Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The well-written first page of this work-in-progress presents us with a female protagonist—a woman of extraordinary virtues and eccentricities. Or so at least we are told by the first person narrator.

According to the narrator, Lucia:
—is "a true individual"
—is "an independent thinker"
—has "an incredible imagination"
We learn, furthermore, that she is a woman of many names—including the saintly names given to her at birth by her parents, and nicknames assigned to her later by herself and others, Lucia being just one of many (presumably the one by which the narrator knows her).

But Lucia's abundance of names accounts for only one of many eccentricities, which include being an only child, left-handed, and a Capricorn. All this we are told by the narrator, who also tells us that these and other characteristics "made [Lucia] different from others."

Certainly one method of evoking characters is by way of other characters—in this case, by way of a first person narrator who, at least for the time being, remains unnamed and otherwise, for the most part, completely anonymous. With respect to the narrator we can with certainty say only that she is a woman, that she came of age in the 1960s (and is probably a woman in her sixties). We might also assume that she admires Lucia. At any rate she couches her opinions in terms of admiration. Then again, so does Marc Antony when speaking of Caesar to the mob.

The problem with this method of character evocation is that it tends to leave room for doubt. Since first person narrators are human, and since humans tend to look at the world through subjective eyes, no human narrator is completely objective; which is to say that no human narrator is entirely reliable. What we get from human narrators is, to a greater or lesser extent, an opinion. It is up to readers to decide how much to invest in those opinions, what degree of credibility to assign to them. The degree of credibility assigned to a narrator is based largely on the extent to which the narrator's opinions are supported by concrete evidence. When, for instance, the butler narrator of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day tells us that, in forsaking his love for Miss Kenton he was acting appropriately given his vocation, we see right through this rationalization into his broken heart.

Here, since we are presented only with abstractions with no concrete scenes or evidence with which to compare them, we are left at the end of this first page with only a very fuzzy sense of both narrator and subject: neither jumps off the page; both remain abstractions.

"Show—don't tell," says the English teacher. But there is nothing wrong, really, with telling, just as there is nothing wrong with abstractions, per se. But unless they're accompanied by illustrations—by solid evidence—abstractions alone aren't very satisfying. Here, to the extent that the title character is evoked at all, she is evoked by means of a series of adjectives. And adjectives are opinions: on the continuum of evidence they rank very low, down there with hearsay. We take them in only to see them upheld or refuted, until which time we reserve judgment.

As for Lucia, until I have more concrete evidence, I will do likewise. But I do wish that within this first page I had more to cling to than a narrator's words, however well-written.

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