I Speak Therefore I’m Unreliable

Originally I was going to try to write about all the different perspectives in one article but it was long and jumbled and didn’t work so I decided to break them up and focus on one at a time. As I recently started a Weekly Serial which is written in first-person/subjective narration that seemed like a good one to start with.

First-person, often called the subjective narrator, is my personal favourite. I find it challenging in some ways because you need to get inside the head of your character and try to differentiate the voice of each subjective narrator you write. On the other hand it can be fun because you can really get inside their head and tell the reader what they’re thinking about places or other characters from their perspective, in their words. In this way I think you can really alter the perspective on a character.

For example, I think if Hysteria had been written from the perspective of Bran rather than Charlotte she would appear to be a very different character as we’d be looking through the lens of love. She’d probably seem a lot nicer and a lot less manipulative. Whereas from Charlotte’s perspective everything is an opportunity and barely a moment goes by when she isn’t working out how to play something to her advantage.

Did I try writing it from Bran’s perspective? Yes, but it didn’t work because the distance between who she was and who he saw was too great. Then there was Bran’s poor sense of self versus who he actually is and it gave too much about him away. There seemed to be something more interesting following Charlotte trying to work Bran out, than following Bran being in love with Charlotte. Though I’m sure you’ll get plenty of that over time.

Obviously though there are pit falls with the first-person narrative. The main one being that you can’t have anything happen on the page without the character who is telling the story being present, these things can be discovered second-hand or implied but not shown, which can be frustrating. This is perhaps why some writers have limited omniscient or omniscient sections in their stories so they can show these bits. Kelley Armstrong does this to great effect in some of her novels, such as The Cainsville Series. So there are ways around the problem.

Then, as I mentioned earlier, there’s trying to make your characters sound different. The problem here can be that they might sound different in your head but a reader will disagree, I’ve had that happen. However, as this is a matter for interpretation then you don’t need to be digging through the thesaurus to find different words because someone will disagree. There are smaller ways I’ve found to differentiate them too, for example changing the small connective words like ‘simply’, instead of ‘just’. And, the biggest one of all, what they say rather than how they say it. If I go back to dissecting my weekly serial if I wrote the stories from Bran’s perspective he would be a lot less free talking about sex than Charlotte.

This is one of the reasons that the subjective/first-person narrator is often also thought of as the unreliable narrator because everything in a story is skewed from their perspective. The most obvious example of this is that when writing a villain they are the hero of their own story and the hero becomes the villain. Think of your favourite book or film and consider what the story might’ve been like if the narrative was flipped so the antagonist became the protagonist and vice versa. As I said earlier my weekly serial would be a different story if told from Bran’s perspective. I find that sometimes if I’m stuck then trying to write a story from another character’s perspective can help, either because I see a scene from a different angle and learn something new about it or I simply find that the story works better.

I’m not going suggest that everybody start writing in first-person but I would suggest trying it as a writing exercise because it can be a good way to find out about your characters. Putting them in a situation and working out how they behave can prove easier than sitting down and trying to write a list of their character traits or answering questions about them.

Overall, I would say the most difficult thing about choosing to write in the first person is the inability to follow anything that doesn’t directly involve your lead character. But, in my experience, the challenge of getting right into your character’s head and trying to write a story as they would makes up for this. It‘s certainly fun trying to write from Charlotte’s perspective.

Article Archive 1

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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