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Keeping an even tone in first-person narration

January 23, 2012

I don’t write blog posts in first person because I am the center of the universe. I write that way because I cut my teeth on detective novels, because Robert B. Parker has fused himself to my muse and that’s how it works for me. Third person is awkward.

I like first person because it gives you insights to what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, and because it provides ample opportunity for humor. A god-like third-person narrator seems like a jerk when he notices a large person taking a third trip to the buffet line. In the hands of a skilled first-person narrator, this observation can be poignant, sad, or the kind of joke you laugh at, even though you know you shouldn’t.

If this was me, this wouldn't be clams. It would be eclairs.

The problem with first-person narration is it’s hard to keep consistent in a 300-page manuscript. There are days when I sit down and become that narrator, and the words and observations are crisp, biting, and appropriate. I hop deftly from point to point like one of those tree monkeys you used to see in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

And some days, the tone isn’t there. It’s more analytical or it’s not as snarky and light. But maintaining that constant, entertaining internal dialog is key to a first-person narrative. The reader’s basically renting space inside the protagonist’s mind for several hours, so it better be an entertaining place.

The key is to really know your protagonist. Know his or her voice, what he or she likes or doesn’t like. What scares him, what sets him off, what he thinks is funny. If your narrator is a bastardized version of yourself, you’re probably okay–except maybe not.

Your internal narration can shift from day to day, even hour to hour. For instance, in the mornings, I have a hard time with brightness and sunshine. It’s not that I hate mornings–I really don’t–which is good because God calibrated my body to never sleep past six o’clock. But I don’t see happy things in mornings, and a light, gently sarcastic touch is hard for me at that time of the day.

If you’re writing in first person, in addition to all the other revision stuff, you need to make sure your protagonist doesn’t sound like the light rock morning deejay for fifteen pages, then like Sam Kinison for the next fifteen.

So sayeth I, the center of the universe.

One Comment
  1. January 23, 2012 3:22 pm

    This is a great reminder as I push forward on my memoir and try to keep things light and humorous. How in the world do you find all the right pictures for your blog posts? Thanks.

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