Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Tense Matter of Perspective

When I started writing my very first novel, it was in third person. A couple pages in, it was feeling awkward. I went back and re-did it in first person, and never looked back.

From then on, the decision of whether to go first or third (and if first, present or past tense) has been a combination of gut instinct and thinking about what the story needed. In one, I chose third person because I needed that tiny bit of distance from the main character so she could keep some secrets from the reader in an organic (not just convenient for me) way. In another, I chose present tense because it only made sense to be in the moment rather than looking back.

I've even braved the "alternating first person" POV ... just for a novelette I wrote on a whim, but I still did it. (One POV I haven't tried is second person, and I don't see myself trying anytime soon.)

My latest Shiny New Idea has been less forthcoming about what it wanted to be. Or maybe it's just less demanding and could work whatever way I chose, as long as I applied the perspective and tense in an effective way. For the scene-and-a-half I've written so far, I went with first-person/past. Feels good so far, so hopefully it'll work.

On a separate but related note, there's something I don't get. I've seen a lot of people say they hate reading first-person narratives. Maybe it's just a matter of personal preference, like the way I'm not crazy about peas unless they're raw.

I used to feel kind of the same way about novels in present tense. The first time I read one, it felt funny and jarred me for a while. But I figured out I just wasn't used to it. Now that I've read several, it doesn't bother me most of the time. In fact, when I notice the tense and think, "Ugh, this present tense is bugging me," I suspect it's a sign that either the writer didn't handle the tense well, or it was just an inappropriate choice for that story.

But first person in general? Is it possible to not be used to that? (Weren't all the Babysitters' Club books in first from the POV of whichever girl had her name in the title? Maybe I'm remembering wrong.) Is there some other reason I acclimated and adapted to whatever it is about this perspective that bothers some readers?

Or is one person's grilled zucchini another person's boiled peas? (I may have taken the metaphor too far there.)

Just curious. Any of you first-person haters want to share?


Krista said...

I don't prefer first person - but I don't hate it. I do read books in first person but it's harder for me to fall in love with them.

I can't tell you why. I know first person makes me feel more distant from the other characters in the story - and I don't really like that. The other problem is if I don't connect with the narrator or find them annoying (aka Twilight) it is harder for me to enjoy the book.

I agree that a story needs to be told in the POV that is best for the story - but from a reading stand point I like third person.

R.C. Lewis said...

Interesting thoughts, Krista. Thanks for sharing them. :)

Mark Murata said...

Is it first person long past, or first person practically in the moment? It's probably the second one, and you can find a lot of power writing that way.