Using First Person When Your Narrator Is A Jerk

the jerkI’m three chapters and over three thousand words into writing my WIP.  I reached a point yesterday where I stared at a passage and just didn’t know how I was going to write it in third person singular and get the true nuances of what my main character was feeling or what he was thinking without going into some long narrative about the past.

This would have taken my reader out of the action and bogged down the story.  I also don’t want my reader to get too far into the head of Guillermo March, because let’s face it, he’s kind of a cynical jerk.

Guillermo is one of 46 hold-out humans living on the planet C’Tuul somewhere far from their abandoned solar system.  He is a member of what is left of the human race, and because of their desperate situation, is terribly cynical and in many ways has lost all need to care about anything.  Most of the humans are sterile, and their food has to be processed a certain way to remove the deadly organics that permeate every water molecule on C’Tuul.  Because the humans conquered and subjugated the C’Tuulians for so long, they are a little reluctant to help the dying human race.  Guillermo is also the sole police officer in charge of keeping the humans in line…and there is a lot of crime.

A few problems arise when we have a narrator who is gratingly cynical and angry at the world:

  1. Will my narrator rub the reader the wrong way?
  2. Will my narrator’s voice become unreliable?
  3. Can I sustain this voice throughout the novel?

I remembered that I’d read a few books that shed light on this subject.  The following books have narrators who are either pathetic people at the outset and are that way throughout the novel or begin as jerks and end up becoming likable jerks:

  1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – This novel is not only a fun ride through ’80’s nostalgia, but a cyberpunk thrill-ride that is a commentary on the ravages of pop culture and technology.  The narrator in this first person novel is a chubby, zit-faced teenager who jacks in to the OASIS (a virtual world created by a Steve Jobs type character ages ago) to find an easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual world that is worth ownership of the company that built the OASIS plus billions of dollars in cash.  The narrator in this novel is snarky, witty, and at the same time kind of a naive jerk.  He doesn’t have it all together, struggles with his infatuation with Art3mis (another user of the OASIS). What makes him charming is his constant references to ’80’s pop culture, and that even though he is a dorky narrator, he has a heart of gold.
  2. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie – This novel is told in first person, but the narrator purposefully leaves out important clues to the crime.  This becomes very troubling when we reach the end of the novel and we find out that the narrator had been lying to us all along.  I don’t intend to do this with Guillermo, but there are ways to avoid turning off the reader with such a dangerous tactic (as many people who read Christie’s novel confessed to have done).  The narrator can hint that they are lying about something, and that way the reader feels as if they are in on the joke, and a fun technique to use is to have the narrator saying one thing to the characters around him/her but thinking something entirely different.  Even though Agatha Christie wrote this novel and is pretty well known, the novel was received poorly and kind of rubbed her readers the wrong way.
  3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – This novel is written in first person, but is the story of a man who indulges in an affair with an underage girl.  Sure, we can debate the ethical nature of this novel until we are blue in the face, but the point is that since the novel is in first person, the reader goes along with this old guy on his journey into (shall I say it?) pedophilia. It has been hailed as a groundbreaking novel, and that it may be, but not everyone wants to go down that road.  Be sure that you don’t drag the reader down a road that they don’t want to travel.  Know your audience.  If you are writing to an audience who digs the kind of stuff you are causing them to experience, then do so, but don’t be unintentional…ever.

Perhaps you have some comments about writing using an unreliable or often cross narrator using first person.  How did you write the narrative without turning the reader off?  Comment below.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

2 thoughts on “Using First Person When Your Narrator Is A Jerk

  1. Try saving the cat. It’s a trick shared in the screen-writing book titled “Save the Cat.” Essentially, you need to find a way to make Guillermo sympathetic — have him save a cat, so to speak. Stand up for a vulnerable person, donate food to a starving person, befriend an alien, something like that. Needs to be near the beginning of the character arch so readers feel like they can be invested in him.

    This is a great question in memoirs, too. If the narrator is not likable, the reader won’t hang in there for the transformation.

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