I think when we choose our next read, we let our decision to be made guided by some sort of preferences. It could be the genre, the writing style, the gender or other characteristics of the main characters, the historical period where the novel takes place etc. Furthermore in my opinion the point of view of the storytelling equally can be a determining factor.
As for me, I prefer the novels written in 3rd person POV over 1st person POVs, and I usually tend to avoid the latter. The main reason is that reading 1st person POVs seems unnatural in most of the cases. I mean I get that being in the head of the main characters give you a firsthand experience because you literally see the novel’s event through someone’s eyes. This could be as much as an advantage as a disadvantage, thus you are limited to only one voice in the story.
I can handle this part, and usually this is not the one giving me the creeps. Sometimes yes, when the character who’s head I’m forced in, actually tries to overthink every other characters, what makes me cringe. This can be very irritating and annoying. But what really makes these books feel unreal is when the 1st person narrator treat something he/she thinks as inconvertible facts, or when the main character uses facts/knowledge he/she shouldn’t have known. I think this is the closest you could get to a phenomenon called an “omniscient narrator” in 3rd person novels.
Based on the definition of the Cambridge Dictionary, the omniscient narrator is:
The voice in which a story is written that is outside the story and that knows everything about the characters and events in the story.
Som as you can very well guess, omniscient means all-knowing. This kind of narrator know and usually manipulates everything in the story, in a lot of cases even the reader’s perception of the story. Because this kind of narrator has the right and knowledge to guide the reader alongside their chosen tread of events deciding freely what to hide or when and how to show something important.
I don’t like this kind of power over the characters, as I don’t like the unreal 1st person narrators either who seem to be more of a mind reader than a normal everyday guy/girl. In my opinion all characters needs restrictions (of knowledge, of behavior defined by their personalities). Therefore I prefer the narration limited regardless of the novel’s POV, because who would know everything? Only gods, right? But when I read the adventures of characters devoid of divine powers, I want them believable.
So after this long introduction let’s see what I consider good 1st person POV and what not so good. When I selected the novels, I tried to choose similar themes, and books from the same epoch.
My all-time favorite 1st POV novella is Aleksandr Voinov’s Skybound (you can find a full review of this book here), but because I’m very biased towards Skybound, and decided to exclude it from the competition. This book is second to none, so it would be pretty unfair to use it as the base of comparison.
So what I have chosen as good example is the ‘In the absence of light’ by Adrienne Wilder, and as bad example the ‘A Matter of Time’ series by Marie Calmes.
How to do it right: In the absence of light
The events are told by the main character Grant, who is a vapid and vain smuggler coming to hide in the little town of Durstrand in order to lose the FBI agents or past work relatives who want to arrest/kill him. In this town Grant meets Morgan, the autistic man, who can’t look anyone in the eye, and has uncontrolled tics. But Morgan decides he wants Grant, and shows him that the real treasure is not necessarily consists of money or objects. That sometimes we have to look behind appearances, beliefs or anything the worlds have taught us to be valuable.
Why I like this book? Because there is a whole trip we get to walk together with Grand and Morgan. And as Grant’s beliefs are challenged, so is ours. We – as readers – are confronted the same prejudices and preconceptions as Grant. Every time Morgan shows to him, that he’s talking down to him or just simply doesn’t believe Morgan is capable to handle certain situations, us too, have to think over, what would we do in his place.
I really want to believe, that I would act better, than him, but I’m not sure. To tell you the truth it is really hard to see beyond someone’s physical limitations or defects and accept him as a capable, fully valued human being. This is a long journey teaching Grant to treat others with respect and humility.
When reading the book, our first impression of Grant is that he is not a good man. Far from it. He’s so full of himself, he wouldn’t know humbleness even if it stood right before him screaming in his face. By the way Grant is usually a great judge of character, the only time this skill refuses to work in his favor, is when he first meets Morgan. And when he treats Morgan like a dumb kid, Morgan mercilessly uses Grant’s arrogance to his advantage to teach him a lesson he will never forget.
“Sometimes I can count toothpicks.”
“You know in that movie, that guy, he’s special like me. He counted toothpicks.”
“Okay, that’s pretty impressive.”
“Nah, everyone like me can do it.”
“Well, it’s impressive to me.” (…)
“Can I show you?”
He opened a different drawer. “Here they are. (…) Take this.” He held out the box. “See, it hasn’t been opened. So you get to open it. (…) Take out some toothpicks. Any number and don’t let me see them. Then dump the rest on the floor.(…)”
“There’ like a thousand in here.”
“One thousand and five hundred.” He pointed to the box. “But I can count them, promise.(…)”
I kept the the flap raised and counted out a dozen or so. Even if he got the number wrong, he’d never know. Nope. I couldn’t stand the the idea of breaking his fragile ego.
I slipped the toothpicks into my pocket and dumped the rest on the floor. (…)
“All right, how many?”
Morgan raised his head, and there was nothing soft, subtle, or innocent in his eyes and not a single tear on his cheeks. “Fuck if I know, but you better start cleaning up the mess you made. (…)” He shoved past me. (…) The screen door slapped shut, and I was left standing in the kitchen holding toothpicks.
As I said Grant is more an antihero. He has his suppositions of things, and his way of thinking, he even has his limits of his perceptions of the surroundings. He lets these limitations to cloud his judgement more than once the same way as he let himself to unsee Morgan’s marvelous personality because of his tics and social anxiety. He projects his way of thinking on others, and sometimes he thinks his lack of information as the others’ fault.
So Grant is a real life man with real life issues and flaws who wishes to become a better person. And he gets better, because while being with Morgan he slowly learns to look behind the appearances, and his love changing Grant into someone more perceptive, attentive, until Grant finally understands that the objects and money he gathered during his questionable carrier, value nothing and even less, if you have no one in your life to enjoy them together.
It is a long and torturous journey for Grant to learn that he can be reach without mundane things or valuables. His biggest lesson is that the real value only shows itself in the absence of light.
“The light is a funny thing, Grant. We think it shows us what we need to see, but in reality, it blinds us. That’s why I brought you here. I wanted you to see me.”
He was right. The light did blind people. I know first hand how misleading it could be. (…) In Morgan’s case, the light had let me see the tics, the muscle spasms, and his strange movements, and I’d been distracted by them. The dark took it all away and left me sitting next to a person, not a behavior, a human being, not perceived defects. (…) But instead of leaving me to the mercy of the light, Morgan had led me into the darkness, where it had no more power over me.
How to do it bad: A Matter of Time
This part will be relatively short. This book series are terrible. I’m sorry to break it down this abruptly, I really am, but I just can’t just sugarcoat it.
Why I don’t like this book? The main character is Jory Keyes who is so featureless I have no words for it, but on the other hand so irritating I was really itching to punch him in the face while reading his adventures. Does the notion “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” ring a bell to you? Yep. Jory is the perfect specimen of Mary Sues and Gary Stus both, because only one is does not suffice to describe him.
If you are not familiar with the definition I cite it below from wikipedia (for more information you can find the full article here.)
A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character. Typically, this character is recognized as an author insert or wish fulfillment. They can usually perform better at tasks than should be possible given the amount of training or experience, and usually are able through some means to upstage the protagonist of an established fictional setting, such as by saving the hero.
So, yes. Jory is the person, I would flee from him to an other continent, it’s how much I cannot stand him. All the books are told from his POV, and he did his best to tell us what the others think of him more times than it’s necessary. According to the other (through him as filter) everybody likes him. Really. EVERYBODY. Ever. They call him Angel, they literally want a piece of him. Every male and female characters fall in love with him, which he exploits as he pleases in the form of favors, help or whatever. Still everyone fails to see, whats the problem with that, because holy Jory only wants to help.
And if this wasn’t enough, the other main character, his love interest, Sam Kage always gets compared to him. More precisely his Before and Together with Jory personality gets compared all the time. We are told by the others but obviously only trough Jory, that Sam is an asshole without him. But on one dares to to say, not once, that this is all Jory’s fault, because he’s the one playing Sam too the same way as he is playing others.
I have to confess that I only managed to read 4 books of the seven or eight volumes, but the time I finished those books I was so full with his stupidity I could scream at every mention of his name. Through the four books there is not a single sing of character development, Jory stays unchangingly that vain, little, self-righteous prick. Only the in the case of other character can we get a glimpse of some sort of character development, and it is more like an adaptation to Jory’s unpredictable and selfish behavior than a real development.
I so much dislike these books, I even can’t muster the strength to search for a citation to show you irritating Jory really was.
If you got the impression that I really don’t like these books, your hunches were right. I got more negative feelings while reading them, than anything I could list in the series favor. But it was good for one thing. For showing me how not to write a 1st person POV book.
But if you want some books to use as a good example, I confidently recommend Skybound and In the absence of light.