As a writer, I really struggle with first person narrative when it comes to long pieces. It allows the writer to get into the protagonists head immediately, and can be a great tool in short stories, but developing a particularly captivating voice over the course of a novel is a painful, complex process.
Marvel at some of the best, craziest, most unique narrative voices in fiction to date.
10. Holden Caulfield, “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger
Catcher is a polarizing read, and Holden is the most polarizing element of the book. While his antics can become tiresome, his inner-dialog repetitive and his cynicism pretty far off base (at times, anyway), there is hardly another novel with such an intimate narrative. Holden tells the story from a psychiatric ward, and there is very much a wall between the events of the book and the reader–a wall named Holden Caulfield. Catcher is not a book, but a conversation, and Holden is one of the most dynamic conversationalists you’ll come across.
9. Jake Barnes, “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s narrative voice does not change drastically from book to book. So why not take him at his best? Jake Barnes is a proud man with an unfortunate scar. With his manhood removed, we get a narrator with plenty of morals and values to (succinctly) expound on, but timidity that often sees him receding into the background of the more volatile scenes.
8. Narrator, “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk
Unlike most unnamed narrators, we aren’t talking about a distinct third-person voice here. Palahniuk manages to keep his protagonist’s name under wraps for the entire novel, aiding in one of the most unreliable narrators of all time. Among many narrative tricks, the unnamed narrator slowly comes the realization (as does the reader) that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER he’s been talking to himself the entire novel. Does that make “Fight Club” a dual narrative?
7. Narrator, “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy
Like many aspects of the never-ending “Blood Meridian,” the narrative voice is as much a triumph as it is a chore. Dialog offers only a brief respite from the lengthy, indulgent, chaotic, dense narrative prose; as the novel progresses, the narrator begins to invade every inch of the novel, coming out of every character’s mouth, its omniscient eye extending to the farthest reaches of the unknown world. And that doesn’t even land it in the top 5.
6. Humbert Humbert, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov
It takes an intriguing (and apparently excessively verbose) voice to even attempt justifying to the reader acts of pedophilia. Humbert Humbert is the man for the job. “Lolita” reads like the finest form of poetry, almost so beautifully narrated one forgets what that queasy, gnawing sensation is in the stomach–oh yes, that’s the bodies reaction to child molestation.
5. Huck Finn, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
Huck is an infinitely more tolerable version of Holden, more optimistic in a far more intolerant time. His “common language,” while a bit more difficult to wade through in this day than when it was published, is still a delight. Huck is a personable narrator, and even calls out Mark Twain in the opening lines, considering his lies in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to be mild and inoffensive.
4. Scout, “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
Jean-Louise Scout marks the first of four truly great first person narratives. The greatness lies in their complexities, and in Scout’s case it is narrating childhood events through the lens of an adult. We get the perspective and political understandings of the adult Jean Louise, and yet are appropriately reminded of her place as a child as the novel’s events unfold.
3. Callie/Cal Stephanides, “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides
If Scout’s narrative is complex, Cal’s is the Sunday sudoku. Not only does she-or he?–narrate her childhood as an adult, but she is an adult male and was a female child. On top of that, she narrates her parent’s and grandparent’s generations before getting to her own tale. She–I mean he!–also switches deftly from present tense to past tense. There are a dozen other narrative tricks and techniques on display in “Middlesex,” but the best of all is the affinity, sympathy and hope the reader feels for Cal by the end.
2. Yunior, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz
Yunior isn’t revealed as “Oscar’s” narrator until about halfway through, but we aware the whole time that the voice is someone who was close to Oscar and his family at one point. He mentions research he’s done to get the story right. Like Cal, he covers multiple generations of Oscar’s family–before briefly emerging as a character caught up in the events himself. But it’s Yunior’s voice that has this narrative shining, his faux-swagger, his DR/Brooklyn slang, his machismo and his regret. It all comes through in a narrative that’s really not at all about him, adding to one of the many layers of this beautiful book.
1. Nick Carraway, “The Great Gatsby” by F Scott Fitzgerald
At the end of the day, F Scott is the master. Nick Carraway is a character whose impassivity is both a personal trait and a narrative technique. Readers are infuriated when Nick swallows his tongue (for the thousandth time) and shakes Tom Buchanan’s hand; and subsequently marvels at Nick’s Greek-chorus like ability to meld into the narrative prose and offhandedly pass judgement. Fitzgerald’s words as beautiful as ever, and since they are technically coming out of Nick’s mouth, he takes the top narrator prize.
Who are your favorite narrators?