Do you dislike first-person narratives?

Posted June 14, 2020 by Lory in discussions / 50 Comments

DiscussionNEW

I’ve seen some comments around the blogosphere from people who say they categorically dislike first-person narration. I find this puzzling, and a bit ironic considering how deeply this form is rooted in the history of fiction; many early novels were written in the first person as “letters” or “memoirs” so the authors could present them as if they were real documents, to make them more convincing.

It would be strange indeed if we eschewed the word “I” in all our personal correspondence and other writings. Why ban it from fiction?

I am obviously not a person who dislikes such books, because cutting them out would eliminate many of my favorites of all time:

  • Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  • Beauty by Robin McKinley
  • The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
  • Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The King Must Die by Mary Renault
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I simply could not imagine my reading life without these and many other first-person narratives. Could you?

Are you a person who doesn’t like this kind of book? Or can you understand why some people don’t? Please explain, because I am baffled.

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

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50 responses to “Do you dislike first-person narratives?

  1. I’m with you, Lory, I enjoy a well-written first person story. I know some people struggle with unreliable narrators, and maybe if they can’t identify with the personality and experiences of the narrator it can be difficult. But to generalise and say all? Your list makes a strong opening for a counter argument. Can I add Wuthering Heights?

    • Okay, those are some possible reasons, although to me the encounter with someone unlike myself (though preferably relatable in some way) is one of the main purposes of reading in general.

      Wuthering Heights is an interesting candidate with its layers of stories within stories!

      • Jillian

        Agreed! In Wuthering Heights the whole point is the unreliable narration and biased perspectives. 😀

  2. Loved Till We Have Faces & some of those others & I couldn’t imagine them written any other way. Rebecca by Du Maurier is another.

  3. I really have no problem with either first or third person voices, as long as there’s a reason for using one voice over another. First person sometimes makes for an unreliable narrator, which can be interesting, but also problematic. Third person has a tendency (if not careful) to distance the reader from the main character. If you want an example of using first and third person voices really effectively, you should read “I Was Anastasia” by Ariel Lawhon. It is told in two parts – the last weeks in the life of the Princess Anastasia in first person, told chronologically from the time of the family being imprisoned until their being murdered. The other is the story of Anna Anderson, the woman some people thought was Anastasia. Her story is told in third person, but in reverse chronological order from near her death to a point just after the Czar’s family’s murders. It is a master-class in using both first and third person narratives. (No surprise, Lawhon is a masterful author!)

  4. I love first-person narration, partly because it allows for an unreliable narrator. I wonder if this is why a few people don’t like it? Because they were “fooled” by a narrator they were later told was unreliable, like when you first read Lolita and then you go to class and are told that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator and you’ve fallen into a trap set for the unwary.
    The book I just reviewed is narrated in the first person by a cyborg, which is at least half of why it’s charming.

    • Again, I wonder what kind of world people expect to live in — are narrators reliable when they tell stories in real life? No. We always have to sift what is real and what isn’t. But perhaps some want their fictional world to be more solid.

  5. Jillian

    First person often limits the number of perspectives used in the tale. We’re a visual world these days, so possibly people want to stand back and see the scene as a whole. And if done badly, first person can read like a litany of uninteresting bemoaning rather than a scene: you end up trapped inside an uninteresting or melodramatic character’s head rather than free to roam and form your own conclusions about various scenes in the story. You’re able to see only what they see, and what you see is biased by that character’s perspective. (I don’t mind first person at all. I’d add Frankenstein to your list.) 🙂

    • Well, of course I don’t want to spend a book in the head of an uninteresting character either. That’s a sure DNF for me. The characters in the books listed above certainly sustained my interest … maybe not enough for some people, though.

  6. I really like to write in first-person, but I can also understand a reader’s frustration with it, if the narrator is not considered “likeable” enough to stick with for an entire novel (and that in itself is a frustrating topic of conversation!). It’s a bit of a double-standard, though, because many (most?) first-person narrators are women, aren’t they? So does this mean that female narrators are “unlikeable” or that readers don’t like listening to women telling tales, for some reason? Is it sexist to dislike first-person narratives?

    • That is another spin on the topic. Are most first-person narrators female, though? What about Catcher in the Rye, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby…I just keep thinking of more examples!

  7. What a curious point of view, one I’ve never come across before! Maybe they started with “Call me Ishmael” and didn’t get further than that? First person or omniscient narrator, I don’t mind. I only get confused when one jumps to the other without warning (as it did in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair or when the narrator describes something they could never have witnessed.

    No, my dislike is the extended narrative told in the present tense. I find that most exhausting, second only to a story that’s in the second person — tried that once and was almost travel-sick…

    • I know, I find it very strange because it is such a huge category and rules out so many wonderful books. Why???

      Second person narration is another story, mercifully uncommon. If present tense is added in that makes me feel like I’m reading a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. “You walk down the corridor. Two doors stand before you, one red, one blue. You hesitate, then your hand reaches for …”

  8. I’ve never consciously rejected a book simply because it has a first person narrator. I reckon the author decided to use that narrative voice for a very specific reason and the narrative just wouldn’t be the same if it was written in a different voice. Jane Eyre written by an omniscient narrator would definitely not be as effective – we would lose the intimate access to her own thoughts.

  9. Looking at your list, I am only familiar with Jane Eyre, which is one of my all time favorites. Thinking about telling her story in first person, I wonder if it would be as powerful in the third. I don’t think so.

    When I read a story in the first person, I don’t think about whether the story is biased from only this perspective, because obviously it is….just like someone telling you something in real life from their point of view. But this is this person’s view of it and I accept that.

    • Yes, it is a partial view, but that has never bothered me that I can think of. If the writer is skilled, one can often see beyond that limited perspective anyway.

  10. Love them. I don’t think Cassandra in I Capture the Castle would have the charisma she does without the clever first person narrative.

    I suppose the only time the technique is clunky is if it is set in the continuous present but I can’t think of a novel that uses that.

    Interesting post!

  11. I remember being rather taken aback when a submissons editor from Harper Collins announced one of her dislikes was first person viewpoint in fantasy reads when talking to a roomful of eager wannabe writers. Like you, many of my favourite books are written in first person viewpoint – but it is harder to do really well than third person viewpoint.

    • Okay, that makes more sense: an editor’s aversion to badly done examples by inexperienced writers. And perhaps readers’ antipathy to badly written books that somehow get published. I can see that it may not be easy to do well, but there are many successes out there, so it’s a pity if those get overlooked.

  12. I enjoy reading first person, but I wonder if the dislike for it comes largely from poorly written first person narratives. There might be an association with first person narrators being more self-absorbed (and therefore annoying) or, on the flip side, maybe it’s meant to be first person but the narrator is giving too much information that they shouldn’t know. It’s not fair to blame first person for poor writing of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what’s happening.

  13. I’m beyond baffled – consider me flabbergasted that this is even a thing! Categorically rejecting literature on the basis of the narrative POV seems ludicrous. These decisions (1POV versus 3POV) are made so carefully by (most) authors, to better serve the story… Plus, I spent far too much time in my undergrad doing backflips in “scholarly” essays to ensure they were phrased in the more “academic” third person, bleggghh. If I were to encounter the same acrobatics in fiction, it’d drive me up the wall.

    • Weird, isn’t it? I think I agree with the commenters above that it must be poor writing that has turned some readers off. Overly narcissistic and self-absorbed fiction is not at all palatable, but sticking only to objective, “academic” third person would be horrible.

  14. I’ve never understood the dislike of first-person narration! It absolutely baffles me. I remember encountering it as a very young child in, I think, Edward Eager’s books — the characters all agreed they didn’t like “I books”, and even as a kid I found that bewildering. I can’t see one single thing to object to! Please let me know your findings if you do discover why some people don’t like them.

    • I’ve gathered a few possibilities:
      – Badly written examples have put the reader off this form for life.
      – The reader finds first-person narration too egocentric and self-absorbed.
      – Objections to being stuck with one person’s point of view for a whole book, especially if it’s a character the reader doesn’t like.
      I can see some first-person books suffering from these drawbacks, but not all of them! Oh well.

  15. I don’t understand it either. Books such as those you’ve listed are among the best on my shelves too. First person narration allows us to get so close to the main protagonist. I get it more from the writers’ point of view. Having to stick to one character’s point of view seriously limits the action you can share. But for readers, I only think it’s annoying if I don’t like that character 🙂

  16. I mostly read third-person POVs since it’s standard in fantasy. I also prefer the third person when when reading multiple POVs. But some of my favorite books are in the first person. For example, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is a fantasy series told in the first person.

  17. I honestly don’t really notice what POV books are told in, unless it’s a 2nd person narrative. I think it’s because I don’t really have much of a preference! I think I tend to read a lot of 3rd person stories, but I have nothing against first person narratives!

  18. For me there are two common problems in first person narratives:

    1) When telling a story in the first person it feels natural to summarize it. For example, if I told someone a personal story and said “I walked in the door, my stomach raw and turning with nervousness. Or was it excitement? It didn’t matter. I’d made my decision and there was no turning back,” the average person would think me bizarre. It’d feel much more natural to say “I was so nervous about my new job.”

    I’ve read solid paragraphs with nothing but “I/It was” sentences in multiple books, some of them big names, and by the 12th “was” I’m about ready to scream.

    2) The narrator is too self-aware, coy, and/or clever. I think this often is to counter act the problem of summation and add some spice or immediacy but I can so easily see the author pulling the strings, careful to make their baby (the POV character) sound effortless and cool yet funny and passionate with a heart of gold despite their perfectly sharp tongue…

    Obviously both of these are the problems of novice (or plain bad) writers, but they come up a lot in my reading and are grating to me in a way that the common sins of stories told in the third person aren’t.

    All of which is to say that while I often dislike books told in the first person, I don’t inherently dislike them, and there are plenty of them that I adore.

    • Regarding #1, you bring up a very good point: the believability of first-person narration. In general, I would concede that it is not at all believable that a narrator would recall experiences, including verbatim conversations, in such detail, etc. — nor, as you say, that there would be so much elaborate description. One must suspend disbelief on these points to enjoy a first-person narrative. (The same goes for many memoirs.)

      Coyness and cleverness in a narrator is a big turn-off for me. I gravitate towards those narratives in which the writer discovers or learns something through the telling of the story, often becoming more humble thereby. I think that is a fascinating process.

  19. I can’t say I understand that at all. The use of first person is just one style of writing. Some books, especially those with unreliable narrators, really benefit from first person, while others are better with third person. I can’t imagine ruling out so many great books for that reason.

    Sometimes though, narratives told through diaries or letters bother me a bit, when people recount long conversations and details that you clearly wouldn’t write in a diary. But even that’s a minor issue, not a reason to dislike all first person narratives.

    • It is difficult to write a novel in diary or epistolary form that is done in a believable way. Mostly I turn a blind eye to the implausibility. It does not make me abhor all first-person narration in general, but maybe for some it’s too distracting.

    • I’m fine with any person and tense as long as it supports the storytelling and is not done in a haphazard, sloppy way.

  20. Honestly, I don’t think I have any preference around perspective or tense. All of the options, done well, work for me 🙂 Stream of conscious narration is one of the few style choices that I’d say I categorically dislike and even for that, I imagine there are exceptions.

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