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Readercon: "Why Am I Telling You This (in the First Person)?"

The first of today's panels, "Why Am I Telling You This (in the First Person)?", which I thought was fun.

People who were there: I referred to Jo Walton's classifications of first-person narrations, which I couldn't remember off the top of my head. You can find them at this LJ post, and they are categorized on two axes, immediacy and ease of exposition.

In some narratives it is clear why and how a first-person narrator is telling their story (the tale is a found document, a club story, etc.); in some narratives the reasons for the telling must be deciphered (Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun) or the revelation of the reasons forms a key part of the story itself (N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). But in some cases it seems counterproductive or otherwise quite unlikely that a narrator would be telling us the secrets they want to keep hidden, their plans for world domination, etc. What do we make of this question of narrator motivation? To what extent should we read the telling as part of the tale, a chosen act of character, versus simply an extra-textual conceit required for the story to exist? Is this different for present vs. past tense? And to the extent that authors consider these questions when choosing a narrative point of view, what are some interesting examples of how they've used the fact of the telling of a story to affect how that story is read?

Richard Bowes, Helen Collins, L. Timmel Duchamp (leader), Caitlín R. Kiernan, Kate Nepveu.

My notes on this are pretty sketchy, as there was a lot of back and forth. Here's what I remember:

The three keywords about the effect of first-person seemed to be authenticity [*], immediacy, and intimacy (I have a question mark next to this last one, meaning that I wrote it down after the fact and believe, but am not positive, that it's what people said). The key theme seemed to be the old standby, YMMV (your mileage may vary): some readers and writers really care about the mechanics of how a story gets on a page, some only care if the mechanics are specified and not if the story is in free-floating first, some don't care at all, writers pretty much just have to pick their preference and go with it.

[*] I have complicated reactions to questions of authenticity in characters, which I think you can locate by generalizing from a prior rant about "women in men's clothing" and . . . actually my old post about not specifying characters' race ends up being less about this than I remembered (whee, good times that one), but the idea that when writing about a society influenced by this one, people whose identities are marginalized in some way should be written with an awareness of how that may have affected them.

Timmi said that her experience (and she'd done experiments) was that readers would cut female characters more slack in third than in first, that they would get very judgmental about female characters in first because their motivations were much clearer (paraphrase). This was surprising and depressing.

Someone in the audience said that first would be necessary, or perhaps just particularly important, when the story was about revealing the state of mind of the narrator; we also talked a little about the rarer flip side, the story that's about concealing: The Fortunate Fall's great opening, " . . . and you will know a little less about me than you did before," or the more extreme deliberately dishonest narrators, which is only possible in first (Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Liar).

Finally for this post, Caitlín shared an awesome story of her first first-person story, for which she figured out how long an ink pen would last and used that to structure the story—I think it was explicitly divided by pens? Which I think is awesome: if you're going to use an explicit first-person framing device, you should own that sucker.

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