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5 February 2012 ·

The unreliable narrator: writing in the first person

Doing a study guide is an interesting way to discover things about your own books – especially if you do it 16 years after the book was published. A bit of distance, you could say.

Or, since Peeling the Onion was written in the first person, ‘I could say.’ And I, of course, can say anything I want. That’s what fiction writers do – and so do first person fictitious narrators.

The problem with first person narration is that it’s only one person’s point of view. The other characters’ motives, thoughts and beliefs (and their actions) are seen purely through the protagonist’s eyes. The more absorbed the reader is with that protagonist, the harder it is to step back and wonder if there could be another side to the story.

As I was going through some of the notes that teachers and student teachers have sent me for this book over the years, it struck me that many of them, and most students, believe everything that Anna says – about her emotions and actions, which is good, because the point of her internal dialogue was to report as truly as she (or the author behind her) possibly could   – but also about the other characters. And that’s a problem.I love my Anna. She’s a teenage girl fighting for her life and independence; at different times she’s depressed, determined, overwhelmed, angry, bitter, hopeful, and occasionally many of these at the same time, or at least on the same day. People who are angry, wounded and bewildered do not always make reliable reporters. Teenage girls have been known (just occasionally!) to focus their dislike of someone on superficial characteristics like hairy legs. As readers we have to stand back and remember that, and as writers we need to drop a few clues, without ever stepping outside the narrator – because the main point of using the first person is for the reader to be pulled in and identify with that ‘I.’

And if that sounds very clinical, it’s what I’m thinking as I do notes 16 years later. At the time it was just what felt right after several drafts in the third person. I’m probably a bit more conscious now of why I make decisions once I’ve made them, but feeling right, or sounding right when I read it aloud, is still the only way I know how to choose which way to tell the story.

The Study Notes will be posted on my website as soon as my publisher has prettied them up for me. Email me if you need them earlier.

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio