The Necessity of a Good Narrator (a review of several books)

My creative writing professor recently asked me why I kept writing fiction in first-person.

(First-person of course being short for “first-person narration,” in which there is a hyphen in between because the two words “first” and “person” together create one descriptor.)

My answer was, “I don’t really know.”

Because I didn’t know. It just felt right to write in first-person when trying to identify with a character. That’s when I basically learned that I was approaching it all wrong. I was not supposed to let myself leak into a character. I was supposed to stay at a distance and allow my character to leak into me. I was supposed to allow his/her thoughts and feelings to plague mine. To allow myself to think like someone else, even if I didn’t like it or wouldn’t do it myself.

This makes rational sense. I can’t be seven different people at once. But in writing, it’s so difficult.

I don’t believe that my professor meant to say that writing in first-person is wrong or inferior to writing third-person; I think that he just wanted me to step out of my comfort zone, which for writers can be tricky. Like my art, my writing takes on a familiar form and though every phrase has its own style, like the shape of the eyes and style of hair I draw on my characters, it’s dangerous to get too comfortable and to settle into something that works.

Another universal law…!

ANYWAY, I did end up changing my short first-person story to third person (which can be found here). I’m still not happy with it, but I like the characters.

Now, in defense of first-person I’m going to reference the infamous Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, because  he does an excellent job using first-person narration when he feels like it. The entire book itself feels like 1,000 pages of “well the author just felt like it” because there’s no order and it’s all chaos.

Page 3: I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received. I am in here.

I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.

When he feels like it, Wallace writes in third-person. I’ll never say “attempt” in reference to his poignant words, because Wallace never “attempted” anything. He pretty much obliterated it.

228: Climbing to the third-floor, stairs pale from wear, still trembling from the A.M.’s interruptus, Joelle finds herself having a hard time, climbing, as if the force of gravity goes up as she does. The party sounds start around the second landing. Here is Molly Notkin dressed as a crumbling Marx again greeting Joelle at her door with the sort of delighted mock-surprise U.S. hostesses use for greetings. Notkin secures Joelle’s veil for her during removal of the beaded coat and poncho, then lifts the veil slightly in a practiced two-finger gesture to deliver a double-cheek kiss that is sour with cigarettes and wine–Joelle never smokes when veiled–asking how Joelle got here and then without waiting for an answer offering her that odd kind of British-Columbian apple juice they’d found they both liked so…

So, buy this book.

In less than prestigious literature there is a thing known as pop culture, and another thing that I like to call the curse of flat characters. Often these characters narrate in first-person, and just recently I’ve been able to distinguish the difference between enjoying a story and enjoying the characters. This also relates to my latest Mary-Sue post, which was uninteresting and cliched and generic, in my opinion (like a Mary-Sue!)

First, I’ve read The Hunger Games almost three times. And I just finished Divergent, which is critiqued to be “one of the best books of 2012” and AMAZING and PHENOMENAL and AWESOME PERFECT DYSTOPIAN LITERATURE.

Second, I’ve read The Lovely Bones at least three times.

And I’ve read all seven Harry Potters at least three times.

I don’t understand how there are reviews out there about how the Hunger Games and Divergent are so wonderful and have interesting and well-developed characters.

The problem is that you cannot have an idea of a protagonist without it coming to fruition. And, there’s a major difference between having a few extra characters who are flat because you don’t see much of them and a protagonist who runs through a several hundred page plot whilst running in circles and failing to live up to our idea of her. An author who fails to address this has reached a hard wall.

I could rail about the plot failings in Divergent which disappointed me. Namely the entire attempt to create an all-out war between factions. This simply wasn’t done believably. It was rushed, it was not given time to develop, it was not given the atmosphere and ambiance that subtle sinister plot points need. I really wasn’t emotionally connected to the book–therein lies the problem! You cannot connect with characters that are flat, predictable, and utterly unchanged. You also cannot emotionally strain at the bit when Erudite makes war with Dauntless out of freakin’ nowhere and for no other reason other than generic silliness such as “maybe we are smart and should rule.” This is why I was disappointed when there were character deaths. I wasn’t ready to handle the capacity of total war!

These are the questions I have: Why does there have to be a war between factions? The story was complicated and interesting enough without throwing in an entire war while I was waiting to see what Beatrice would turn into once initiated and given a job in Dauntless. That would have been interesting. What do the courageous do? This was shut down due to the apparent necessity of having a war between factions going on. I don’t get it! And I’m tired of first-person narrators turning into mascots and sacrifices and prophets and saviors for the entire world. They’re kids. Not Jesus.

It also irritated me that Beatrice played the part of “typical Mary-Sue in distress,” where she classically fights against her captors and has no mercy for anyone other than Four (Tobias), who is tragically turned evil for .5 pages and then magically turns good again because he recognizes Beatrice.

There was also the disbelief at having only two characters in the entire novel with the capacity to be divergent. This is in theory a good concept but also a complete failure plotwise. Perhaps this is what makes it pop culture, but I was really confused when the definition of divergent only turned out to be that Beatrice had a complex and chiaroscuro personality. And please don’t let me get started on the half-assed “explanation” for Divergence in (SPOILER) Allegiant when the people living at the airport explain to Beatrice that all people were developed to have just one personality trait, and anyone who had a normal, complex brain was Divergent.

If I sound horribly rude, it’s because I want authors to be critical of what they’re creating. And editors too! They should pick up on this stuff! The plot is interesting but it doesn’t really fit, and when you have characters that MUST fit a plot, they turn out flat.

And for the hundredth time… WHY MUST there be a LOVE STORY in the MIDDLE of a GLOBAL CATASTROPHE?

It’s like the unspoken law of YA Sci-Fi: “Must contain love story/triangle, no matter how pathetic.”

And the love stories ARE pathetic.

There’s Beatrice and Four, whose relationship is flat and unnatural, and there’s not-quite-as-bad-as-Beatrice-until-the-author-makes-her-do-things-that-are-out-of-character Katniss.

I would like to question the odd coincidences and similarities of the Hunger Games as compared to Divergent, but I’ll let readers take on that challenge for themselves.

In the meantime, consider reading the Wind on Fire Trilogy, which is not only dystopian but takes place in an exotic fantasy realm, not post-apocalyptic America where history is strangely silent on the events that almost destroyed the world and its population.

Rather than a post-apocalyptic story, I would have enjoyed the Hunger Games series more if it had taken place during an actual time of overpopulation…such as today, where there was some accident or consequence that wiped out people like a plague or famine or climate change/volcanic eruption that caused the first two. But why an ambiguous war? I like authors because I respect that their work is difficult. But I also think that it isn’t very hard to come up with a decent back story. This has me thinking about some horrible crossover videos that Tumblr blogs and Disney fans complain about. Basically, they’re art/videos that portray two unlikely characters in a love situation. Like Bagheera and Lady. WHY would you have two characters from different time periods and different worlds/species fall in love?

Explanation: No back story required!

Katniss and Beatrice are boring because they are completely believable. The love triangle in The Hunger Games? Forget it–I’m not even going to go into that unnecessary bit of parchment.

I like what Katniss was capable of becoming. I was disappointed because they stayed flat the entire series. She is 16 years old, not a 30 year old, and even then–people do change based on experiences. People aren’t simply hardened into a mold.

Maybe it’s because they’re kids’ books.

But I was strangely nauseous every time I had to read about Katniss screaming about her nightmares and having to snuggle with Peeta. Generic, blah. No emotional attachment for people that just describe themselves as screaming or victimize themselves.

Katniss is a proud girl. She would not narrate in a way that shows her weaknesses. She’d act like she knew best all the time–and she did a lot of the time, but sometimes she slipped up so that she would do what the audience wanted her to do.

There is one passage that stands out to me as disappointing, and it doesn’t show Katniss’ true character at all, and that is when she and Peeta are riding in the chariot for the first time and their suits burst into flame. I’m going to compare this passage in the book with the movie version: In the movie, Katniss is hardwired to reject Peeta’s hand, and keeps a scowl on her face the entire time while watching with perplexity and anger the crowds cheering above them, picking their favorite team, and you can see from the expression on her face that she is analyzing this. She understands that these people have no idea of the starvation in the districts and what it will cost her and her family if she cannot survive the Games. In her serious expression, she feels trapped by the costumes and rituals and despises the people above her who are celebrating the Games, while she has been forced to sacrifice herself for their entertainment.

Now, the book version: Katniss rides out in the chariot and she decides to wave and blow kisses to the crowd. She forgets why she’s there in the first place, and puts on a show for the Capitol, while describing in painful detail the pretty costumes and how her hair is done. This is not the Katniss I know from the first chapters, who volunteered for Prim and is so concerned with putting food on the table every day that she risks her life to hunt and trade in the black market. The Katniss that the author MEANT to create is (nudge, nudge) made real by Jennifer Lawrence.

HELLO! You cannot create a character that lives to defy orders and then does whatever the audience wants her to–namely, be the Mockingjay and go on crazy missions and risk her life and whatnot.

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