Another difficulty with first person arises when switching between the viewpoints of multiple narrators. With third person limited, the voice and tone of the book can be consistent while still maintaining the individuality of the characters; perhaps different details about scenes stand out to the different characters, or their thoughts tend toward certain topics. With first person, however, the voice and tone has to shift consistently between characters because those passages are being told in their voice. When done well, multiple-narrator first person is a great way to add depth to a story; when done badly, it makes me ask the question, “why?” If you did not have a distinct voice for each of your characters, why did they all need to tell the story? If you didn’t have their voice down, why didn’t you just use third person limited, where you could stick to your own authorial voice?
One final problem, perhaps my biggest pet peeve when it comes to first person POV, is when authors confuse having a good reason to tell a story in first person with having to explain to the reader why this person is narrating. When I am reading a third person book, I do not expect, at some point, for the invisible floating eyeball to directly address why it is narrating this story. We know that there is no such thing as a floating consciousness that can see into others’ thoughts; we accept it as a medium through which the story is transmitted directly to us, without actually passing through another consciousness that is actively distilling the story for us. I don’t see why we can’t just accept first person in the same way. Epistolary novels, in which the entire text takes the form of letters, e-mails, or diary entries, do need an explanation for why the narrator is telling the story; usually the explanation is clear from the letters, e-mails, or diary entries themselves. The narrator was trying to communicate to an other (someone other than the reader),or they were writing down their own thoughts.
If it isn’t an episolatory novel, however, and the first person narrator is just relating their thoughts and experiences, either in present tense, as they have them, or in past tense, as they reflect on them, I don’t feel like we need the kind of cop-out explaination I see in many books. The one paragraph, tacked onto the front or end of the book, saying, “hey, this thing happened, and so-and-so encouraged me to write it down…so I did.” In most cases, books don’t gain anything from these half-baked explanations because the trope of the narrator as actual author of the book is not carried out throughout the rest of the book; if it is successfully carried out and is integral to the narrative, such an explanation does have a place. However, we do not need an explanation for why a character is narrating with a perfect memory for detail, or in a far more articulate manner than one would expect from stream-of-consciousness; this is all part of the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to story as a medium. We don’t question that floating eyeball’s memory or vocabulary, after all.
Finally, lest it seem that I said there are first person narrated stories I enjoy just to avoid being accused of complete stubbornness, here are some books in first person that I’ve recently enjoyed, with notes about why I think that POV works for them.
Easy, by Tammara Webber
The very personal subject matter of this book (assault, relationships, betrayals, and fear) made the first person the most appropriate point of view to use. Even though pages are spent on internal conflict, the external action is described beautifully as well.
I have a soft spot for these books, which are each told with multiple narrators. While I feel like Steifvater’s poetic authorial voice is so strong that it might sometimes smooth out the differences between the characters’ voices (four teenagers who all think/narrate in concise, lyrical sentences?), what she does beautifully is capture each character’s view on the situation. The vocabulary and philosophy that each character uses to interpret their world, as well as the unspoken thoughts and backstory that are revealed are a powerful part of why these novels may constitute the most beautiful YA series I’ve read in years.
Chime, by Franny Billingsley
The main character’s unique stream of consciousness and tortured views of herself are integral to understanding why she acts as she does. The voice of the narrative is so unusual that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the first chapter, but the sing-song narration became one of my favorite parts of this novel.