The first or the third: my struggle with my novel's narrative

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Han Ong’s Fixer Chao, Martin Amis’ Money, Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. These are all influentialnovels to me, perhaps even models for me to study and aspire to. What do they all have in common?

What these novels have in common is their chosen narrative point of view: the first person. To my understanding, one of the things a novelist must deal with is his or her narrative stance. From first person to limited third-person, amongst any number of other stances one can take, the novelist must choose the one that is most suited to the story he or she is trying to tell.

And therein lies my struggle. I aspire for my novel to be an examination of loneliness, a ‘portrait of loneliness’ as I’ve so often expressed. But the protagonist is also very closely based on myself. As such, there is a grave danger in writing with such a source of inspiration: I can end up writing, as the authors of How Not To Write a Novel say, an “auto-hagiographical novel.” In other words, it can become, as an acquaintance of mine had mentioned years ago, too self-indulgent. I have, for the first 44,000 words, written in the third person. “‘Mark returned to his armchair and turned on the television’, the wistful writer wrote. There were better things to think about, he thought.” But if all these novels that I have read were written in the first-person, what about mine? Should I switch to the first person and write something like, “What a buncha animals. I mean, for chrissake, there’s another train coming, you know.” I think the decision lies in whether or not my protagonist has a unique voice that conveys the message of my novel more effectively than it would if it were expressed from a limited omniscient narrator. But I must weigh that out with the current narrative stance of limited omniscience.

The advantages of the limited omniscient narrator is that it does not provide the reader with much intimacy with Mark (the protagonist). This is an advantage because I am, after all, writing about loneliness. The narrator is observing the observer, is an outsider looking at the outsider. It’s a little meta, I know. I’m not trying to be postmodern, I promise. But by placing myself as a third-person narrator, I create more distance between the reader and Mark. Mark becomes a single man standing in his own little world, with others now seeing it from a distance. The lack of intimacy of the third-person was a decision that I made.

But my novel is mostly inspired by the character study…and as such, shouldn’t I be writing in the first-person? If there’s something I’ve learned by studying my favorite character studies, it’s that they’re most powerful in the first person. Look at Taxi Driver: would it be nearly as powerful without his voice-overs and a direct witnessing of his decay? I don’t know about you, but I felt that the scenes that drew us apart from Travis Bickle’s perspective weakened the film. What about The Catcher in the Rye? I very much doubt that the novel would be even half as good if we didn’t directly hear Holden’s personal voice railing on phonies and lamenting the death of a child’s innocence.

I’m not entirely sure how the finished novel will end up. But I think that the right thing to do is to complete the novel in its current narrative stance. For one, writing this way will ensure that I keep that very important un-invested eye that can criticize Mark for his own shortcomings. Secondly, the first-person voice may not actually end up doing any good for my novel; if I rewrite the current work in first-person, I risk wasting all that new work and ruining the novel.

So first thing’s first: complete the story in the third person. From there, I’ll examine whether or not Mark deserves to have his own voice.

Dammit, writing is no walk in the park…and as a first-timer, the path is rife with so many damned questions…

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