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