Mark Richard, “This is Us, Excellent”
Continuing the first-person safari, we come to this, the exact reason I tend to avoid first-person stories. A child’s voice that aims to sound like a child’s voice. What’s even more dangerous is that the kid has an abusive alcoholic father–actually, maybe he’s not alcoholic, I’m having trouble finding that part anywhere, but he is abusive. And since the population of literary abusive fathers has by now far outnumbered the ones in real life, the story is going to have to lean heavily on this kid’s voice to engage me. Oh, and it’s in present tense, so we’re pretty much at the mercy of this child’s mind.
Well, of course, Richard is able to pull it off, I think because his narrator doesn’t come at the language like this-is-how-I-talk, but more like how he wants to talk. He’s taking stabs at phrases that don’t always make sense, and though he does lean a little heavily on the TV hero Duke McQuaid, like I’m-conscious-of-whom-I’m-emulating, the way he name-drops the pizza parlor again and again makes him seem like the kind of kid who would like the labels of things. Plus the story doesn’t try to explain what the kid doesn’t understand, so there are a few scenes that just end abruptly because how could he know what to say about them? And the last scene was built up to well for it to be the final scene from this character’s eyes, his dad tricked into going alone on the ride this kid loves because it feels dangerous, and it proves dangerous, and we’re in the right place to see it happen.
Susan Minot, “Lust”
This story is told in snippets, often one or two sentences, which I’m told portrays a very detached voice representative of the psychology of the character (but I’ve always felt comes across as a more look-at-me I-could’ve-been-a-poet style trick). But if any character has a right to be detached, it’s this narrator. Sex, near sex, man after man after man, and rarely does lust seem to be a motivating factor, but the longing for closeness and attention and a lack of self-value so that the number one benefit of sleeping with someone is self-effacement, disappearance. The narration drifts into second person now and then, but it always feels calculated to me, like a way to get out the sentimental emotional phrases that wouldn’t work in first person. I’ve never really liked this story.
Denis Johnson, “Work”
I’ve heard so many great things about Jesus’ Son but this is the first story I’ve read from it, I think. This narrator is in first person because he has a story he wants to tell, a day in his life which holds significance to him, and he’s got an interesting voice and a unique perspective, so why not let him have a go at it. He knows it’s rare for a person like him to have a day where he feels like he earned the right to relax, can feel it down to his bones. Plus he’s got the right perspective to talk about Wayne, who’s another ten kinds of interesting, so.
Kevin Brockmeier, “The Ceiling”
In this story a large flat reflective plate hovers ominously over a town and slowly descends until the people can’t even stand upright beneath it anymore. The way it’s described at first, so far away they can’t even tell what it is beyond a blot against the moon, it seems they would have plenty of time to figure out what the thing is before it becomes a danger. And they do, as it turns out, the whole town can see the thing approaching and yet nobody leaves. And the person narrating is the king of ignorance. His wife’s erratic behavior is a signal of her unhappiness and though he can sort of tell she needs something, he doesn’t realize she’s cheating on him with the neighbor. And when he discovers it, he doesn’t change. He continues to expect her to love him, or at least obstinately wait for her until she does. Meanwhile they can’t stand up anymore, the ceiling is so low. And yet they don’t leave. This one makes sense to be in first person, but I wonder how it would’ve come off in third, if it might’ve been possible. A close second might worked equally well for me, or better. I like to use second to represent the voice inside you that you want to hear, the decisive voice that tells you things, makes analyses and determinations, in the moment calls that don’t bother with too much reflection, but they sound good enough to accept at the time. So the first person obeys. When you have a combination of first person with a very passive-heavy voice, “was” and “were” all over the place, I think the natural counterpoint to this would be the active second. Allowing the bulk of the action to happen outside yourself while you watch feels very passive to me, like this version of first, but you still get to write active, engaging sentences.
Charles D'Ambrosio, “Screenwriter”
If you’re going to put a character in a psych ward, your first instinct ought to be making that work in first person. Add to that the old “fascinated I” perspective with the introduction of another even more interesting character, and there’s no real question about which perspective you want to hear in this case. “Her feet dragged across the floor like the last two dodoes.” This is the kind of sentence you can write from this perspective. Which is pretty awesome.