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?