The main reason the first-person narrator is also known as the subjective narrator is because we’re never entirely sure if they’re telling us the truth. This may not be an outright lie, it could be an omission, a flexing of the truth or a mistake. If we can’t see into the other characters heads then the only perspective we have to go on is that of the narrator therefore everything we read is filtered through their perspective; their outlook on life, their view of the other characters, their morality and many other things we’ll explore later. The point being we can use this inaccuracy to throw red-herrings to the reader and lead them down the wrong path either with the character or at the character’s behest.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles we don’t have to tell the reader everything, and we certainly don’t have to tell them everything at once. We may do this in a first draft work it all out for ourselves whether it’s a character’s history or what the narrator knows of what’s happening but in editing we can trim it, cut it or take it out altogether, particularly if it’s something the narrator wouldn’t know. For instance, in Victorian Mistress I couldn’t have Lot telling the story of how Bran and Josef met because she doesn’t know it. I could have one of them tell her the story or I could have her piece bits of it together but if I did the latter, whether or not the story is correct, it would only be Charlotte’s interpretation of the evidence not a definitive story. She could be completely wrong, partly wrong or right, without Bran or Josef to confirm it the reader would never know. Her view on the events would be subjective.
Even if I had Bran or Josef tell her the story there would still be a degree of subjectivity to it because not only would she be bias towards Bran but the story would also have the layer of bias from the teller’s perspective. When people tell stories they play parts up or down based upon how they want to be perceived by the intended audience which adds another layer of bias. Due to his lack of self-esteem Bran might play down his part in the tale but Josef, who wants Charlotte to like him, might play up his role, maybe even try to put a heroic spin on it. That’s before we consider that there are bits of the story that Bran and Josef wouldn’t know even though it involved both of them; people one of them might not have met, places they might not have been, things they heard rather than saw for themselves.
Each character has their own perspective on events and their own motives so they tell the same story different ways. Even if that motive is that they want to impress the reader or they were simply mistaken about something.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narration/narrative see Finding Your Perspective and Finding Your Voice. You may also find my internal monologue series useful under Finding The Characters.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.