OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt a recent workshop (Writing The River – part of the Maryport Literary Festival at the Senhouse Roman Museum) one of the group came up with a monologue in which a policeman addressed an unseen and unheard individual. Reading aloud to the group, he preceded his monologue with the explanation; ‘it’s a policeman talking’.

Following the reading, the challenge I set him, was to reveal that identity without the need for the introductory prompt.

We could take this as a general writing exercise: write a piece – a story even – in which the first person narrator reveals his identity – or role, or status , or what-you-will – during the course of the narration.

There are many possible variants on this. Here are a few. The revelation could be at the beginning, which implies that we (the listeners, or readers, if you prefer) need to know right away where this narrator is coming from, or going to, even when our opinion on that may be revised later. On the other hand that identity could be withheld, could in fact be the ‘grand revelation’ that ends the piece. Who would tell this story, give this account? And will our prejudices and experiences have guided well our speculations? Alternatively that identity could be dribbled out; filled in; accumulated over the whole piece.

How might one do this? In the quoted case the suggestion came almost immediately – by having him begin ‘evening all’. For those still young enough not to remember, this was the opening line of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, an early TV police series, as George Dixon led us into a narration of one of his cases. The phrase gives us a clue to what might be right, and wrong, with picking words associated with a particular identity: what’s right is of course, the association. What’s wrong, is the transience of our awareness of it. I remember, in the nineteen eighties, being highly amused on a Sunday morning, when a young and slightly uncomfortable policeman would turn up at the Probation Hostel in which I worked to collect the breakfasts for those who had been banged up overnight down at the ‘station’. The residents, our euphemism for those convicted, and those on bail, would quietly whistle the tune from Z Cars, another TV Police soap. The policeman, would feel more uncomfortable. But who now would recognise the refrain?

Yet, the problem remains to be resolved. How do we tell – there’s no showing to be had in the world of one word after another, in order – where somebody belongs, or is coming from, by the words they use? Vocabulary? Jargon? Subject matter? To a certain extent it’s a back-story issue, and carries with it the danger of an opening:


‘When I began patrolling my beat this morning, I never guessed I’d meet someone like you!’


That is clumsy, and unconvincing. Using ‘or him’ and having the narrator address the listener, rather than the character, would be slightly better. Something like, ‘May I ask what you have in the bag, sir’, might work, and ‘All right, sunshine, open the bag!’ would imply quite a different person being addressed. ‘Hello, hello, hello, what ‘ave we ‘ere!’ would be too music hall, but quite distinct from “’Allo ‘Allo”!

There is the issue of who is being addressed. Who is our policeman, or whatever he or she is, talking to, or about? What is their attitude towards each other, narrator and narrated? And would a changing attitude, be for positive or negative? And would it coincide with ours, or diverge as we progress?

I find encounters like this, whether first or second or third person, always intriguing, and a good basis for tales. And behind them always, seems to lurk the questions of why the narrator is telling the tale, and why in that voice, and how I am supposed, or expected to respond. I find the idea of the ‘narratorless’ story unconvincing. James Joyce talked of refining the artist ‘out of existence’, but it seems to me that such refining is not really about disguising or hiding the narrator, and of course, the ‘artist’ Joyce was referring to is the creator of the narrator. One of the first necessities in writing fiction is to discover your relationship, as writer, with the narrators you, intentionally or otherwise, create. As I’ve said before, the way to find out where somebody is, is to ask them what they can see.

Somerset Maugham, writing about first person narrators, has something to say on this, worth quoting again: ‘the I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons…..The author is […… ] creating a character for the particular purposes of the story.’ (From the Preface to volume 2 of Maugham’s Collected Short Stories, Penguin, 1972 [1951])

The issue of the narrator’s identity makes a good basis for not only a single writing exercise, but for a whole series of them, examining the ways in which our revelations of that identity might impact on the nature of the tale, and on our responses to what we are being told. It might be worth an hour or two of your time to experiment with it.