Learning experience: The right way to do first person

I just finished reading Karen Marie Moning’s Darkfever, the first book in her Fever series. Two things precipitated the purchase: recommendation from a friend and part of my continuing education (specifically following Dean Wesley Smith’s advice to read for pleasure and then study the pleasurable reads from long-time, best-selling authors). Moning’s Darkfever met both those criteria and it’s an excellent example of how to do first person well.

I’m not going to cover the plot because it’s a distant third in the way I measure things. I’m far more impressed by an interesting milieu (the setting and skillful world-building) and interesting characters, and for a first person novel, frankly, character trumps all. Actually, plot is never my primary concern. If it was, I wouldn’t re-read my favorite books or series year-in and year-out. See, the plot doesn’t ever change. Psst. Don’t tell anyone.

So here we have MacKayla Lane, a soft, spoiled young woman with lots of First World problems who is far too concerned with her long blonde hair, the names of her nail polish colors, and her wardrobe choices. Not a character that I would typically go for, and had the first person narration been typical, I would’ve probably walked –no, sprinted– away from the free sample and gone on to something else.

What was it about this character that (a) drew me in, and (b) kept me turning the pages? I didn’t like “Mac” very much. She had way too many idiotic opinions and priorities for me to take her seriously. But here’s the rub: I was solidly in her world and in her head from the very start. This first person narrator was very obviously a retrospective narrator and she maintained that presence throughout the book. In other words, it wasn’t an outside-in narration with a pronoun shift to first person, i.e. a story better suited for third person.

Here’s an example of what maintaining that retrospective narrator presence looks like:

…I had no idea that pieces of one’s soul could be lost.

Back then, I was so blind to everything that was going on around me. Back then, I was twenty-two and pretty and up until the month before, my biggest concern had been whether Revlon would discontinue my favorite Iceberry Pink nail polish, which would be a disaster of epic proportions as it would leave me without the perfect complement for the short pink silk skirt I was wearing today with a clingy pearly top, and shimmery gold sandals, flattered by just the right heel to show off my golden, toned legs.

Moning, Karen Marie (2006-10-31). Darkfever: Fever Series Book 1 (pp. 238-239). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

At no time did Moning insult my intelligence by pretending that this was “real-time” or that the peril was such that the narrator’s survival was in doubt, yet there was no lack of tension. It also didn’t suffer from “reporting syndrome,” that awful situation when choosing a first person narrator results in having other characters report their findings to the narrator because so much of the really important stuff took place outside her presence (hint: means it should’ve been a multiple viewpoint novel) .

My only complaint about the story is that there wasn’t much romance despite the obvious and ongoing sexual tension between Mac and Jericho, but there was enough promise of one to make me do the one thing every writer hopes a reader will do when she reaches the end: press that button to buy the next book.

 

 

1 thought on “Learning experience: The right way to do first person”

  1. Just putting this here as a warning. In book 4 of this series, this author, who is amazing with voice and tension and cliffhangers, switches to the cheap trick of not just 1st person present tense, but multiple 1st person present tense. I stopped reading. It was just too hard to stay focused on the story. I can see why she jumped PoV characters. I can see why she stayed in present with Mac initially, but then it all just fell apart for me. The story no longer grabbed me and frankly I just stopped caring. That fake sense of immediacy was an insult to my intelligence.

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