Confession time: when I was a kid I really didn’t like books written in the first person. Little Nathan Bransford was quite the literal fellow, and he just didn’t get the whole first person thing (also he was very short and the girls in his second grade class patted him on the head and called him “El Chiquito” which was HUMILIATING).
I really couldn’t wrap my head around who was doing the narrating. Was I supposed to believe it was the author? Was the narrator supposed to have written it all down? Was the narrator supposed to be talking to me? What in the heck was going on? What if a 1st Person narrator died in the end? THEN who was supposed to be doing the talking?
Luckily I outgrew both my aversion to 1st Person and the people who called me El Chiquito (who’s El Chiquito now, EL CHIQUITA??), but only after I came to accept the essential weirdness of 1st Person. What is 1st Person anyway?
Well, it’s a spectrum, obviously. It can be an imitation of someone definitely telling a story to someone else (THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST), it can be someone definitely writing something down (THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO), it can just be a story told from someone’s particular point of view (TWILIGHT), or it can be sort of a hybrid (THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN).
But whatever it is, a first person narrative is unique in language. Whatever form the narrative takes (and it should be consistent), it’s not like a real person talking or writing. There’s no real-life equivalent. It’s something else entirely.
Have you seen a transcript of an actual conversation? I have. IT’S BORING. It’s confusing. People don’t really make sense. They include a whole bunch of “I means” and “Ums” and “likes” and it’s quite annoying to see on the page.
Good first person writers crafting a unique voice create the impression that someone is speaking and the illusion that it sounds like the way someone would talk without it actually being real life dialogue or how it would sound if someone were actually telling a story.
So one common mistake writers make with 1st person narratives is an excess of chattiness of the “I mean” and “No, really” and “like” variety, especially when it comes to young adult literature. Yes, that’s how people (and kids) talk. It’s even how they blog (GUILTY!). But excess chattiness over the course of an entire novel becomes exhausting – would you want to sit and listen to someone tell a story for six hours? Let alone someone who said “like” after every other sentence?
To be sure, the occasional “I mean” and chatty turn of phrase can be used to great effect in the right hands, as both Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz demonstrate in particular — a taste of real life can go a long way toward showing what the character is like and infusing a voice with a unique flavor. But only in very, very small doses. It’s ok for a 1st person narrator to sound conversational, but not overly chatty.
So as you’re writing, keep an eye on those, um, “So”s and “I mean”s and “like”s. Don’t write what real life sounds like; write better than real life.