I, You, They — a Blast from the past post from September 2012

*I’m still doing single battle with Through Fire, so please indulge me this week too.*

One of the typical questions I get from newbies is “What person do you write in?”

Of course that’s NOT what they’re actually asking. What they’re actually asking is “What person do I have to write in so my fiction will be accepted by publishers?” or in the new age of indie possibly “So my fiction will be professional?”

I have bad, sad, horrible news to all you newbies out there. There is no answer to that. There are authors – and editors – who confuse their personal preferences with a law of nature, but wishing don’t make it so.

I always find it very funny when people who have decent careers and should know the history of the field come out and opine that “only newbies write in first person” or “first person is the mark of the amateur.” Pleeeeeease!

Just because you’re not good enough not to Mary-Sue when you use first person, don’t project your weaknesses on other writers. Go look at… oh, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Go on. I’ll wait. Yep, first person. And if you have a low opinion of that book, that’s your prerogative, but you’re also not a very good evaluator in my opinion and the opinion of the millions of people who made that book an international classic of SF. In fact, most classic science fiction writers operated mostly in first person. That is just a fact of life.

It is also a fact of life that most of classical mystery – Agatha Christie, Rex Stout – was written first person. Most urban fantasy still is.

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes. Stop that, they might stick that way. Look at that again. You might have literary pretensions and think you’re all that, but go look at the data and how it tracks. When genres are at their most popular (they don’t call it golden age sf because the covers had foiling) they are written first person. The most popular genre now is – arguably – urban fantasy, which is first person.

So, while you personally might not like it, there seems to be a strong market preference for first person.
Perhaps, of course, you write for political commentary or intellectual acclaim. Fortunately I’m a philistine, I write for cold, hard cash. I think critical acclaim comes afterwards, when you’re dead and your kids are still getting rich off the royalties and sub-rights. And I’m willing to wait.

Does that mean that you must write first person?

Not necessarily.

I’m a natural first-person writer. This is because that is the closest to how I experience the story as my subconscious core-dumps it. I.e. I get the story “told” to me and know only what the main character knows.

Yeah, I fell for the same thing y’all did. “I must write third person to be professional.” Or rather, I didn’t, but

I knew – back then – most editors had. If they saw first person, particularly if it was the same gender as the author, they assumed you were Mary Sue-ing. I knew better. For one most of my first person isn’t the same gender I am. (For another… All those of you who think I’m Athena, I had a disturbed teenage-time, but not THAT disturbed. For heaven’s sake, the woman has a natural sense of direction and spatial memory. I have neither. And I was never that self-confident.) I just get the character in my head, speaking in his/her voice.

But I had to learn to write third person to break in, and I did it.

Is it better? Is it worse?

It is DIFFERENT. There is no “right” person to write in. It’s like asking me “how long should a story be?” The answer to THAT is “as long as it needs to be” and the answer to the voice is “the voice it needs to be to tell the story.”

First person lends itself to coming of age stories and to stories that have an unreliable narrator, though the second requires a REALLY GOOD narration so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when he realizes he’s been taken along for a ride.
Third person is good for action that requires a multiple povs and a rolling narration with cameras following various
narrators.

Take my Shifter series. The action is carried by a group and they might be and often are under attack from multiple fronts. Sure I could do first person from Tom and/or Kyrie’s perspective, but you’d miss what is happening with Rafiel, except in cumbersome retelling. Easier to roll from one to the other of them, as the action leads.
Witchfinder, the novel I’m putting up for free one chapter at a time (on Friday’s) over at According to Hoyt is also the same type of narration because, again, multiple fronts, multiple characters. Same for that mater with the Musketeer Mysteries.

So… if there isn’t a right one, which one is easier?

Normally? Even though I’m a natural first person writer, third person is easier. Third person is WAY easier if you’re uncertain about the plotting, because you can show what the bad guy is doing and the pincers closing on your good guy, which helps timing. It’s much, much, much easier to do it in multiple voices.

However there are special circumstances. The last three novels I wrote were first person. I’ve been having the devil of a time with Noah’s boy, and it just hit me that I REALLY am not having a problem with the book – I’m having an issue with the different feel of switching back into third after first. THAT I can cope with. (Mostly.) It hit me because I’m having the same feeling as with Witchfinder – I’m insufficiently grounded in ANY character, is what it feels like, and it’s just because of habit established in my most recent work. Anything can become an habit.
I recommend you experiment with both third and first, and if you can become proficient at both. Kris Rusch calls this “enlarging your toolbox.” The more tools you have, the better the work you can do.

So, why limit yourself? Instead of raging at first – or third – as sloppy or unprofessional, put on the student cap, read some good examples and learn to do it. People seem to prefer first, but there’s enough bestsellers in third to show sometimes it’s needed. Just learn to use it. Refusing to is like saying “I’m a carpenter, but I’ll never use a hammer. It’s all staple guns for me.”

The one exception I’d make is second, and that’s because it annoys me as a reader. It’s a personal thing. But I’ve written a couple of shorts in second person, and it can be done. And if you’ve never done it, you should try it.
There is no right voice. There’s the right story, and the right writer.

22 comments

  1. I realize that mentioning O.S.Card is liable to bring down the ravening hordes (and not the good kind), but I found his discussion of the different “persons” and how they can be used/abused very useful. The book is _Characters and Viewpoint_.

    I used third person omniscient for a long time, then tried limited third. That took some work, because it was hard to get necessary information (or what I the author thought was necessary information) across when you only have one person’s eyes to look through. I’ve done one long-short story in first person and I’m not certain how well it worked. For that character and place, first person makes sense, but trying to do an extended book-length story? *shrug* We’ll see.

    1. I’ve got that Card book somewhere. IIRC, it’s really easy to understand what he’s trying to say and a very good explanation of viewpoint. Patricia Wrede is also really fabulous, but most of what I read of her was on rec.arts.sf.composition years and years ago. (Though she has a new how-to type book out, but I haven’t read it.)

  2. I started a book in first person and had to change to third. Most of my first person (like TXRED said) are actually in short story form. I will have to enlarge that one– I use all the POVs in poetry, depending on the poem and what I want to do with it. My angry poems sometimes end up in 2nd person.

    1. I just finished something in 2nd person. I have a suspicion the editor at [redacted] will red pencil it as “too imaginative.” (For various reasons I can’t go into more detail.)

  3. Actually… I think there’s a lot to learn from writing in different viewpoints just as an exercise. It’s a good way to see the strengths and limitations of each.

    I do get that we wannabes are often looking for the magic formula, so in that sense it’s the wrong question. If the story is really great, it doesn’t really matter what viewpoint is used, if the story is in omni, or some sort of 3rd, or if it’s in 1st. Readers usually don’t notice and often couldn’t tell you even if you asked them what they just read.

    1. It will still matter. It has to be right for the story. Most people remember my stories as first person even when they’re third, because I tend to do third-close-in.

      1. But it won’t matter for publication so much, will it? But maybe publishers really do have their preferences?

        I didn’t mean to imply that viewpoint didn’t matter to the story itself.

  4. Third person Limited, with well-defined character shifts (section breaks, with mentioning who it is at the start) seems best for me. It lets me ride along in the head and viewpoint of the character, with his thoughts and history available to me, and then when I jump to another, we can see how that viewpoint might disagree.

    If I’d been writing Omniscient, I wouldn’t have been able to have Alex’s perceptions being subtly wrong in Kiwi.

    Or can you have an unreliable narrator in an Omniscient third person? Without it being just a bad book?

  5. First person meant Mary Sue? ehhh. Besides, who cares if the MC is a wish fulfillment, if the story’s good? It sounds like another of those arcane rules that allowed publishers to disqualify manuscripts.

    1. I’m coming to the conclusion that the very best stories are all starring Mary Sue. Mary Sue is clever and powerful and has the best adventures and the sexiest boy friends. Mary Sue Saves the Universe.

        1. Yep, Mary Sue (and her male counterpart) is the insertion of the writer into the story as a character.

          She was started in a Star Trek fan-fic where the female author put herself into the Star Trek universe, out-did the established characters, and bedded James Kirk. [Smile]

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