The I-Story (home)

The I-Story, Part I
An Owner’s Manual

by Marko Fong

About the Author

An Owner’s Manual

The Flashlight Voice


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Any writer who’s ever written in first person has to deal with it. It doesn’t matter if you write about you, someone a lot like you, or about a “you” who grew wings and a tail then shared a pizza with aliens on a planet with three suns; people assume the “I” in the story had to be you. It’s a pain (especially when it really is you), but it’s also a testament to the power and authority of first person as a narrative voice. Readers instinctively grant it an authenticity that no other narrative mode commands.

I marvel at the marketing genius of Apple Computer with the I-Pod, I-Phone, I-Pad. For thirty years, Apple has made billions by selling their products as unique and inimitable in a market where everyone else copies and tries to undersell. In other words, anything that’s not an I-Whatever is either a fake or lower quality. Speaking of which, I hear their follow-up to the I-Phone is the I-Clone. It’s pretty much you, but it comes with a proprietary dock and it’s more stylish than the run of the mill you. The company projects that some time in the next fifty years, the I-Clone will replace children. The “I” in Apple’s product names implicitly draws on the power of first person.

Fortunately, for writers who can’t pay the premium that Apple products command, the I-story predates the computer. The most iconic first line of any American novel is, “Call me Ishmael,” Moby Dick. Or, how about, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or way back, “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago,” Don Quixote. Suck on this, Steve Jobs—the I-book is safely in the public domain though Google and Amazon are doing their best to change that.

By the way, in 2011, readers don’t assume that Herman Melville chased an actual white whale, that Samuel Clemens helped free an escaped slave, or that Cervantes was an itinerant Moor.

If you write fiction in first person and get annoyed by the “this must be you” business, take heart! Your readers will stop doing that within four or five generations of your death.

There are many versions of the I-story. In this article, I’ll be dealing with the most common model of the I-story, “first person past” (the narrator is a character in the story who relates something that happened to him/her or that he/she witnessed). Later we will look at “ first person present,” which snobby writers consider too trendy and limited, but it actually has a long history as “diary” or “journal” voice. There are also models of the I-story in first person plural (Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily” and Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides), multiple first which is the literary version of polygamy(allows varying point of views while preserving the first person voice), first-third (action and dialogue are in first and exposition is in third at various points. It sounds weird but The Canterbury Tales does this and Fielding’s Joseph Andrews uses it as well).

Strengths of First Person Past:

Think about this—court testimony is almost always done in first person past. “On the night of February 7, I saw the defendant in my house eating a rotten mango.” It’s called “direct testimony” or “eye witness” and it’s considered the strongest form of oral testimony. First Person Past (FPP) has a natural weight that makes the reader want to give credence to what the narrator is saying. Along with that, FPP has an undeniable immediacy because you’re hearing from someone who was present at the event.

This happens to be one of the reasons that FPP is so well suited to the use of the unreliable narrator (Think George McDonald Frazier’s Flashman series). Readers naturally trust FPP narrators. When the writer drops clues that the reader shouldn’t be so trusting, it slaps the story in the face and makes the reader look at everything fresh. It has the added bonus of the reader congratulating himself for figuring out that the narration was on more than one level. The unreliable narrator often ends with the story shifting to first person present where we see the narrator’s current circumstances.

Second, first person in general is the “voiciest” narrative mode. If you want a colorful narrator, first person is probably the easiest for bringing that off. Because the narrator is a character in the story, the voice in the narration can match his or her dialogue. The writer thus gets multiple chances to establish the narrator’s unique way of speaking and seeing the world and the reader almost automatically hears that narrator as a literal voice. (Think Catcher in the Rye)

Third, FPP allows for introspection and personal history so long as it’s within the capability of the narrator. Because it’s in the past tense, the narrator can bring in background, past events, and his own interior feelings and thoughts, though the ostensible limitation is that the narrator can’t go forward in time to the story’s implied present. Say your narrator is telling about some experience during the Civil War. It’s tricky for the character/narrator to start talking about errant text messages. Btw, this is where the fun begins.

Limitations of First Person Past

In exchange for all that voice-iness and apparent authority, the price is that you’re stuck in a single character’s head. Your narrator can only speculate about what other characters are thinking or feeling. It can get kind of lonely and frankly, as fun as your FPP voice may be, it can get monotonous even annoying. Imagine Robin Williams living inside your head for more than thirty minutes. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, just rent License to Wed or Old Dogs. They’re not FPP, but it’s the same effect. Ten minutes in, your brain starts shouting “Let me out of here, please! Enough! Go back to Ork.”

This is why many writers insist that first person is best suited to relatively simple short stories and prefer third person for longer more complex works. Third person narrators can see around corners in ways that first person can’t. They can go in and out of people’s heads. They can go back and forth in time. It’s just that it’s harder to get the same sense of directness or palpable voice.

The second limitation is that the narrator who often is the most important character in the story can’t physically describe himself without resorting to looking in mirrors, photographs, or letting other characters tell him these things through dialogue. Actually this is less of a problem in first person past than it is in first person present, but it’s still tricky.

The third limitation is that bit about the “present.” If you’re relating events from the distant past, how the heck do you work in things that the narrator probably knows but didn’t know then? Do you do it in past tense or present tense? It’s that business in the Back to the Future movies where Marty McFly can’t run into his present day self without exploding the time-space continuum. FPP invites those sorts of collisions, because your first person narrator is both a character in the past events and the individual telling the story at some later time.

The Way Out

Before I reveal the secret key combinations for the “Easter Egg” hidden in FPP, I warn would be writers that narration is subject to certain laws of nature. Hence, Munro’s law—

No single narrative mode is flexible enough to fit every type of story.

(Faulkner’s law is that there is no thought so complex that it can’t be contained in a single sentence.) The best we can do is to take advantage of the virtues of the one we’re using and minimize limitations. Part of the art of fiction is picking the narrative mode that’s best suited to the story you want to tell. For instance, FPP generally gives away the ending. Unless you make the narrator a ghost, the assumption is that the narrator/character survived whatever happened. If you plan to off your character, FPP is probably not the best choice.

Here It Is

In their haste to maintain a seamless sense of reality within a story, FPP writers too often trap themselves in verb tense purgatory. It goes like this. I’m describing the moment my hero and heroine first laid eyes on one another. That’s clearly in the past—

“When I first saw Laura, she had purple spikes in her hair, tattoos on her forearms, and she was wearing that dress that Princess Di wore on her honeymoon. My heart slam danced against my chest, I wanted to hang out with this woman and watch Dynasty with her while sticking safety pins through one another’s soft tissues and with our TV set upside down.”

Now-our FPP narrator decides to bring in this information—

“Years later after Laura and I divorced, she would have the tattoos removed through laser surgery. She likes needles, but detests scalpels. She’s now working for Michelle Bachmann.”

There are writers who fear that this pulls the reader out of the flow of the narrative. One moment you’re in 1986, the next you’re in some future Teabagger hell. These writers insist that the reader won’t put up with the disjunction.

FPP really is just a form of memoir except that the narrator doesn’t have to be an actual person and the described events didn’t necessarily happen.

Here’s the thing that I’ve always found interesting. Outside fiction, writers do this all the time. The form is called “Memoir” and if you think about it FPP really is just a form of memoir except that the narrator doesn’t have to be an actual person and the described events didn’t necessarily happen. Memoir simply assumes that the narrator and the “character/survivor” are effectively two different first person “I”s. Sue William Silverman in her excellent article “Voices in Memoir” labels them (1) the voice of innocence (the individual who sees and feels the events as freshly described sensations); (2) the voice of experience (the individual in the narrative who does the thinking and is generally the older or present day incarnation of the voice of innocence). In fiction, Lee K. Abbott calls it the “Double-I.” In any case, when it happens in memoir, readers don’t even stop to think about it. It’s just understood that there will be this one “I” who experienced things directly as a character and a second “I” in the voice who has had the opportunity to reflect and absorb.

Two of my favorite relatively recent books, Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex use memoir technique very effectively to allow the FPP narrative a greater degree of complexity and to work in information that would normally be outside the narrator/character’s awareness at the time. In Oscar Wao, the first sections of the book include a recent history of the Dominican Republic, a long history of Oscar’s childhood, and events from Oscar’s mothers and sister’s lives before Oscar was born. Diaz pulls this off by having the story told in first person by Oscar’s one-time Rutgers roommate and sister’s would-be boyfriend, Yunior who is actually narrating the entire book in first person past. It’s a couple hundred pages before the reader even realizes that Yunior is the one doing the talking and that the first several chapters amount to Yunior’s research about Oscar and his family.

Until Yunior’s appearance, most readers assume that Diaz is writing in omniscient. The writer pulls off this sleight of narrative hand by actually withholding Yunior’s appearance in any scenes in the narrative to what amounts to the last few years of Oscar’s short life which turns out to be a reverse Immaculate Conception. Instead of jumping back and forth between Yunior as the voice of experience and Yunior as a character in the narrative, he withholds Yunior’s physical appearance for a painfully long time. To do this, Diaz uses a narrative trick, Yunior is writing a treatise about his friend Oscar and we are not exactly hearing the present day Yunior talk so much as we are reading research notes from Yunior’s memoir.

The result is a book that’s nominally written in first person past, yet its first person narrator gets to relate things about Oscar and family that he couldn’t have known at the time and essentially enters the histories of the various characters in ways that only an omniscient narrator ordinarily would. My take is that in constructing his narrative, Diaz understood and exploited the tension of the two different people within his FPP narrator. As a “witness” narrator, Yunior actually spends most of the novel in “looking back” mode rather than “this happened to me” mode which runs counter to readers’ usual expectation of FPP narrative. In the process, he extracts a level of freedom that FPP doesn’t normally allow.

Eugenides’s Middlesex starts with one of my favorite opening lines, “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room.” Cal-Callie is an “inter-sexed” individual who mostly tells the story of the part of his life when he was female. Like Oscar Wao, Middlesex includes long sections of family history that happen before the narrator’s birth and sometimes follows characters to events where Cal-Callie was not present. For the most part, Eugenides brings this off by using the technique of memoir. Cal is reconstructing family history to trace the genesis of his inter-gender nature, a marriage between brother and sister. He regularly brings later and even current events into his recounting. Still there’s more to it.

Instead of hiding, his FPP narrator, Eugenides splits it in two and makes the dual nature of the FPP narrator literal. There’s Callie, who experiences the real time events of the book, but who disappears some time during adolescence. There’s the older Cal who shares Callie’s memories, but sees it from his own perspective now that he is male. The result is a complex, though implied, dialogue between the two selves that allows the writer to get outside the single head narration normally assumed for FPP. It’s one voice, but two different characters who happen to share a body. I’d mention that both Eugenides and Diaz’s narrators might be annoying, if not for the fact that both “moderate” their eccentricities as they move into the present.

Obviously, these are gifted writers doing cartwheels on the narrative tightrope. I’m not suggesting that you try this at home. Personally, I know it’s hard enough for me to keep the dialogue natural and the tenses right. What I do think we mortals should take away is the way both writers incorporated the “memoir” format into their narratives and the way it freed them to go from past to present fluidly and for the most part seamlessly. Bottom line, verb tense purgatory goes away pretty quickly when you stop looking on what you’re doing as “short story” or “fiction” and simply go about writing your narrator-character’s memoir or what I mnemonically sometimes refer to as the Me-mirror. The image in the mirror looks like you, but it’s not you. They both exist, but it’s the person looking into the mirror who has the actual gift of consciousness. They also appear to touch, but technically, they can’t.

How did this became a dilemma at all for fiction writers? I think it’s the fault of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and the stress he placed on his concept of the “fictive dream.” In Gardner, the writer is supposed to develop a seamless world that the reader absorbs and ideally never leaves until the story or book is over. As a result, any time disjunction where the narrator suddenly jumps forward or backward or even out of the story, is seen as a sin so serious that it’ll make your story crash. I think a lot of us forget that Gardner was addressing fiction at a time when meta-fiction and post-modernism were in vogue. Narrative at the time was purposely so self-conscious and convoluted that if you diagrammed some narrative arcs they looked like prints by M.C. Escher. Gardner, I think rightly, came to the defense of fiction as a visceral-pleasurable experience rather than as a treatise in quantum physics.

Modern scientific notions of how time operates subjectively are, however, more sophisticated than the conventional understanding of Gardner’s time. There’s considerable evidence that Dickensian linearity was the fiction and Proust was closer to neurological reality. When we experience events, our minds are constantly circling back to the past and pushing forward to the future. It’s richer than the linear reality with a steady state consciousness, that Gardner is often thought to demand. Of course, if you’ve read Grendel, you know that Gardner himself knew that. Most of us naturally experience and interpret the world as memoir, even fearsome monsters.

Of course, not all memoir is equally compelling. The skilled writer does not randomly jump between the present narrator and the past narrator/character. For instance, if you jump to present knowledge just once, it really will be felt as a bump in the narrative road. The bit that most would be writers get wrong is that one jump into the present may be a problem, but multiple jumps might be just fine. If it happens regularly, that smooth road of narrative consciousness can open to the pleasures of the roller coaster. As long as the writer has enough control of the two Marty McFlys so they dance but don’t collide, it won’t stop the movie in the reader’s head. When it’s done well the FPP narrator has access to multiple POV through the interplay between the narrator who’s telling the story (presumably at some later time) and our narrator/character who still gets to have the sensations and experience as they happen. The narrator also gets to come forward in time with its potential wider perspective in ways that omniscient narrators do so easily. Mostly, it’s a matter of keeping present day narrator away from scenes with high dramatic action that involve narrator/character (it tends to give away punch lines), but going back to the guy looking into the mirror when you want to be ruminative.

I mention a second bonus from approaching FPP fiction as memoir. A good memoir writer implicitly recognizes the high points of his own story. When you imagine, an FPP story as memoir the plot has a way of jumping into the writer’s lap.

After Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer, the publishing industry started filling the front table at Barnes and Noble with memoirs. To write non-fiction memoir, you normally have to be famous, have known someone famous, or have survived something extraordinary. Memoirs about addiction, abandonment, natural disaster, or watching an entire season of American Idol started to proliferate faster than you could say Lifetime Network movie. Unfortunately, a few of those folk were lying. Of course if Lifetime makes it into a movie anyway, it doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, appearing on Oprah should work the same way, but it doesn’t. In any case, the liars who could write some got to call themselves writers of creative non-fiction and kept their millions. The ones who couldn’t had to go back to repairing televisions or, sadder yet, go back to blogging for the Republican party.

Why do I bring this up? It’s yet another example of the power of FPP. People want to believe it; even publishing professionals believe utterly ridiculous events so long as it’s written in first person past and has some chance to make a bestseller list. Besides, what decent fiction writer would pass on the opportunity to come up with stuff that’s utterly ridiculous?

FPP is not just a mode for simple short stories. If you accept the two Marty McFlys inside FPP with a zen-like complacency and let them have some fun, you can sustain a long complex narrative that retains the distinctive voice and immediacy of first person. Just pretend that you’re writing one of those fake memoirs that get giant advances with pre-sold movie rights (if you’re making it up, please call it fiction as an ethical matter).

So, while you’re still under warranty with your I-story, go out and turn up the volume and make those readers boogie.

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© 2012 Marco Fong

Part II >>