Avoiding Claustrophobia on the Page: Letting Some air into a First-Person Narrative

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

I’d like to say that I deliberately chose first-person narration for my new novel In the Lonely Backwater, that this was a craft decision made with writerly forethought. After all, the book is both a psychological exploration and a mystery, in which clues are unfolded and the reader moves toward knowledge step by step alongside the narrator. It’s a natural for the first-person POV.

The truth is that Maggie’s voice was so clear and distinctive from the moment she opened her mouth that I couldn’t imagine the story being told by any other person, or in any other way: “There wasn’t anything wrong between Charisse Swicegood and me except that she was her and I was me, and with the family history and all it was just natural.” That was the opening of the book from the get-go.

As the police investigation into Charisse’s disappearance and death unfolds, Maggie will prove to be an incredibly candid narrator of her own experiences and opinions, but also an unreliable one. I’m bothered by that familiar term “unreliable narrator,” because it posits the existence of a reliable one, and when are humans absolutely factual and dispassionate in the telling of their own stories, or anyone else’s? Can even computers be trusted (see: HAL 9000)? We see what we see, remember what we remember, and shade the truth for profit or kindness or survival all the time. 

So the writer chooses to have one person tell the story. The reader is caught in that awareness for the length of a novel, looking out through those eyes. It might get a touch claustrophobic.

“The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel

The intimacy with the character (and often therefore with the writer) makes this the most powerful of forms, to my mind: the concentration, the “single effect,” of one voice. Of course a writer can always choose to use third-person or second-person or omniscience or multiple narrators, but whatever the decision, point of view is fundamental to the tone and structure of the work that will emerge. 

Claustrophobia may be exactly what is needed, a narrow window on the world. 

Some of the great books have depended on this: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Gulliver’s Travels…the list goes on. And Edgar Allen Poe (whose quote introduces the novel) was a master at letting the reader fully inhabit another consciousness. Within the first-person form, writers may employ techniques such as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, letters (epistolary novels), frame stories, or even set up the whole thing as a recounted tale or a recovered document. 

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books

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