When a Novel’s Narrator Comes Alive

Quick. When I ask you to name a novel where the first-person narrator leaps off the page, what comes to mind?

Now skip to the bottom of this post and type it into the comments.

A mannequin wearing nothing but wood shavings I saw in a store window when I was in Montpelier, Vermont, for my last MFA residency. I'd love to read the story of a woman who wore that outfit.

Ah, you’re back. Good! Thank you for helping me formulate a reading list for the next semester in my MFA program. As regular readers know, I’m pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction. Last semester I thoroughly enjoyed my list, which included collections of great personal essays, award-winning travel literature, and a few other selections.

But those books were all nonfiction. I want to add some novels in this go-around. In particular, I’m hoping to learn more about telling a story in the first person.

The first novel that came to my mind was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and this opening:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

Thanks, Huck; that’s what we try to do in creative nonfiction, tell the truth, mainly.

It wasn’t just “literature” that came to mind, however. About 20 years ago I was addicted to Robert B. Parker novels; in fact, Spenser was so real to me that I never watched the TV show Spenser for Hire because I didn’t want to spoil the world Parker had created in my own mind. If you’ve ever read a Spenser book, you know how critical the narrator’s voice is to the lasting appeal of that series.

I head off to Montpelier, Vermont, a week from tomorrow, and a few days after that I’ll be paired with my semester advisor. What novels should I tell that advisor I’d like to read?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

54 Responses to “When a Novel’s Narrator Comes Alive”

    • Thank you, Shari, for obeying my command!🙂 I’ve heard good things about both of those books, thank you for that.

      • LOL! Yes, I finished The Hep about two months ago, and was talking about it for weeks. The narrators literally jumped off the pages. And I’m currently reading The Book Thief. Takes place during the Holocaust, and is narrated by Death himself. Talk about a character narrating a novel.

  1. Hmm, am I first commenter here? Cool🙂 I’m being obedient and zipped right down here to write which novel came to mind after reading your question. It’s The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. You’ll get TWO unforgettable first-person narratives for the price of one: Clare and Henry. I read it way back when it was published in 2003 and I often think about the characters still, regularly. Oh what an original love story…and so much more.

    Ok, I just paused here and scrolled up and read the rest of your post, Patrick (yet another good one!).

    All the best in your next semester. I have every confidence that your faithful readers will come up with a really great, eclectic list for you.

  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gilead, Speak (that one’s YA but well worth an afternoon of reading it). Loving Frank is historical fiction, but it will leave you with lots to think about (plus, I know the author, she was my mom’s college roommate and if you had any questions I could get you in touch with her🙂 ).
    Hope that helps a little. Good luck in your next semester!

    • Hi Callie, would the author of “Loving Frank” be Nancy Horan? I just read the storyline and it looks fascinating, right up my alley. And yes, perhaps I’d write one of my critical essays on the book, and fold in an interview with the author!🙂 Thanks for the suggestions, Callie, and I’ll see you in the New Year.

      • Yes, that is correct (her maiden name was Nancy Drew….interesting little tibit). The story was an “urban legend,” especially the ending, growing up with us kids growing up in Oak Park. If you read it I am interested in what you think about it. Also, she thanks my mom, Grace Lewis, in the acknowledgements (my mom was a librarian and helped her with the research).
        See you in the New Year.
        PS – I took out a boatload of dialogue in “Molting” and looked at the verb tenses with a microscope. I’m much happier with the draft I have. Thanks for your help.

  3. Life of Pi, comes to mind. But honestly, my favorite books are usually written in third person. And I rarely write in first. A whole bunch (a blog post’s worth) of reasons why this is so.
    I hope you will share your list with us when it’s complete, Patrick!

    • Life of Pi has been on my must-read list, thank you for that. I’m intrigued you only write in third person; when I tried my hand at fiction I found the prose only came alive when I tried first-person; perhaps it’s good I’ve moved to nonfiction. I also find I prefer writing in present tense, although the essay I just submitted for VCFA workshop is in past tense. Any preference for you on that front?

      • I find an entire novel in present tense is difficult to read. So I don’t do a lot in present. But I have a few short stories in present tense, and they were fun to write. A novel I read recently that was all in present tense was Wolf Hall. It won the Man Booker Prize a couple of years ago. Excellent historical, literary novel. The writing is amazing and the story (Cromwell and Henry VIII) pulls you right along. But the constant present tense is a bit exhausting.

        • I agree for the most part on present tense being tedious over a book’s length, although I learned this semester it seems the norm in book-length travel writing. I’ll have to look into Wolf Hall; I love historical fiction.

          An essay of mine published earlier this year, The Clear Monkey — http://bit.ly/jbUPuk — started out in present tense but I switched to past tense at the recommendation of the writing instructor whose class I wrote it in, and I think it improved it.

  4. Catcher in the Rye, of course!

  5. Hey Patrick, I recently finished The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. It now ranks among my all time favorite books. It’s that good.

    • Wow, Jessica, that’s quite an endorsement. I’ll look it up.

      But you left out a book: ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE by JESSICA McCANN! A moving story told from the POV of a free black woman who finds herself in slavery. I should have included you in the post!

  6. For some reason, Celie in The Color Purple comes to mind…my, I read that ages ago…going back now to read the rest of the post…

    A reading list! What a great gift! I’d love it if you shared your reading list from last semester, too, Patrick, especially your favorites from the travel lit, a genre dear to my heart.

    Back to The Color Purple, it is written in the form of letters to God and then later an exchange of letters with another character. What made her character stay with me all these years was her dialect and complete transparency…she and God ain’t got no secrets. Alice Walker really developed Celie’s voice and stayed amazingly consistent with it all the way through. I completely believe that Celie exists somewhere in the world.

    If you’re looking for holiday cheer, though, this book is not what you’re after.

    • Ah, The Color Purple. I’ve never read Alice Walker, thanks for the suggestions.

      I’ll include my favorites from my first semester reading list below (I’m leaving a few off that didn’t speak to me):

      The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, ed. Phillip Lopate
      The Next American Essay, ed. John D’Agata
      Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
      Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck
      The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
      Into the Wild, John Krakhauer
      Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon
      The Accidental Buddhist, Dinty W. Moore

      • Yay! More books to check out! Have read a few of those and putting the others on my list.

        I live in Desert Solitaire country, and all I can say is that Edward Abbey must be rolling in his grave. So much development here in the last 20 years. Though still a lifetime’s worth of remote places to explore if you dodge the national parks. I’ve actually been meaning to reread that as I haven’t read it in almost 30 years, and that was actually before I moved here and got to intimately know the places described.

        So many books, so little time!

        • The book spoke to my childhood in the desert of Arizona, because much of the flora and fauna is similar. And yes, he was really bent out of shape about development that seems modest today. One idea he had, though–limiting cars in national parks and instead taking people around in trams–I believe is being implemented in some parks. Yosemite comes to mind; it’s been that way at the Grand Canyon for as long as I can remember.

          FYI, Abbey’s book plays a big role in my entry in an essay contest I won earlier this year, a contest Jessica McCann (above) mentioned to me. http://bit.ly/n3ZCU8

  7. What about Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye? That’s in first person, I think, and as I recall, the voice is quite strong. Another unique voice is that of the novel Bright Lights, Big City, which is written in second person. Yep, second person. Worth reading just for that, but besides the viewpoint its a pretty great book. Makes me miss my MFA days!

    • You’re the second voice for Catcher in the Rye, so it seems I should revisit that; I was in high school, I believe, when I first read it. I must admit, though, the two strong narrators you chose are pretty dark; I’m trying to improve my own narrator voice, and I’m not sure I’d want to channel either Holden or Death!🙂

  8. I recently loved THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jonathan Tropper

  9. A Prayer for Owen Meany. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice…” First line

  10. Eat Pray Love
    Elizabeth Gilbert

    • Thanks, Jamie! I believe that was a memoir, though, right? Still, the non-fiction books I’ve been reading for my MFA chronicle personal growth transformations so that is a perfect suggestion.

  11. Heart of Darkness

  12. Thank you, Donald and Anonymous, for those suggestions! I haven’t read A White Merc with Fins; I remember loving Heart of Darkness in high school. I didn’t recall that it was in first person, but of course the movie based on it, Apocalypse Now, most definitely is, so I should have remembered that.

  13. Dashed back to read the rest of your post and the comments. I’m so pleased that the Write to Done blog listed your site first among the top ten writing blogs. I must sign up for more posts, and explore those books already mentioned—some reminders of books read long ago (as with Herman Melville’s tome) — and new books to read.

    This amounts to a unique vicarious MFA without lectures, papers, or diplomas. I’m through with matriculating… I think. But laud your efforts.
    Cheers from Alaska!

    • Hi Jan, welcome aboard! I’m pleased you found the blog throughw Write to Done. Yup, whenever I come across something interesting–in the MFA, through someone I interview, through a conference I attend, etc.–I shamelessly pass it on!

      And holy cow, of course Moby Dick! I’d love to reread that one now, not as a high school student, but as a student of literature.

  14. Catcher in the Rye

  15. Less Than Zero
    Ask the Dust
    Post Office (and other Bukowski novels)

  16. Had Travis McGee and Spencer ever met, they might have been very good friends–or deadly enemies. In either case they would have respected each other greatly.

    McGee, for those who don’t know him, was the hero of 21 novels written by John D. McDonald, a man who continues to teach me much about writing, even though he’s been dead for years.

    • I always meant to read a McDonald novel, I heard great things about them. You have to admire an author who can keep a protagonist fresh over so many novels; really remarkable. I’m not surprised you’re still learning from him.

  17. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. It’s an epic fantasy. I’m brand new here–first time on your site, so I have no idea if you’re into fantasy at all. But this is such a clear answer for me, I figured I’d throw it out there.

  18. The Lovely Bones

    • ^^ oh, also found you through Write to Done. One of my favourites already from the Top 20 list 🙂 Keep up the great work. I just started reading The Time Traveler’s Wife so it’s nice to see it’s among some people’s favourites.

      • Great suggestion on The Lovely Bones; that is a powerful narrative voice! And I have to say I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife, so much so, actually, that I couldn’t watch the movie, because I feared it would pale to my reading experience. Glad to have you here!

  19. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

  20. Lolita’s – Humbert Humbert. First narrator that comes to mind. I adore Nabakov’s personification of this deplorable character.

  21. Straight Man by Richard Russo is a great sardonic first-person narrative. Enjoy Vermont!

  22. I recommend Pale Fire by Nabokov.

  23. Thanks, all!

    @M.E. Anders — Yup, I’m putting Lolita on the list. Several have suggested that, for many reasons.

    @Corey — I’m not familiar with Straight Man but I’ve heard good things about it; love a sardonic narrator! I will enjoy Vermont, I leave by train tomorrow am!

    @Pete — Thanks for the suggestion. Another Nabokov! Maybe this will be a Russian lit semester for me.

  24. Hi, Patrick–I know you won’t read this until after you return from Vermont. Have a fantastic residency experience!

    My immediate response to the question was to be FLOODED with “favorites” (the term loses some of its meaning the longer the list):

    Nick Carraway, ‘The Great Gatsby’
    Scout, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
    Henry and Clare, ‘Time Traveler’s Wife’ (my “modern” favorite; good decision to not see the movie–it fell FAR short)
    Gene, ‘A Separate Peace’
    John Wheelwright, ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’

    (These characters so captivated me that I have read each of these books a minimum of three times.)

    My most recent entry on the list is Jack in ‘Room’ by Emma Donaghue (utterly innocent, utterly compelling)

    Then there are the slightly more obscure entries:
    Si Morley, ‘Time and Again’ by Jack Finney
    Louis Benfield, ‘A Short History of a Small Place’ by T.R. Pearson
    Ray Kinsella, ‘Shoeless Joe’ by W.P. Kinsella (the book upon which the film ‘Field of Dreams’ was based)
    Chase Griffen, ‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood
    Jane Rosenal in ‘The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing’ by Melissa Banks (hilarious)

    And who can forget Stingo in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron?

    Your mention of the Spencer books (which I have and use as a reference source for meal ideas–Spencer cooks such great food–and the specifics about Boston which are like a map and travel guide combined) put me in mind of the character I consider the granddaddy of all detective sidekicks:
    Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. What a charming devil!

    • Hi Kathryn! (Thanks for the tip as to identity below…) You know, the whole master chef thing with Spenser was a bit too much for me. I liked that he was “sensitive” and dated a psychiatrist, but please!

      This is quite a list. I’ve read a couple of those authors, not as many as I’d like to have, though. Is there one you’d single out above all?

      Yes, I’m reading this at residency. That said, it’s my first morning here, and the schedule doesn’t really kick in until this afternoon. After that its 10 days of consuming fire hose output.

  25. That last “Anonymous” wasn’t really meant to be–I just forgot to enter my info!

  26. I’d single out To Kill A Mockingbird, although you’ve probably read it. (But read some Nero Wolfe sometime, too, just for fun!)

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