Mattie Ross & First-Person Narrators

I'm reading the novel True Grit by Charles Portis. The story is told in the first person through the eyes of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl who has set out to avenge her father's death. She's the sort of brilliant "I" voice every writer dreams of creating:

"He had no hand gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble."

In Mattie Ross, Portis created a steely eyed avenging angel cloaked in the body of a slight tween girl. Armed with the righteously clear sense of right and wrong normally reserved for the young and the hypocritical, her great strength is also what gets her into life-threatening danger. Her voice, as she tells the tale of her manhunt, is as much the story as the tale itself.

Mattie Ross is also a prime example of a brilliant point of view choice. As you read, you can't imagine the tale being told by anyone else. Even Rooster Cogburn (aka John Wayne, aka Jeff Bridges, aka Eye Patch Guy) would not be able to pull off the tale in such a fine way. If Portis had decided to tell the story in third-person, I'm pretty sure True Grit would have been lost in the flood of hundreds of other similar western novels-the story itself isn't that original, that action packed, that deep.

The writerly trick is, I suppose, knowing when a first-person narrator's voice is compelling enough to carry an entire novel. Writers talk about hearing character voices in their heads, as if this alone is reason enough to spend a year or more writing stuff like, "I had to get a drink of water" and "I had to find the nearest bathroom, immediately!". Myself, I've only written two novels (out of eleven) in first-person. Once it didn't work so well (my master's thesis) and another time it worked reasonably well (my recent YA fantasy novel). All I know is, be damn sure you want to go down that first-person road, because you'll live and die by it.


Kimberly said...

Great book (and amazingly decent movie adaptation).

You have to live with that first person narrator as a writer for a long time; it's true. And then readers, who only have to spend a few hours with the character, often decide they don't like living in that character's head for even half an hour. It's tricky. I wonder if it hurts more when readers don't like your first person works. Does it feel more like a personal rejection?

Thanks for the thoughtful advice. :)

David Oppegaard said...

Hi Kimberly. Sorry your comment was eaten by blogspot during their maintenance!

Yeah, I really liked the Cohen Brother's adaptation, as well as No Country For Old Men. They seem to turn on all the jets for Western-type movies (Blood Simple, even the Big Lebowski had that old timey cowboy...)

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