Monday, January 14, 2013

Mentor Monday: Strengths and Weaknesses of the First Person Narrative

            Over the years, it has become common for YA authors to use the first person when writing young adult novels. Using first person brings readers into the story in a “You are there” way. First person can be limiting, however, and if you’re thinking of writing your story in first person, read some novels that use this technique before you start. I’d also like to recommend finding a copy of Sherry Garland's Writing for Young Adults. It’s a very good introduction to the YA genre. Garland is well-read and uses many examples of fine YA literature to illustrate points in each chapter:
"Some examples of excellent first person YA novels are Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers and S.E. Hinton's books, The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now."(p. 106)

Hinton sold The Outsiders, her first novel, when she was around sixteen years of age. The book, Garland says, ushered in a new type of YA:

"Many authorities believe that the YA literature revolution erupted in the late 1960's. In a turbulent social and political climate young adults adopted the war cry "tell it like it is," and authors like S. E. Hinton (a teenager herself) emerged, creating fiction with realistic adolescent characters in realistic situations."  (p. 8)

The Outsiders is the story of fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, his brothers (Sodapop and Darry) and their gang. The Curtis brothers have been on their own since the death of their parents.
"Since Mom and Dad were killed in an auto wreck, the three of us get to stay together only as long as we behave. So Soda and I stay out of trouble as much as we can, and we're careful not to get caught when we can't." (p.11)

Garland suggests "part of the process of developing characters is giving them appropriate names. . ." (p.124) In an on-line interview S.E. Hinton said she felt the teen years are ". . .an age when you would like to have an unusual name. It helps establish identity."  (Barnes and Noble Chat Transcripts, December 3, 1997)

I didn't feel Hinton's characters' odd names added anything to our ability to understand who or what the characters were. "Ponyboy" and "Sodapop" would have been more believable as nicknames. But the author says these are the boys’ legal names, given to them by their father:

"My dad was an original person," I said. "I got a brother named Sodapop, and it says so on his birth certificate." (p.30)

I found the idea, that an adult would saddle children with such names, distracting when I first read the book. Then Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. But I digress…
Sometimes I got lost in Hinton's novel and other times I was thrown so far out of it I wondered why she bothered to use first person at all. Author intrusion is prevalent. I am amazed Hinton's editor let so much of it pass:

"Soda is handsomer than anyone else I know. . .He's not as tall as Darry, and he's a little slimmer, but he has a finely drawn, sensitive face that somehow manages to be reckless and thoughtful at the same time." (p. 16, italics mine) 

I could not imagine any fourteen-year-old describing a sibling in that way. S. E. Hinton may have been a well-read teen, but Hinton was not being true to Ponyboy's character with such flowery language. I will even risk being politically incorrect when I say that I was also not convinced this was language a boy would use—at least not the boy she was trying to create.

Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels makes a useful counterpoint. Compare Myers' protagonist, Richard Perry, describing a soldier just arriving in Viet Nam:

"One of the new guys who came in was from Fort Dix. He looked like one of the characters in an Archie Andrews comic, but he was so scared it wasn't funny. He told us his name was Jenkins." (p. 20 Fallen Angels)

            In Fallen Angels, Myers' character, Richard Perry, tells about his tour of duty in Vietnam. Perry is educated, and, like Ponyboy Curtis, well-read, yet his description of the new guy in the platoon, while sparse, accomplishes a great deal. Reference to the Archie comic books not only brings readers into the 60's with Perry but allows us to participate in the description of the character. We add our own details to Jenkins with our own mental references to Archie, Reggie and Jughead.

Sherry Garland suggests that dialogue can be used to convey the setting of a novel:
". . .dialogue is a shortcut that eliminates the need for long passages of description." (p. 133) 

Both Hinton and Myers present their novels' settings through the use of dialogue. Myers sets his novel's scene in the first two pages, preparing the reader in a matter of three sentences:

                        "Somebody must have told them suckers I was coming."
                        "Told who?" I asked.
                        "The Congs, man. Who you think I'm talking about?" (p.3)

I read thirty-one pages of The Outsiders before I realized that the setting was not New York City:
                        "Didn't he use to ride in rodeos?  Saddle bronc?"
            "Yeah. Dad made him quit after he tore a ligament, though. We still hang around rodeos a lot. I've seen you two barrel race. You're good." (p.31)

            Now I can't say that Hinton misleads her audience with suggestions that the setting is specifically New York, but neither does she indicate until the sentences above where the story is set. Bits of description spread throughout the book hint at least at a Big Apple-type setting until suddenly, rodeos are part of the conversation. Once again, I'm catapulted right out of the story while I let my brain process this new information. The knowledge essentially becomes a red herring. Rodeos, horses, and riding are barely mentioned again and have no place in the plot. In an interview, Hinton mentions that she is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Write what you know?"  Maybe, but the section reads like an afterthought ("Oh!  Maybe I ought to put something about the setting here.")

            Myers writes what he knows, too. Richard Perry, like the young Walter Dean Myers, is from Harlem and is in the Army. The difference is Myers doesn't ever pull me out of Viet Nam when he is providing this background information.

            Hinton's novel was published in 1967 and is supposed to deal with contemporary themes. Myers' Fallen Angels was published in 1988 but deals with the Vietnam War during 1967-1968. I would have been within the same age-group as the protagonists in both novels, yet I could not relate to the characters in The Outsiders. It was not because I had never been a member of a "greaser" gang. I never fought in Vietnam either. It shouldn't matter. Myers’ book does a better job of "You are there."

            That’s what you want to accomplish, too.  You want your first person story to take the reader intimately along for the protagonist’s ride.  Without throwing the reader out of the story.


Barbara said...

So many people do first person badly, but when you find someone who does it well, you can count on a great read.

I'm Jet . . . said...

I agree.