Friday, August 2, 2013

In Defense of First Person

(The hosting service for my website is having a bad day, so I'm cross-posting this here for now.)

Recently I heard a well-known author state that (paraphrasing) writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn’t be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. Respectfully, I disagree. I’m addressing the “present tense” part over on From the Write Angle, so here I’ll focus on first person.

One criticism of first-person narrative was that it’s what newbie, amateur writers default to, and they don’t have the skills to do it well.

On the first count, well, that’s kind of a big generalization. I started my very first manuscript in third person, got 5-10 pages in, and knew something wasn’t working. I went back, changed it to first person, and it flowed from there. My friend Charlee Vale tells me her first two manuscripts were entirely in third person.

But maybe the majority of new writers automatically go with first person? Sure, I can buy that.

On the second count, let’s face it. Our very first attempts with any writing technique or tool usually suck. This author posited that everyone should master third-person limited before even considering first person. You know, that’s probably not a bad idea in general. At the least, we should learn the strengths and limitations of all our options and practice to maximize their potential.

Another criticism was that there’s a “falseness” to first person. Your main character has to narrate things they would never say about themselves, engage in an unrealistic level of self-consciousness, etc. Plus in first person past tense, supposedly any suspense the character experiences is false, because they’ve already survived the tale in order to “tell” it to us. They know exactly what happens.

Here’s where people divide into two camps according to how they experience reading. Some people read a first-person narrative and process it as an artifact, a memoir written by the main character, or a record of that character verbally telling the story.

I’m not in that camp. I don’t view stories in that kind of framework unless they’re explicitly placed in it—”Now, let me tell you about the time my grandpa gave me a birthday present that changed the world.” I view the story as simply happening. I don’t think about someone telling it or writing it—it just unfolds before me, and the book with written words is just the delivery vehicle.

Just like when I watch a movie, I don’t think about “Who’s following these people around with a camera everywhere?”

I don’t know if that puts me in the majority or minority, but there it is.

At any rate, why should we or shouldn’t we use first person? Some people find the constant “I, I, I, me, me, me” obnoxious. Fair enough. Third-person limited lets us get into our protagonist’s head just as much as first person, so why don’t we stick to that?

To me, there’s still just a little more separation between reader and protagonist in third person. A character in third can get away with withholding a little information from the reader that would feel forced and fake in first person. First person, on the other hand, delivers the protagonist’s experience a little more exactly. In that case, it’s easier to withhold information from the character.

First person is notably more prevalent in some types of fiction than others, particularly young adult (YA). Some have said this is because teenagers are so self-centered, so they gravitate toward that focus on the “me.”

That may have some merit, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I know a lot of selfless, generous, thoughtful teens. Rather than self-centered, I think of them as “self-centric.” (That may be a distinction with no difference, but it makes sense to me.) The world doesn’t revolve around them—they are simply their own anchor point in a world that’s expanded tremendously since their pre-teen years.

It still sounds like I’m saying the same thing two ways, I guess. If it makes sense to any of you, and you can explain it better, please let me know.

I think for me, when choosing between first and third person, part of the decision is based on the answer to a question. Is this a story in World X focusing on Character Y? Or is it Character X’s story, occurring in World Y? Essentially, it’s a matter of story ownership, and how tightly that ownership is tied to that specific character.

First person can be very limited and restrictive, it’s true. But sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs, and I refuse to believe it’s a bad thing in and of itself. Like all tools and techniques, it has its place, its function, its value.

What do you think about first-person narratives? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Share your opinions and experiences (respectfully, please) in the comments.


Anonymous said...

I write books for young people. My first book (YA) was third person omniscient, the second one (MG) was third person close, and the third one (YA) was first person.

It all depends on the story, what the plot needs, how many characters you're following, and where you want the reader to be "standing." And most of all, it depends on how the author writes most effectively.

There isn't any "right" way to do it. Never has been.

R.C. Lewis said...

I definitely agree ... except I'm not sure about the "most of all, it depends on how the author writes most effectively" part. If the earlier points (story, plot needs, etc.) steer a story toward, say, first person, but the author struggles with that POV, then I think it's on the author to do the work necessary to get better at it. That, or write a different story that doesn't demand that POV.

Anonymous said...

It's just as you've said, R.C. Some stories work better in first person, and others in third. There's certainly nothing wrong with first person. Like any writing style, it is one of the many forms of art when it comes to creating a story.
My fantasy series is written in third person, subjective. But my short story that I've recently put up as an eBook is in first person (and works better for it - just as third person works best for my fantasy series).
It all comes down to what the story needs to mold into the best version of itself.

Unknown said...

When I started writing, it was in third person. But it just didn't feel right. I ended up trying first person and loving it. I now write in first person and present tense, the majority of the time. Every now and then, I try something different, because I think it's a good idea to gain experience with many forms of writing. But first person appeals to me more--when I am writing as well as when I am reading.

Great post! I agree whole-heartedly!


Anonymous said...

I like them. It doesn't really matter to me what the POV is, as long as it's told well.

Dean C. Rich said...

I’ve worked for years on my story. I had it ready to go, or so I thought. I made a newbie mistake of building a very large story. I love my story, but I can’t sell it the way it stands right now. So I am in the process of rewriting the thing, making the first part of the long story into a nice neat stand alone book.

It hasn’t been working for me. I’ve written several new chapters, and while I am happy with the pacing and the action, it just isn’t connecting.

So I’ve started it over, in first person this time. It seems to be working better.

I have not been a big fan of first person, I’ve read a few books in first person that worked really well. So I am going to attempt doing this in first person. The important thing is to get the story out, and if it has to come out in first person I’ll give it a try, and hope that I can learn the skills needed to pull it off.

Thanks for the post, it motivates me to keep at this in the direction I’ve been hesitant to try.

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