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All First Person Narrators Write Like Novelists

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Think back to the last time you told someone a story of something that happened to you. Think about how you described it, the language you used, and what parts of the story you emphasized.

Chances are you cut to the chase quickly, or at least mentioned only the details important to building up the story, and then you described the events in casual language. You didn't describe it the way a book is written.

And yet, virtually every single first-person narrative in existence in pretty much any novel is dramatically-written, spends a lot of time on not just events important to the story, but also ones that build character, or even events not really important at all. Events are described in the same amount of detail that they are in third-person narratives. The narrator often uses a higher and more formal level of English than their own dialog. Basically, as far as structure goes, it's essentially the same as a third-person limited narrative, except it happens to be in first-person.

There's several reasons for this. For one, a first-person narrative allows readers to get into the main character's head in a way that a third-person narrative might not. It allows the protagonist to describe things bluntly or colorfully in a way that might look strange coming from a third-person narrator (although not a Lemony Narrator, who specializes in such). It allows for a story that feels more "human", but at the same time, due to this trope, still reads like a novel and contains the same level of excitement.

It also allows for a more exciting story. When's the last time you heard someone describe an experience in as much detail as your favorite book? If they did, it would probably be a more exciting story... but also a much longer one. But this way, you get the best of both worlds: a story with the depth of storytelling of a novel, but the humanness of its protagonist infused into the narrative itself.

It can stretch plausibility to begin with if you think about it, but more so when the narrator is very young or uneducated, but hey, that's why we have the Literary Agent Hypothesis. Or the MST3K Mantra. This is pretty much one of those Acceptable Breaks From Reality that's so commonplace that we tend not to even notice it.

Sometimes this is justified in-story, by having the narrator be specifically writing a book about their own experiences, and sometimes the narrator talks directly to the reader. Generally, though, most books have us read a detailed stream of consciousness, which isn't talking to anyone in particular.

Sometimes writers try to avoid having the narrator sound too much like a narrator speaking the King's English, by having them write in an informal, more casual dialect. Even when that's the case, however, there's usually one consistency across pretty much all first-person novels: The events in the story are described in more detail than an ordinary person casually relating a story would likely ever give.


Due to the ubiquitous nature of this trope, only unusual variants or subversions will be listed: Edit

  • "The Chymist" is a justified variant of this trope: The character is an Insufferable Genius with an obvious penchant towards self-indulgent soliloquy, and hence speaks rather vividly. It's even Lampshaded several times by the narrator himself, as well as his companion.
  • Another justified example would be in Wuthering Heights, where Lockwood, the initial narrator, is a bit of a prat and the kind of guy who would be prone to this sort of thing. Then when Nelly tells most of the story, he specifically requests it be told like this.
  • The first-person narrator in the novel The Lacuna writes like a novelist because he actually is a novelist.
  • In The Catcher in The Rye, the narrator, Holden Caulfield, accurately represented the colloquial teenage dialect of the era.
  • As I Lay Dying is a good example of an aversion. All of the narrators talk like normal people, even if that makes the story really hard to follow.
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue, is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, Jack; while it's not exactly the way a five-year-old would speak and write (possibly justified, given Jack's upbringing), it's immediately very clear from the writing and syntax that it's a child speaking.
  • Averted in Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. The book is narrated from several first person viewpoints, and only some of them come across as literary narration; others come across as the narrator just riffing, stream-of-consciousness.
  • Tom from King Dork, being a modern-day Catcher, also avoids the "King's English" style of narration.
  • Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban is a post-apocalyptic novel set in what used to be the English county of Kent. Riddley narrates the entire book in something like a phonetic transliteration of a Kentish accent. Example: "We ben the Puter Leat we had the woal worl in our mynd and we had worls beyont this in our mynd we programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas."
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower is another aversion of this.
  • The first Lucifer Box novel does something with this trope other than play it completely straight. The narrator comes across as a bit of a rambling hack, seemingly trying to play this trope and failing miserably, but in such an entertaining way that it can only be deliberate by Mark Gatiss.
  • Flowers for Algernon, about a man with learning difficulties who undergoes a medical procedure to turn himself into a genius, plays with this. The first-person writing starts off poorly spelled and simplistic but dramatically improves as the procedure begins to show effects.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is narrated by a teenager with an autistic spectrum disorder, thereby averting the tendency of first-person narrators to write in a polished, literary style, while also justifying the level of detail.
  • The Crimes of the Sarahs by Kristen Tracy kind of plays with this, in that it has a lot of the random thoughts that someone would have as opposed to simply being about the main character's story line.
  • Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was criticized for (among other things) the hero narrating the way an uneducated 14 year old from the Deep South in the 1860's would talk. But that don't matter none.
  • Chuck Palahniuk says his bare, stripped down Signature Style comes from trying to emulate how people naturally tell stories.
  • Iain M Banks's Feersum Endjinn is written from the point of view of somebody who compulsively uses misspellings and abbreviations. Wich u mite thnk is vry kool, or just 2 anoyin 4 wurdz.
  • Future!Ted from How I Met Your Mother often displayed a rather haphazard narrative style (especially in the first three seasons), occasionally dropping random spoilers and explanations into the story instead of working them into the plot properly (e.g., pausing the action in "Okay Awesome" to say "Oh I forgot! This is important: your Uncle Marshall just had a temporary filling put in that afternoon" right before said filling plays a part in the story.) He also tends to meander around at random: for example, in "Showdown", in the middle of Past!Ted's best man speech at Marshall and Lily's wedding, Future!Ted suddenly interjects with "Oh wait! I forgot to tell you guys what happened to Uncle Barney!" and spends the rest of the episode showing a completely unrelated scene from a different storyline, and doesn't come around to telling the wedding story until the next episode.
  • The Ciaphas Cain series is a straight example, however it contains a rather appropriate justification: We're not reading the raw autobiography, but rather an editing of it to make it more readable. And even then, the originals... unique perspective still shines through in that the text is rather self centered and requires the editor to interstice it with other texts, each with their own characteristics and levels of readability.

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