by Gayle Towell
This week I’d like to touch on the subject of a certain type of narrator I find rather irksome. In fact, many people find it irksome. And that is, a first person narrator who sounds like some self-centered adolescent living in a world that should be all about them, but isn’t, and as a result, must fold their arms in a huff and narrate at you angrily because THE WORLD IS SHIT, YO!
Now, don’t get me wrong—a grumpy disillusioned narrator who says “fuck” a lot can be effective if done correctly. But here’s where such a narrator can fail to keep a reader reading:
Lack of dimension: This is, of course, true with any character in a story—your narrator needs to be a fleshed-out being with a history, a set of likes and not just dislikes, a reason for their misanthropy. Maybe they were dropped on their head as a child. Maybe they like eating peppers because grandma was always so proud of how many peppers they could stuff in their mouth and not cry.
Inability to occasionally see things objectively and not tainted with life-sucks glasses: When everything in the story is described through the filter of any narrator, this distances the reader from what’s going on. Instead of feeling like we’re in the scene with the character, we’re left in the dark, with only our narrator’s opinions and heavily tainted grumpy descriptions. For all we know they might have it completely wrong, but they won’t step out of our way so we can see for ourselves. A good rule of thumb is, unless the narrator’s grumpiness or voice is important to a particular passage, then dial it back a little. If we’re setting a scene, or describing someone’s motions, or listening to a strange sound—make your narrator uncross their arms a moment, and tell us plainly what’s going on. The flavor of the voice can still be there, but the thickness of it needs to lift a little from time to time in order for the reader to see behind the veil.
Have no concerns outside of themselves: Just as in real life, people who are only concerned about themselves lose our interest very quickly. This is probably some evolutionary thing—why would we care about a creature who shows no signs of being able to do anything beneficial for any other human being ever? Someone who is wholly self-centered is of no social worth to us. This doesn’t mean the narrator needs to secretly love everybody, but there needs to be a glimmer somewhere—some sign that there is something outside of them they care about. Maybe it’s their parakeet. Maybe it’s their grandma. Maybe it’s freedom of speech.
Find nothing positive in anything: This sort of goes along with needing dimension, but if your character does nothing other than muse on how the world sucks, then we expect they should off themselves, because what’s the point? What is your character’s reason for living? Something in their life must feel marginally worthwhile. Spend a little time on that—bring back the parakeet or grandma. Maybe they like feeling cozy in their cocoon of blankets in the morning. Maybe they enjoy good coffee. However small it may be, spending a little time with something positive not only makes your character more likeable, but it adds variation and texture to a story. One big unbroken mope-fest gets stale very quickly and each subsequent mope loses its impact otherwise.
Fail to do something other than mope: If your character does absolutely nothing with their life other than mope, what reason do we have to care about them? Maybe they like long walks on the beach. Maybe they collect post cards. Maybe they groom dogs for a living. They don’t even need to enjoy the task, but it needs to be an activity of some sort that engages some other part of them. Again, this helps give the story texture. Real people need to do real things otherwise your real readers will throw your real book in a real garbage can.
A closing thought: Cracks in the exterior
Something that can be very effective in garnering sympathy or reader interest is when your crossed-arm, misanthropic angst-spewing narrator starts to crack. If we see little slivers of humanity behind the grumpiness, if we see their pain, if we see it screaming to get out through fissures peppered throughout the story, then we want to keep reading. We keep reading because we want to know why they’re an asshole and these cracks give us a glimpse that they might have valid reason and hence be worthy of our attention.