First Person Narrators

I’m curious about what makes some first person narrators so compelling and others so annoying you’d rather put pins in your eyes than read another word. I spent some time studying Fitzgerald when I was working on The Summer We Read Gatsby. (research…aka procrastination.)  It’s incredible how effectively the story of Jay Gatz  in The Great Gatsby unfolds from the perspective of the compelling voice of the narrator Nick Carroway. Could it have been told any other way? In the third person perhaps? Or narrated by Gatsby himself in the first person? Absolutely not.

The first person is tricky to write.  The character has to be self-aware without being self-absorbed and there is a fine balance there when they’re telling a story in which they have a significant role.  And sex scenes? Very dicey….But I love the challenge of discovering that first person voice and carrying it through and I realize that many  of the novels we end up adoring are ones that have well-crafted pitch-perfect narrators. These are the voices that linger in your mind forever. There is something so intimate about living a story  so  close to a compelling character.

My absolute favorite book when I was growing up was I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith.  As J. K, Rowling (Harry Potter!)  is quoted on the front cover of the paperback edition, “this book has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.”

When I first started writing The Summer We Read Gatsby I tried to have both main characters,  Cassie and Peck, alternate narrator duties. But I found that this just didn’t work. Peck was a character better seen from another perspective, through the eyes of her half-sister, Cassie, than in the first person. I also found it difficult not to be repetitive, with both characters wanting to weigh in on the same scene.

The very first, first person narrator I remember being absolutely engaged by was Huckleberry Finn.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a must-read and well worth going back to as an adult, especially if  you’re interested in developing a first person voice. Mark Twain was brilliant.

Every person who’s ever read The Catcher In The Rye has been captivated by its young narrator, Holden Caulfield.  This was another voice that registered with me at a very young age as a writer.  And who can forget the voice of Humbert Humbert in Lolita?  To round out my little list of classic enduring novels with first person narrators, I’m adding an all-time favorite, the young nephew, Patrick Dennis, who writes about one of the most “unforgettable characters” ever, his Auntie Mame. I became somewhat obsessed with Patrick Dennis, who isn’t even a real person, but the pseudonym for Edward Everett Tanner III who wrote under this name and also that of Virginia Rowans. His life makes for a fascinating story (read Uncle Mame by Eric Myers to learn more about this fascinating best-selling writer who ended up becoming a butler!)

So, a little list of 6 classic novels with great first person narrators:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis  (also check out The Joyous Season)

I’m curious to hear other favorites. Please share them.

Category: Writing, Updated to May 21, 2010 of Danielle | Log in

9 Comments

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  1. Comment by Mary:

    Love these books!

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:54 am
  2. Comment by tammy:

    Wow! What a great list. I’m going to pick up I Capture The Castle as a summer read. Thanks!

    May 21, 2010 @ 10:56 am
  3. Comment by Danielle:

    Thanks, Let me know if you read any other great novels with narrators you like!

    May 21, 2010 @ 11:12 am
  4. Comment by BJ:

    DANIELLE
    LOVE THIS COLLECTION OF BOOKS TWO THIRDS OF WHICH I’VE READ. ALSO ENJOYED YOUR TRIP THROUGH THE ART MUSEUMS. IF YOU GET TO BALTIMORE THIS SUMMER, PLEASE STOP BY THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF VISUAL ART AND CHECK OUT THE ARTIST, ATHLONE CLARKE. I WAS THERE LAST WEEK AND THE SHOW IS AWESOME, ESPECIALLY THIS GUY.
    BJ

    May 25, 2010 @ 6:25 pm
  5. Comment by Kathleen:

    “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” by Anita Loos. Edith Wharton called it the great American novel…. “The Summer We Read Gatsby” made me think of Loos’ book. I can imagine that if Peck had been the narrator, “Summer” would have had that zany charm that Loos’ readers fell in love with 85 years ago. “Summer” really captures the feel of the Hamptons, today, which I enjoyed so as I read it.

    June 13, 2010 @ 8:25 pm
  6. Comment by Deborah:

    Some of the most interesting and intriguing things that have happened in my life, I have “tripped” over, on my way to somewhere else. Some people say that’s “serendipity” and that would be a good way to describe it as well. Or, “meant to be” or “as God would have it” or simply “fate”. I was doing a search for my daughter’s birth announcement, which incorrectly stated that the child born in that Connecticut hospital was a “boy”. To my knowledge, that typo has never been corrected. In any case, I was just curious to see if I could locate it and found you!
    My daughter was born 33 years ago in New London, Connecticut. I named my beautiful baby girl, Olivia Moriarty!
    Just thought, I’d drop a line and say hello.
    I have three awesome, albeit very complicated (adult) children. I love a great sense of humor and I love to write!

    August 21, 2010 @ 4:35 pm
  7. Comment by Steffie winship:

    Our town, to kill a mockingbird to mention a couple

    December 3, 2010 @ 10:05 pm
  8. Comment by Aurora Vinhais:

    A very interesting book is, “Sula” by Toni Morrison. It was a must read in an English lit class. My professor said she loved Sula, and I never felt that Sula was a lovable character. I didn’t get it, and I read the book twice, and it was really hard to write the review, but I got an A on it to my suprise. I would say it’s a must read.

    April 30, 2013 @ 8:58 pm
  9. Comment by Ginger James:

    AND< why are there so few woman artists represented in all these galleries??? Ginger James

    February 20, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

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