In My Experience

Another week gone by, and another Tuesday here. Our own Amanda Green is taking a few weeks to power through a few things, including another book (keep an eye here for more news of that) and so Jon LaForce and I are going to be picking up the slack while she takes a much deserved break from working here to … do more … work. Yeah. Look, this is the writer’s life, which looks an awful lot like the entrepreneur’s life, but with more augury and divination. Tea leaves, for some, and coffee grounds for others. I don’t know what my LDS friends use. Maybe the dregs of a Dr. Pepper.

That said, it’s entirely possible Amanda is off boosting some priceless work of art from an infamous private collector’s personal stash, together with her hand-picked crew of safe-crackers, infil experts, CQB phenoms (for the inevitable ninja counter-assault), Hackerman devotees, and that one guy who can outdrive Mario Andretti. Now, I’m not saying that’s what she’s doing, but I’m not saying it’s not, either.

Which is one of the greatest advantages of the first person narrative, and also one its dangers. For those following along at home, I’ve been writing and releasing a chapter a week here on the MGC in a serial format. The space fantasy is told from the perspective of my main character, a war hero wrongfully imprisoned for reasons. He stumbles on an alien artifact that gifts him with mysterious and powerful abilities, and how he deals with that and ultimately the injustices perpetrated upon him. With explosions and divers alarums along the way. It’s been a lot of fun, and might even get finished. Current events have made that a bit difficult, in a lot of ways, but that’s not what I’m talking to you about, today!

Today is first person narration, and the concomitant joys and travails. The best part (in my opinion) are the cheats. The first is the immediacy. Everything is at the forefront, and the action is intimate. Your reader feels each blow your hero takes. All the senses are easy to engage, because the reader learns things as your character does. It’s the difference between steady-cam from a bird’s-eye-view, and shaky, over the shoulder following of the character through dimly lit dungeon-y environs while creepy music plays softly.

The flip side, however, is it becomes something of a challenge to impart enough data to your readers. Kinda. Okay, I’ve occasionally been accused of grandiose world-building. (Vile calumny.) Less on the Weber-esque method of jamming the equivalent of a doctoral degree in history or military theory between plot scenes, than in leaving a mess of hooks and traces of a much, much larger world than the one my characters are experiencing. This can make advancing plot, well, see, I consider it a bit of an exercise in slimming my prose. Making it all streamlined. Suffice it to say, it’s been a challenge on occasion, and the lazy route often looks like having a MC with the equivalent of several lives worth of experience and multiple post-doctoral degrees in widely disparate disciplines. Counter to that is the unfortunate tendency to make a character into merely a pawn, dragged hither and yon by the winds of plot. Find a line between the two, and walk it. Often, a first-person narration starts more toward the latter and ends more toward the former. Fortunately for us as writers and readers, there’s a goodly bit of squidge room to keep things interesting.

One minor challenge-slash-opportunity is narrative flow. Not the pacing, so much, as the tendency of FPN to be written more or less in one long take, to borrow a term from film making. Even when I end a scene with my viewpoint character left unconscious in some unconscionable state, there’s a temptation to drag the reader along with the MC into the very next thing. Only you definitely want to give your readers a pause, now and again. Too much, too quickly, and your readers get exhausted. That’s also a rough pace to maintain for your characters. They need breaks, too. Not just blanks spaces in their memories unconscious on a cold, stone floor, now and again. Too much of that, and you start to lose verisimilitude.

Finally, your FPN character is an implicitly unreliable narrator. The tighter into his head you get, the less your reader can know about the vagaries of the plot. If your viewpoint character doesn’t observe something, your reader won’t know it. No diversions to find out what the villain is up to, or jaunts into the head of another character who knows things your MC doesn’t. It’s another challenge, and occasionally a frustrating one, but it helps grow you as writer. Or it should: I’m not in your head to know, after all.

I know several fellow writers who dislike first person intensely, and enjoy several series written exclusively in first. I will say it makes me uncomfortable to write “I” so many times. Have you written in first person? What’s your experience as a reader, and a writer?

23 thoughts on “In My Experience

  1. I started off writing exclusively in 3rd person, but in recent years I’ve been writing in a 1st person/3rd person mix; 1st person because that’s the way the main character has been talking to me, 3rd person because I need to show things that my narrator couldn’t have witnessed. Haven’t had any complaints so far.

    One big advantage of 1st person is that I can let the character poke fun at herself in ways that would seem more like “author beating up on character” if written in 3rd person; another is the ability to highlight the character’s blind spots. Yes, this can be done in 3rd person via dialogue, but it’s a lot easier to slip into a 1st person narration.

    1. Nope, you don’t need to be in first person to do that; you can easily do it in close third, as internal dialog. Here’s the spot where I first discovered how to do that. (POV character is coming to after a major bender.)
      Brilliant. Get blind drunk without the sense to check whether Mikka had any freeze to stop the hangover, you knew better, and now you’re in no shape to look for it, brandy’s wearing off, skull about to burst and guts coming up any minute.

      He did manage to crawl to the head before losing it.

      Note that it doesn’t matter if the character is poking fun at or (as here) berating themselves; the point is they can do it… close third sits that near to inside their heads.

  2. My only dislike of first-person, is that certain authors use it to tell a certain type of power fantasy that caters to their neurosis. Yes, yes, you’re superior in every respect, but fate conspires against you. Got it. Have you considered therapy?

  3. I’ve managed first person once. It . . . wasn’t successful, in my opinion. One, it’s hard to stay in the character’s head for that long, two, it feels too limiting for most of my characters’ worlds. Close third person seems to fit better with the stories in my head, and the characters who ambush me and demand that their tales be told.

  4. I’m trying a first-person novel right now, a Viking saga with heavy fantasy elements. I’m not sure whether I’m doing well or not, but I guess readers will tell me!

  5. Over time I’ve developed a dislike of first person (to where if I’m paying, it’s an automatic back-on-shelf) with the exception of gumshoes, which seem weird in 3rd. The big problem with most first person is the stop-motion effect of “I did this, I did that” which a lot of the less-skilled fall into; it’s choppy and annoying. Also, 1st tends toward snark, which I’m quite tired of (outside of gumshoes, where a certain sort comes with the shoes). And the other big problem is a tendency to drop into retrospective voice for no reason, so the effect is like being told in a bar about events that happened last year, and why do I care?? (If you find yourself using “That day” to describe today’s events, you’re in retrospective voice.)

    If you’re gonna write in 1st, study the Travis McGee novels, where it’s done so transparently that afterward you may not remember which POV they use.

    1. It seems like every YA novel today is first person. Most of them very badly. What’s interesting is the books the kids read for fun are not the “popular” YA novels, and the fun books tend to be third person. YMMV, and my observation set are not typical teenagers.

      1. Worse, first person and present tense. I’ve run into writers for whom this is their natural voice, but they are rare. Usually it just comes off stiff and stilted.

  6. After a long struggle to motivate that involved writing on scraps of paper and napkins and holding onto them, I’ve been trying to reorganize, type my scraps and move forward. I’m discovering that half my snippets are in first person and half in third. Obviously I have to choose but….!! I really don’t know what’s better.

  7. I can write first person, but I find it tiring. I prefer a close third.

    Right now I’m reading a very good first person novel, and it’s leaking into the half done third-person novel I’m writing. Very irritating, when I catch myself doing it.

      1. Indeed, since there’s also a tendency for first person voices to all sound alike. It’s not a necessary trait, but it’s all too common.

  8. Not a huge fan of first person, especially as a reader. Too often one of the non-PoV characters is much more interesting/likable but I’m stuck in the head of some wanker I’d rather shove off a cliff. I like multiple PoVs (though no head hopping from paragraph to paragraph, please—keep it to one person per scene).

    As a writer, I think first person is too limiting. I want to explore different personalities and share information with the reader which wouldn’t be possible if I told the story from just one PoV. I like showing what the bad guys are up to and show how their minds work. That being said, I have considered using first person for a couple of books I’m likely to write in the future. The jury is still out, though. I have lots of stories in my head.

  9. I’ll read a fair first-person story before I’ll pick up a better third-person story, for whatever values of “better” you care to use.

  10. I prefer first-person because most likely the narrator will live through the end of the book. I really hate investing so much emotion with a character, only to find out that he or she dies in the end. It’s just a personal thing with me, I know …

    1. Well, there was a first-person (or tight third-person) where the main-character did die at the end.

      The author was puzzled by the readers who wondered if she’d come back.

      IE The last scene that featured her “fade-to-black” had her wizard friend trying to save her. 😉

  11. I once read a tight third-person novel where the author killed his first protagonist about 1/3 of the way through the book. I think that chapter ended with a cannonball and a partial sentence. I was old enough to have internalized, “No matter how much danger the hero’s in, he always lives at least until the end of the book,” so it made an impression on me.

  12. 1st Person is my one true love. I wrote all of my early books in it.
    However, a LOT of people do not like first person, and I will admit that it makes certain things very difficult to portray.
    So I started writing in 3rd person. I probably write a lot more in 3rd these days than I do in first and switching back and forth can be difficult. Especially as one of my more popular series that I revisit often is 1st person, while my biggest series is 3rd.
    What’s also interesting is that some folks only like 3rd person single point of view stories and get quite upset if you head jump (which is really the entire purpose of 3rd person – IMHO) but they don’t like FPS either.
    But if you want a real challenge, write something in Second Person. Oh yeah, that’ll mess you up!

    1. So you picked up this new novel everyone’s raving about, and the durn thing is written in second person. How can you read that? No one could. You plop down at your keyboard intent on writing a diatribe but the words just won’t flow. Eventually you kick over your computer and go for a walk, muttering at random strangers about how there’s so little difference that you can barely tell second person from first.

  13. Your LDS friends are probably rechecking their books of prophecy (They have a couple, you know). That’s not much help for authors of fiction (Although I have seen a whole bunch of romances and a few each of spy thrillers and time travel stories from them), but for current events, there’s a whole lot of “I’ve read this story, or one a lot like it” going on.

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