Hello, My Name Is…

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 For the last ten years I’ve written almost exclusively in first-person narration, but it wasn’t until yesterday when I reread some work that I realised how weird character introduction can be for first person. If the narrator is meeting a stranger then there’s no real problem – it’s fairly natural for them to assess the newcomer’s appearance, mannerisms, and ask questions about their background. But if the narrator is talking to someone very well known to them, describing anything about them is a bit odd. Why should the narrator’s thought process suddenly drop into a physical description of their old friend/relative/postman? It puts quite a serious dent in the fourth wall.

A famous example of this is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the first-person narrator is never named. She knows her name, obviously, and thinking of herself by name would be quite contrived. The use of a name in conversation is actually quite rare, if you think about it, so throughout the whole book it’s never used. Does it matter? No. Of course, there are names that convey plenty of meaning without needing to go into awkward descriptions. One of the first characters to appear in Corpus is simply called ‘Grandfather’, which instantly tells the reader his sex, age, and relationship to the narrator.

There are ways around contrived description but it takes some thought. Even for strangers, it can be tricky. I recently re-watched a Miss Marple episode called Murder Is Easy (because it’s got an early Benedict Cumberbatch as the detective and I’m a massive fangirl*). Without in any way wishing to denigrate Agatha Christie’s work, the character introductions there are contrived to the point of painful.

‘Hello, I’m Luke Fitzroy, I’ve just come back from five years abroad in Malay where I worked as a police detective. Over there is Major Horton, the local Conservative MP, who is rivals with Doctor Thomas as he’s the Labour MP. But the doctor is too busy to concentrate on his politics because he’s trying to persuade his senior partner to allow an engagement with the partner’s daughter, Rose. The senior partner isn’t very well, and if he dies soon then Thomas will be able to marry Rose without a hitch.’

It was the style of writing then, which is fine, but introductions like that aren’t acceptable any more. Writing has moved on (thankfully) to something slightly less contrived. Mostly.

So how much does the reader need, straight off the bat? Is it okay for the narrator to say, in the first paragraph, ‘I saw David standing by the gate,’ and  carry on without describing what David looks like or who he is? It’ll come out in the course of the story, obviously, but can the reader wait to work it out from developing context, or do they need more of an introduction to the character to start with?

When you’re reading, what do you prefer?

* For other fangirls, it’s on YouTube. Here‘s the first part. Enjoy.

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7 responses »

  1. Both in reading and writing, I prefer to drop those details in a little at a time, as part of the action. Even with third person I’m not a fan of big description dumps about a character, unless it’s integrated with something that’s moving the story along. Especially in first person, if there’s a substantial pause for description of a character it often pulls me out of the narrative, disrupting my experience of the story.

  2. Because the Narrator knows he/she is narrating and that the audience don’t know anything about these people. So to use the example of the Postman, here is how the character could be introduced in a first person context.

    “… There was a knock at the door. Without looking, I knew it was the postman. I hated when the postman knocked on, leastways this particular postman. A weasel of a man, all pointy nose and squinty brown eyes. And would it kill him to wash that unkempt mop of brown hair every no and again? I never trusted him, although he never gave me any reason not to, but how can you trust a man who doesn’t take even the most basic personal hygiene seriously? But why was he calling today? I hadn’t ordered any parcels so why could he not just post it through the letterbox? Why was he forcing
    me to ineract with him?”

    First person literature can be hard to read, so I can only imagine how hard it is to write. However, when it’s done well, it’s very good.

    • If the narrator consciously knows they’re narrating, absolutely. But if they don’t? One is someone telling a story to an audience. The other is someone having stuff happen or doing things without knowing they are observed. There’s a subtle but very important difference in dynamic to the whole tone of the story, depending on which of those approaches you’re taking.

  3. Personally I would like to have any relevant details about the character’s appearance but without it sounding like an information dump. The description doesn’t have to further the plot, it might just be the musings of the narrator, it still adds to the story. That kind of writing may not further the plot but it does help to build the character of the narrator.

    • That’s a very good point. Using the introduction of a new character to further build the narrator’s character is definitely something to aim for.

  4. There is a bit of a cheat if you absolutely do want to describe something and that’s to have people change their look. A character won’t usually comment on someone’s hair or clothes, but if they’re noticeably different to usual it’s fair game and also a cheap lead into why they’ve changed something about themselves.

    I rarely remember character description unless it’s something fairly vivid. I don’t think it matters nearly as much as people think it does.

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