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.