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Author Topic: Narrator and character age/maturity
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I've work-shopped a novel I wrote and got several people telling me my first person narrator seems too mature. My problem is that he is mature, but the story he's telling is from his past. Is it a rule that a narrator has to speak with the intelligence of the age at which the incidents occurred? That would limit me to very simplistic explanations, which, in my own reading experience, tend to get annoying if they last for too long. Should I give an explanation somehow that he's looking back on the experience? That seems like too much structural filling in the blanks to me. Can't I just have him tell his story as he sees it now without having to justify? It seems to me that a past tense first person narrative should create an assumption of some time distance between the telling and the experience.
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Member # 8368

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It probably wouldn't hurt to insert just a sentence or so that tells the reader that the narrator is recalling events from his childhood.

Just using past tense isn't quite enough. That could be anywhere from childhood to yesterday.

Just enough to ground the reader.

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Member # 9757

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The first thing I thought of was The Waltons. The tv show. John-Boy was supposed to narrate the thing, telling the story of his family and childhood in Virginia. But he told it as a mature, established author describing events from years past. It was clear enough what he was talking about. At least, I never had any trouble following it.
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Member # 8617

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I recently read Chris Crutcher's autobiography, "King of the Mild Frontier." It is one of the few books I've actually laughed out loud reading, and a lot of the humor is his adult take on his childhood inexperience. The authorial voice is clear and present. You might want to look at how he does it.
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Member # 9753

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Thanks for the suggestions. I can't tell if I'm just stubborn or if people are looking too closely at it. I always felt (and this may be where I'm missing the mark) that there is a difference between the narrator and the former self he's describing. If the narrator comments on something in a mature voice, it seems logical to me, but if the child version of himself says or thinks something too mature, that wouldn't be logical. Perhaps I'm mixing them up in that sense.
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Member # 8019

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Meredith has suggested one effective strategy. Another is if the narrator occasionally uses past perfect tenses and time signals as part of the commentary on the events. For example, When I was at that young age, I had overlooked how Mom tormented me about my looks.

However, that strategy opens narrative distance, which is a degree of time and place distance relationship between a narrative voice and character voice. If the narrative distance is at times switching back and forth in an unsettled manner from close to open, readers can't engage in the participation mystique of the immediate persons and settings and events that unfold in the present time of the narrative.

Which is the present time readers are meant to engage with? The narrator's present time or the character's present time? If the narrator's, some of that personal interaction in that now and events are useful, as Meredith suggests. If the character's, then staying as much as possible in the voice and persons and settings and events of the character's present time are ideal.

Otherwise, willing suspension of disbelief can be challenged due to readers sensing the dramatic action has already been decided from the narrative's opening lines and the narrator is just holding back on the ending to torture readers.

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Member # 8631

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This is first person right?

It is all in how you tell the story. You don't need a line saying I'm grown now and I'm telling my story, but you need to have it feel like the story is being told by someone looking back. Does that make sense?

There should be a disconnect between what he thought at the time and how he interpreted it now.

For example: "I thought I had finally found someone I could trust, but later that trust would almost get me killed."

Or "I couldn't understand any thing she said. I just wasn't ready for her quantum mechanic explanation."

Not the best examples, but hopefully you can see my point. Knowing what was going to happen and understanding things on a higher level with hind sight would taint the way the story would be told.

Hope this helps.

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Member # 9331

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I'm with Meredith on this one, with one qualification: sometimes you have a reason to keep readers in the dark about the distance between the narrator and his younger self. If so you may have a tricky problem to manage.

This kind of question can be tough to answer when you''re giving a MS the once over with your critique-super-vision ray. You tend to notice things that most readers wouldn't, and managing reader consciousness is often critical when you're aiming to surprise the reader without him thinking you *cheated*.

One thing you might try is to set aside the question of whether the narrative voice is too mature for the moment, and examine whether the narrative voice is too *intrusive*. If that's the case then trying to fix the *perspective* of the narrator won't address the porblem.

In first person narration, you want the narrator to be a good (although not necessarily accurate) storyteller. You want him to relate the experiences of his past self in a way that draws the reader in.

When reviewers complain about something, you should take those complaints seriously, but not necessarily at face value. It's possible that in this case the narrator's editorializing interferes with the flow of the story in some places. The narrator is in-character (or else the reviewers wouldn't have noticed he's older as he retells this), he's just straying too much from telling what happened and what he experienced and thought.

As a thought experiment, imagine that the narrator stuck exclusively to relating the experiences of his younger self. Would the reviewers complain that the narrator is too mature? If so, then you have not imagined his younger self credibly. If not, then you've imagined the younger and older self credibly, but the older self isn't telling the story as well as he should.

[ February 14, 2012, 10:21 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Member # 9753

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I do have the phrase, in the first sentence, I believe (I don't have the manuscript with me), "when I was ten years old." I feel like that establishes the age difference between the narrating voice and the past self he's describing. It doesn't say that now he's 30, but it seems to say enough to allow for an adult narrator.
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A lot of people don't notice things when they are only mentioned once. Especially when they are reading casually after a long day and they're tired. If that's the only, or even the primary, way for the reader to know it is an older version of the narrator you might consider inserting a few extra reminders. Like kids with homework, you have to keep poking.
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Member # 9513

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Read the first pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout is definitely relating the story as an adult, but we are immersed in the years-ago childhood of Jem and his sister without any problem. Gotta love Harper Lee.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I second wirelesslibrarian's recommendation.
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Member # 9753

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Thanks, wirelesslibrarian. I haven't looked at that book for years, but it's a great one. I'll take a look. A lot of good suggestions here. Thanks.
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Member # 9682

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is your character 30 now relating experiences when he was ten?

from my experience, a younger character not sounding his/her age is a constant criticism in workshops, and i've heard different people give different answers on how to resolve the issue. some authors do a better job of writing younger characters, though the only examples i can think of in which this happens are YA books, like Louis Slobodkin's "The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree", or Daniel Manus Pinkwater's "Fat Men From Space". Jacqueline Woodson's pulls off a very convincing 13 year old in "From The Notebooks of Melanin Sun". and of course, just about everything by Judy Blume.

ultimately, i've begun to believe it's more of a knack than a skill that some writers have to write convincing young characters, because on the one hand you don't want the characters to sound stupid, but then they can't be wise beyond their years. with kids, so much of life is a mystery, and many of the conclusions they've drawn are logical, but so, so mistaken because a lot of the time they're working on flawed premises based on ignorance. like the fifth grader who doesnít try in class telling me one day that all she wants to do in life is play. trying to explain to her in a way that it doesnít go in one ear and out the other why thatís a bad idea is next to useless, and if i wrote her as a character, iíd have to ignore all the reasons why that would be a bad idea, and actually come up with a totally reasonable premise of why simply playing and not studying or trying in school is a perfectly brilliant idea. being an adult, it's difficult to do because, as an adult, i know that the grades she makes now determines what middle school she'll go to, which determines which high school she'll go to, which influences what university she'll go to, which influences her future employment and eventually dictates her quality of life when she herself is an adult.

it probably also doesn't help writing a convincing young character because it's often the case that, as adults, we think we were so much smarter when we were kids than the kids we interact wtih today. there's often a bit of dishonesty at play when we look back on our childhoods.

it may also really help to convince readers of your character's age if you can capture the way of speaking of the youth of the time you're writing them in. the ways in which they express themselves, and the subjects they talk about. definitely if your character not only seems too mature, but speaks like an adult, then you probably have a lot of problems in the narrative.

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Robert Nowall
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The full implication of a first-person narrator is that the character doing the narrating, if involved in the story at all, is on the other side of whatever happens in the story---just how far from the events in question should be determined by what works for you with an eye for what works for the eventual reader...


Forgot about The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree---must've read that before I read Heinlein, I think---and lost my copy in an incident that involved me changing from public to private schools. Wonder if it's still in print?

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Josephine Kait
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Donít forget that there is also a natural distance between the 30 year old and the 10 year old that he once was.

For my own experience telling friends stories of my past, I find a similarity in speech patterns yet a distinct distance emotionally. When I tell such a story I find that I slip almost unconsciously into speaking as I did when the event took place, except where a lesson learned has since overwritten how I view it. Also, I find that while I may be able to recall the emotions I experienced during the event, I no longer experience them upon recounting (whereas with more recent events, I tend to relive the emotions while telling of the event). This emotional disconnect leads me to view the younger me almost as a separate person rather than as self. I have also enhanced this disconnect albeit unintentionally by adopting a new nickname after leaving high school.

Based on these observations I would recommend careful word choice based on how close your narrator is to the story that he is telling at that moment. It is okay for the distance between your audience and the story to vary, as long as the distance between your audience and your narrator remains fairly constant.

Best of luck, may your Muse shine brightly,
[edited to fix typo]

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Member # 9758

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Originally posted by gkergh:
I always felt (and this may be where I'm missing the mark) that there is a difference between the narrator and the former self he's describing.

There is a difference. People change as they age; and I'm not just talking in years. Sometimes you as a person can change in a single moment. One minute you believe something the next you believe something different.
As for the writing sounding too mature, you don't want to make it sound like a five year old is writing it either, unless for some small effect. As was said earlier ground the reader so he/she knows you're looking into the past.

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