First Person, Singular
Me that ‘ave been what I’ve been–
Me that ‘ave gone where I’ve gone —
Me that ‘ave seen what I’ve seen —
There are many reasons I prefer to read and write in first person, singular (past tense, if anyone is keeping track.)
It is not true that the first and most important of these is that by the time I came into science fiction and fantasy I was told no one — certainly no one with any professionalism — SHOULD write in first person singular.
It might count towards it that while I was in college I was told the impersonal or “camera eye” third person was the highest form of art.
Something there is in me — as mom used to say — that can’t see a well-painted wall wall without going up to scratch it and see what’s underneath.
I don’t listen well. I don’t obey well. And I love the shrieks of outrage at first person by people who, frankly couldn’t do it.
But the reasons I LIKE first person are cogent and rational. Some of them are anchored to the times we live in, and some of them are universal. There are also disadvantages of course, and some of them can be overcome with a “sufficient amount of craft.” And I’m working on that. I have overcome enough of them that my work is acceptable and even enjoyable (I presume, since books earn out) but I’m not perfect at it yet. I’m working on it, okay? Probably will be till the end of my life.
1- The main reason I like first person singular is that for a moment it tricks you into that space behind the eyes of another person, relieving the loneliness of that narrative voice that can only ever describe your own life.
This is a universal and enduring quality. I’ve had teachers tell me — and to an extent they’re right — that first person is “less believable” because you KNOW you haven’t done those things.
To which I counter that WELL done, with the right balance of external activity and internal dialogue, with just enough of a “touch of nature makes the whole world kin” i.e. of physical sensation that the readers, too, have experienced, it can make you feel it is happening/happened to you. What you’re doing, with less fraudulent (but, if you’re even worth half your salt, just as mercenary) intent than certain psychologists is creating false memories in your readers. Memories that form almost instantly, of having been someone else, in QUITE different circumstances.
There is something about hearing someone tell you their up close and personal first person story that makes it more believable. This is how we heard our first stories. “When I was young…” “When I was in a ship boarded by a German sub, during World War II…”
Me that ‘ave watched ‘arf a world
‘Eave up all shiny with dew,
Kopje on kop to the sun,
An’ as soon as the mist let ’em through
Our ‘elios winkin’ like fun —
Three sides of a ninety-mile square,
Over valleys as big as a shire —
“Are ye there? Are ye there? Are ye there?”
An’ then the blind drum of our fire . . .
And then we integrate it. We are there, with that person we can’t avoid believing, because, well, it’s first person and they should know.
2- The timely function of that effect of first person, in our time and place, is that reading and writing are really the ONLY thing that can cause that effect.
When you’re watching a movie, you’re very much from the outside, looking in. You’re seeing interesting things happen. Sure, it still messes with your memories, but mostly your memories of “I’ve seen things happen.” Like, you find that movies have corrupted your idea of how things work. You find that you end up describing bars, not as they are, but as you’ve seen them in a dozen movies. You find you end up describing Paris the way Paris has been shown to you in movies, instead of how you saw it, crossing it early morning in the dim light of autumn in a bus full of bakers and cleaning ladies heading out to their work.
But that’s “have seen” memory, not “have experienced” memory. You don’t BECOME movie heroes, even if you want to. Part of the reason Hollywood is obsessed with “What character can the reader identify with” is because movies NEED it. Otherwise they’re just impersonal reality passing before your eyes.
The same applies to camera eye third person, but NOT to close in, directed third person (more on that later.)
3- Because it allows you to lie to the reader without infuriating him. Take Athena, please (my Lord, she’s loud.) Because she is herself and she has her own blind spots due to having grown up in her culture, she can lie to the reader without playing silly buggers.
She’s not lying, you see, and by implication neither am I, even though she is an unreliable narrator who sees her world upside down and sideways, from assuming her father was attacked, to a lot of other things.
Had the book been third person, the reader would have the feeling of being lied to, because I would have had to lie to them. It would be my voice telling the story, and SURELY I knew I was telling lies. (Actually I didn’t, but that’s a natural assumption.)
Again, third person close in can overcome some of that, but it’s still difficult.
There is a reason first person close in is the preferred view point for cozy mysteries and that Agatha Christie used it so much.
Now the disadvantages of first person, singular:
1- You’re locked in a one-person viewpoint. This means if your character is not in the center of the action, you can’t be.
I experienced this in writing a book from the perspective of Zen, Kit’s sister, (Through Fire) who is a stranger on Earth. She can’t lead a revolution. She can’t even — really — live everyday life on Earth, unattended. Because she doesn’t KNOW much about Earth or its systems. The best she can do is fight for herself and those she loves.
2- First person lacks perspective. Particularly in an historical, you can’t show the macro movements of history through one, first person character. If your character gets stuck in traffic on the way to overthrowing the government, that’s what you have. And it’s frustrating and might be explody, but it’s not the macro movements of history. (Even though it’s more accurate to how most people experience revolutions.
3- If you’re a novice at plotting, you might have trouble showing the danger or the tic-toc of the plotting clock winding down, or the urgency of finding the girl/dog/bomb RIGHT now.
Note in the above I don’t include “you Mary Sue the main character.” That is a vice of all novice writers, and I haven’t found that writing first person makes you more or less prone to it.
There are ways to get around some of these, including for first, little insertions in third person. You find this in some Women In Peril work. for second and third, you can have quotes, newspapers, and friends who arrive bearing bad tidings. Not perfect, but there it is. Also, you can always have your main character caught in traffic IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION.
Note that third person close in — i.e. when each section you are in the mind of a character to such an extent you ARE that character (see, for instance, what I did in Witchfinder which, weirdly, many of the reviewers thought was first person), can overcome the issues of third-person-camera-eye and the issues of first person singular. One of the great freedoms is the ability to “jump heads.” (Though if you’re in SF/F you shouldn’t jump heads except at the end of a chapter or section, and you should indicate the jump with asterisks or ash marks separating the sections. In Romance, head jumping is expected and almost demanded by the fans.)
Third person close in is inferior to first person in ONLY one thing. It’s not as immediate and convincing. The head jumping allows for stronger plotting, but you didn’t endure the emotional arc of events with ONE person, so it’s not as much a part of you.
Writing is all about trades. And yes, there are right and wrong ways to do both first person singular and third person close in, and… — and I’ll be glad to let you partake the meager knowledge and experience I’ve accumulated so far.
But you shouldn’t write third person camera eye, unless what you’re writing is supposed to be experienced as a script. And not as lived, experienced reality.
Me that saw Barberton took
When we dropped through the clouds on their ‘ead,
An’ they ‘ove the guns over and fled —
Me that was through Di’mond ‘Ill,
An’ Pieters an’ Springs an’ Belfast —
From Dundee to Vereeniging all —
Me that stuck out to the last
(An’ five bloomin’ bars on my chest) —
Unless, of course, you are an AI camera.