Self-narration and the self-aware narrator: Part 1 of 2
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Narrative self-awareness Narrative self-awareness is a frequent issue in first-person manuscripts from clients or potential clients. For a long time, I wasn’t even sure there was a name for it – it just fell into the “I know it when I see it” category that something was off in the writing.
Then at a writers’ conference years ago, a famous author (so famous I’ve forgotten her name or I’d give her credit) mentioned the self-aware narrator as one of the biggest obstacles many beginning (and some advanced) writers face. She went on to define the self-aware narrator as (and I’m paraphrasing):
“…when the first-person character, who is, of course, the story’s narrator, is aware that she is the narrator and mindful of you, the reader. Thus, she tells her story to you, always conscious of your existence and her role of telling the story. This generally makes for a very drab novel and keeps the reader outside the character’s experience. It’s the difference between watching a great movie or having a friend who saw the movie describe it to you in excruciating detail for an hour and a half. It’s boring and awful. Stop it.”
But how do you stop doing it if you don’t know what it is, how to recognize it, or how to address it?
The first-person narrator can become self-aware when the author feels distant from the character and projects the story to the readers through the character. The writer isn’t getting inside the character and letting readers experience the story through the character’s eyes, from inside her head and inside her skin.
Narrative self-awareness may be useful in certain narrative portions of a story in some genres – where the character steps into the role of first-person narrator to ruminate on life, reminisce about the past, or consider her options. But in an active or dialogue scene with other characters, the self-aware narrator needs to disappear and let the character experience the moment first-hand.
The self-aware character “self-narrates” the story (more on this in Part II). She tells readers what happens to her as opposed to readers experiencing the scene from inside the point-of-view character. The narration comes across as the character viewing herself and the story, then relaying that information to readers. It’s a distancing way to tell a first-person story (or a close third-person story, for that matter). It feels like the narrator is speaking directly to readers. It damages the biggest strength of a first-person narrative: the close, intimate perspective.
When the narrator/character talks directly to the reader, the reader’s brain subconsciously processes it as “this is the author stepping onto the page to tell me something… it’s a novel, fiction, not a real character or real events.” The self-aware narrator knows it’s just a story and that she has a role to play, and narrates the story from that perspective. This breaks the reader’s “suspension of disbelief.”
When this happens, it usually manifests as “self-narration.” And that’s often when a reader sets a book down and never picks it up again.