How to Create an Engagingly Fallible First-Person Narrator, Strategy 1

Last Monday, I shared some information about the rise of first-person novels for children and young adults and some thoughts on the challenges and benefits of writing in the first person. As promised, today and in my next few posts, I will be offering some ideas about how writers can create engagingly fallible first-person narrators.


First, let me explain what I mean when I talk about a fallible narrator. Scholar Greta Olson makes a helpful distinction between an untrustworthy narrator, who distorts the truth on purpose, and a fallible narrator, whose perceptions of herself, others, or events are in some way limited or misguided. A fallible narrator isn’t lying to the reader, but she may have some defense mechanisms or blind spots, or some feelings she hasn’t processed yet or can’t quite admit to having.

For instance, in the project I’ve recently started working on, the main character, Whitney, defines herself by her academic achievements and spent her first year of high school getting herself on track to get into Princeton, so she is devastated when her parents pull her out of her elite private school before the start of her sophomore year. Whitney has to switch to public school because because her mom is pregnant and her parents are having some financial struggles, so they can no longer afford her tuition. But for a number of reasons that have to do with long-standing family dynamics, the difficulties of her mom’s pregnancy, and her extremely successful older brother, she feels like her parents have given up on her and no longer care. She fixates on winning a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school and doesn’t give her new school or anyone she meets there much of a chance.

Now, I love Whitney and I feel for her, but I also know that some of her impressions of her parents and the people at her new school aren’t entirely accurate. I want readers to feel close to her and understand where she is coming from…but I also want them to recognize the limitations in her perspectives and root for her to grow. I don’t want them to take all of her thoughts at face value and think, “Yep, this poor girl’s parents really hate her, and every single person at her new school is a moron. Sucks to be her.” So how can I, as a writer, make sure I am giving tween and teen readers enough guidance to spot the flaws in Whitney’s perspective, even as they (I hope) identify with her, sink into her world, and see things through her eyes?

I’m not alone in facing the challenge of creating an engagingly fallible narrator. Most first-person narrators are fallible in some way, and I would venture to guess that most writers don’t want readers to take everything their narrators say at face value. Luckily, kids and teens are pretty savvy, so we can be subtle, and there are many techniques that writers can use (and teachers can tune students into) to help readers pick up on the fact that a narrator-protagonist is fallible. In this blog series, I’m going to focus on five.

Narrative Distance

First up: narrative distance. One way that an author can help readers evaluate a narrator’s perspective is to build in a gap in time between when the narrator experiences the events of the story and when the narrator tells the story. That way, the writer can let the now-older narrator-protagonist’s insights peek through.

imagesSara Zarr uses this strategy in her novel Sweethearts. Zarr’s narrator-protagonist, Jennifer Harris, was a lonely, overweight child. She only had one friend, Cameron Quick, but Cameron disappeared long ago. By the start of the novel, Jennifer has lost weight, acquired a new stepdad, transferred to a different school, and reinvented herself as Jenna Vaughn. When Cameron reappears during Jennifer/Jenna’s senior year of high school, he disrupts her seemingly perfect life, and she has to confront the parts of her past that she has struggled to keep buried.

At the very end of Sweethearts, Zarr reveals that Jennifer/Jenna has been looking back on the events of her senior year in high school from several years later, after she has been to college and had other life experiences. Even though Zarr doesn’t specify when Jennifer/Jenna is telling her story until the end, she uses the distance in her narrator’s perspective to ensure that readers won’t take Jenna Vaughn’s words at face value and believe that she is perfectly happy before Cameron returns. This excerpt from the beginning of the novel suggests the precariousness of Jenna’s happiness:

Jenna Vaughn had made it.  I had made it.  It was my last year of high school and no one had ever found me out.  I even had a boyfriend, Ethan, who picked me up for school every day and liked to snuggle and was only sometimes impatient with me.

The problem was that Jennifer Harris didn’t always cooperate, and there were still days I could hear her scratching at the coffin lid, particularly on her—my—birthday. (15)

If you look at this passage carefully, you can see the temporal distance shaping the narrator’s perspective, especially in her description of Ethan. Jenna the high school senior likes Ethan because he gives her rides to school and cuddles with her—nice attributes in a boyfriend, certainly, but nothing earth-shattering. Lurking behind those descriptors is the sense that the older narrator now realizes that a boyfriend might offer something more. And then there’s the most poignant part of the passage: the fact that Ethan is “only sometimes impatient” with her. This phrase shows how hard high-school-senior Jenna has to work to make sure that she is always acting in a suitable, Jenna Vaughn fashion.  Just in those few words, Zarr gives readers the sense that Jenna thinks she’s lucky to have found someone who will put up with her, and she’s going to stay on her guard, striving to keep herself from doing anything annoying, so that she won’t elicit her boyfriend’s justified impatience. Thanks in part to her distance from the events of the story, the narrator is able to make Jenna’s insecurities very clear to the reader.

Incorporating narrative distance doesn’t mean that the reader won’t feel close to the main character. Writers can still focus on the narrator’s in-the-moment impressions, and readers can still identify with the main character. Other novels that feature a first-person narrator who looks back on the events of the story from a specified point in time (some closer to the events and some further removed) include Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied, and Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved.

If you are writing (or reading) a first-person novel, ask yourself whether your narrator is recounting his or her story as the events play out or after they have happened, and, if after, how long after. Then consider how the narrator’s distance from or proximity to the story would shape his or her point of view.

Using narrative distance can be an excellent way to suggest limitations in a fallible narrator’s perspective, but I wanted to write Whitney’s story from a more immediate vantage point. Soon, I’ll share some strategies writers can use when writing the stories of characters who are closer to the events they are recounting. I hope you’ll tune back in then!

Works Cited

Olson, Greta. “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators.” Narrative 11.1 (2003): 93-109. Project MUSE. Web. 28 July 2011.

Zarr, Sara. Sweethearts. 2008. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.


6 thoughts on “How to Create an Engagingly Fallible First-Person Narrator, Strategy 1

  1. L. Marie says:

    An excellent defense of the first-person narrator. And I can attest that you definitely created an engagingly fallible narrator. 😀 Can you think of some instances where narrative distance might be detrimental? I read a book about an abusive boyfriend. Much of the story was told in retrospect, which seemed to diminish the threat of the abuse, at least for me. Any thoughts on when distance might work against the story?

    • laurielmorrison says:

      Thanks, L. Marie! And that’s a great question. One thing I really appreciate about SWEETHEARTS and all of the books I mentioned is that they really focus on the in-the-moment feelings and experiences of the protagonist and the retrospective insights shape the voice subtly but don’t take over. If a book with a retrospective first-person narrator included a whole lot of long reflections from the narrator’s current perspective, that could definitely mess with the pace and make it harder for tween and teen readers to identify with the main character. It’s also interesting that you mentioned a book about an abusive boyfriend–if part of the suspense in a book comes from worrying about the safety of the main character, then I can certainly see how having a retrospective narrator would decrease the tension because readers would know she survived. But if the suspense or threat is wrapped up in the well-being of a different character or something other than physical survival, then maybe the technique works better. Thanks for your comment!

      • L. Marie says:

        And that’s the issue–the safety of the protagonist. Since the story was told in retrospect, I couldn’t help thinking, “Well, obviously, she survived and is safe somewhere.” I almost closed the book then. And I was in the first chapter!

  2. Ellar Cooper says:

    Thanks for this, Laurie. I’m playing around with narrative distance in my current WIP, so this is definitely interesting to think about. And I’ll have to check out a couple of those books I haven’t read yet.

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