Monday, June 02, 2008

First Person POV, Redux

So I'm reading David Morrell's The Successful Novelist, and I love it. He knows his stuff. DEFINITELY worth a look-see, even if you don't read many how-to-write books. He writes about writing practically, kinda in the way Stephen King did.

I was, however, surprised at some of his thoughts on first person.

I agree with most of what he said. I believe it's much easier to write badly in first person than in other POVs, and I agree with most everything he said. I disagree with a couple things, and I think he missed the boat on the whole point of First Person.

First, he says that every first person protagonist needs a reason for spending the months or year to write down their story. The protagonist needs a reason for telling their story, like ... in Morrell's first-person novel, the protagonist is journaling for his counselor or something. (I haven't read it, that's just what Morrell said.)

He gives the example that one writer prefaces his first person novels with a fictional letter from a lawyer, saying that now that the protagonist is dead, he wanted his journals published.

99.9% of the first person novels I've read have not had some such manufactured reason. For me, the above would feel too manufactured.

The boat he missed is the experience of the reader when reading first person. Like I've frustrated before, I don't know the minds of other readers; I can only surmise from my experience.

But the experience of reading first person, for me, is a closer way to experience the story as if I'm the protagonist, almost as if I'm living the story. I'm completely in the mind of the protagonist, and I see, feel, hear the story as if I'm the protagonist. 

It's the difference between watching the story and feeling like I'm the one living the adventure.

To me, the closer I can get to taking my readers on a vicarious life experience, the better. Even close third person is a little more distant than first person. We get over it, but it's more distant.

Some readers are vehemently put off by first person. I don't know why. Doesn't matter. If you're writing in first person, you're not writing for that reader, LOL.

Morrell makes a GREAT point about the "I" factor. When writing in first person, I make a game of seeing how long I can write without using the word "I."  The "I" can be incredibly annoying.

He also makes a great point about it being easier to slip into "telling" in first person, as opposed to "showing."

But I also disagreed when he said that in a thriller, first person takes the suspense away, because the reader knows the protagonist lived to tell the story, because you're reading it.

I disagree with that statement, mostly because the type of reader I'm writing for expects that all is going to end well. They already know the protagonist is going to live, because those are the standards of the genre. Yeah, sometimes, you can take the happy ending away. At your peril.

Typically, though, it's a given the protagonist is going to survive. So knowing that fact because they're using first person is not, in my opinion, going to make a difference in the level of tension in your story.

Just my thoughts, though. What do you think? Agree, disagree? Thoughts on first person? Do you enjoy reading it?

And how does your experience of reading third person differ from your experience of reading first person?

19 bonus scribbles:

Mark Terry 6/02/2008 06:02:00 PM  

I thought Morrell's book was good, but I really disagree with him and his view on first person. I would also argue that the book he did write in the first person felt stilted. I don't think he's comfortable with first-person.

I agree with you, very much so, that one of the great things about first person is that the reader becomes the narrator in a way they don't with the third person.

I've never felt that the first person was supposed to actually be some guy at a bar telling the story or a best friend or even journaling. It just is and I don't worry about it. I feel like Morrell's getting too intellectual when he was criticizing the first person.

That said, I think one of the problems with first person is it's so easy to write that a lot of people do it poorly.


I know you're a fan of Barry Eisler, and so am I, I guess, but I've often been puzzled why he chose the first person for his book. Maybe because the character would just be too bad if you didn't get in his head.

spyscribbler 6/02/2008 06:50:00 PM  

You know, it was interesting when Lee Child switched to third person. I don't know the order of his books, so I don't know if he switches back and forth, or if he's permanently moved to third.

He had a stilted voice in third, at first, although it's gotten better. (Again, I didn't read in order, so take with a grain of salt.) I loved his first person. He's one of my idols when it comes to how to write first person.

Yeah, I love the John Rain series. I don't know, of course, but I think the first person sort of emphasizes Rain's aloneness in the world, his constant vigilance and sort of him vs. the world thing. We don't really need another viewpoint, and how he thinks is so interesting and different from how the normal person thinks, that that might be a reason for first.

I was a little disappointed when he started mixing in third. It's okay, and he's not stilted in it, so that's good.

conley730 6/02/2008 08:46:00 PM  

I'm reading Odd Thomas right now by Dean Koontz. It's first person. You also know the protagonist is dead from the get go. He tells you so within the first few pages. To me I don't care if a book is written in first or third person as long as it's written well. I know people, like you said, that absolutely will not read first person. I guess that's their loss!

StarvingWriteNow 6/02/2008 09:04:00 PM  

Well, for heaven's sake, if the protagonist didn't survive, what would be the point in reading it? I mean, I wouldn't care what happened to them.

For me first person, when done well, puts me in a very intimate spot next to the author/main character. I love this feeling, like I'm in on all the secrets.

Zoe Winters 6/02/2008 09:11:00 PM  

I totally agree with what you're saying. It's like a vicarious experience, that's what makes first person so great. I hadn't really been able to put my finger on what it was about first person besides that it was more intimate, but that's it.

Also, I agree about not killing your tension because we know the character lived. Even if it wasn't romance where a happily ever after is an expected feature of the genre, in the vast majority of genres people get pissed off when you kill the protagonist. There are very few exceptions to this rule.

I think a book can be well crafted and good and kill the main character, but I think for most books you want to not kill them off.

I also agree with you on the manufactured beginning thing. That's completely unnecessary and is actually a little jolting.

Anissa 6/02/2008 10:00:00 PM  

I'm a big fan of first person. I find it so much easier to lose myself in the story's world when it is utilized.

Personally, I prefer to write in first person as well. At least thus far. It seems my main character comes to me first with her story to tell. I like the challenge of conveying the entire story through the one viewpoint.

Stephen Parrish 6/02/2008 11:48:00 PM  

I like first person for the reasons you cited. I like getting inside the character's head, watching the story through the character's eyes. "I" repetition doesn't bother me much; it's what we use to tell stories about ourselves.

Knocking first person seems to have become a trend in the last twenty years or so. The trend might be fueling itself. More and more I hear from or about agents and editors who don't want to see first person manuscripts and I wonder how Hemingway would break in today.

Edie 6/03/2008 09:25:00 AM  

I agree with everything you've said about first person, though I don't write first person. I see people on writers loops saying they hate first person. Maybe because they're so used to reading third person. But we're not just readers, we're writers. It's good to read something different and stretch our minds and our skills.

Karen Olson 6/03/2008 10:38:00 AM  

Michael Connelly went to first person for at least one of the Harry Bosch books, but then back to third. I think it's all up to the author, what he/she's comfortable writing. I like first person, but the advantage to third is that you can have multiple POVs. I don't like first person books that speckle the narrative with chapters in third person just to get another POV in there.

R.J. Keller 6/03/2008 02:16:00 PM  

I've been seeing a lot of anti-first person sentiment recently, and I don't understand it. Like anything else in writing, if it doesn't work it's not the technique itself that's flawed, but the execution.

As a reader, I've always been drawn to the immediacy of first person, and it irritates me when the author needs to find a "reason" for using it. It intrudes on the storytelling.

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 08:56:00 PM  

Conley, I missed that one (used to be a HUGE Dean Koontz fan, back when he was Dean R. Koontz), and I really want to read it.

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 08:57:00 PM  

Writenow, me too! I'm one of those readers who isn't real happy when I don't get a happy ending.

And you're so right about the feeling of being in on the secrets!

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 09:00:00 PM  

Vicarious, yes, Zoe, that's my experience, too. I don't like seeing the protagonist die. I mean, I cared enough to read about him for so many hours ...

In rare instances, I didn't mind it, especially when it still feels like a happy ending. Therese Fowler's Souvenir and Erica Orloff's Do You Wear High Heels to Heaven come to mind.

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 09:01:00 PM  

Anissa, I love that challenge, too. It really forces me to show other viewpoints, without telling. I'm a huge fan of thrillers written in the first person, too.

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 09:01:00 PM  

Stephen, I always wonder where the passionate feelings come from, because people who hate first person are pretty vehement about it. It's curious.

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 09:03:00 PM  

This is true, Edie. Very good advice!

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 09:06:00 PM  

Karen, I have that preference, too. It feels like ... cheating. It feels clumsy to me. I did do it once in a short story, and I tried it in a novella (but I rewrote it in third). I don't know.

It sorta feels to me like the author couldn't make first work, so he wrote a third person scene to fill in a plot hole or motivation hole or something. I really don't know why I feel that way. I just don't seem to like it much. I can't really pinpoint why.

What about you?

spyscribbler 6/03/2008 09:07:00 PM  

"Like anything else in writing, if it doesn't work it's not the technique itself that's flawed, but the execution."

Exactly, R.J.! Yes! So true. I agree about the immediacy. There's no need for the reason, because the reader is just there, just reading it.

Like Mark said, "It just is."

Zoe Winters 6/04/2008 01:09:00 PM  

Right, I think if a character dies, but reincarnates or becomes a vampire, or goes to heaven, or something similar, we're okay with it. Possibly because one of the greatest human fears for most people is "nothingness," "ceasing to exist." And so when a character we've identified with just dies and we dont' know "where they went" or if they just ceased existing, I think it brings up those anxieties.

Real life is scary and hard enough. We need characters to have happy endings, the good guys to win (unless we've got a case where the bad guys are sympathetic and really more noble than the so-called good guys), we need immortality and people to come out on top.

A character dying, I think except in very very rare cases is completely anti thetical to the reason most of us read in the first place. If we wanted gross, icky, ugly reality, we'd go sit in a morgue or an ER for a few hours.