looking out at the world, so to speak) and the reader will go along with you. Fall outside and the spell is broken. Many of the writers who have created extra-ordinary narrators have done so from experience. Francisco X. Stork, who wrote Marcelo in the Real World (Marcelo has high-functioning Aspberger’s) worked with young people with autism and Aspberger’s as a teenager, and now has a nephew with autism (it’s in his Author’s Note). The voice of his narrator, Marcelo, is strong, engaging and funny, but it’s also created with his clever use of language – for example, Marcelo uses no contractions – and his very literal world-view.
In Room by Emma Donoghue, the narrator, Jack, is five and has never known a world outside the mostly-underground room he lives in. It’s a masterful novel – Jack’s narration never falters, and his view of his tiny (and then rapidly widening) world is very convincing. Donoghue says on her website: “I borrowed observations, jokes, kid grammar and whole dialogues from our son Finn, who was five while I was writing it. Room was also inspired by… ancient folk motifs of walled-up virgins who give birth (e.g. Rapunzel), often to heroes (e.g. Danaë and Perseus). Room was also inspired by… the Fritzl family’s escape from their dungeon in Austria.”
The other challenge is that the reader needs to feel some kind of empathy, at least, with the narrator, especially in first person. It’s where humor can help a lot. Until the reader becomes accustomed to the oddness of the voice, you have to use every tool at your disposal to keep them engaged – intrigue, story questions, great language, character, and so on. The only novel I could think of where I was never truly engaged or empathetic was Just In Case by Meg Rosoff (the narrator is mentally disturbed). When I went and found my copy and checked, it uses third person point of view. Now I’m wondering if first person would have worked better? Just one more decision an author makes!
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