Friday, March 16, 2012

Thoughts on First Person

I've noticed there seems to be an ever growing trend of first person stories coming out lately. Especially in the urban fantasy genre. It's rather difficult to find one that isn't in first person in that neck of the literary woods. I find it a bit disconcerting. I'm not a big fan of first person story telling. I'm not saying that anyone is less of a writer or not as talented if they choose to write their story in first person. It is simply opinion and nothing else. However, I am also of the opinion that too many authors don't really appreciate what they need to bring to the table when they choose to write their story in first person. I also believe it should be a choice. First person should not be the default format for every story. I really do feel that third person narration should be the automatic go to and first person considered only if it brings something extra to the storytelling.

One thing I don't think all authors consider with first person context is if you decide to go with that format, you as the author must disappear from your story entirely. You must transform yourself into the narrative character and tell the story the way your character would tell it, not the way you would tell it.

If you plan on writing more than one series and they are all in first person, then you better adopt different writing styles for each one because you are supposed to be pretending to be different people.

An absolutely fantastic example of this is James Howe's Bunnicula series. I know, it's a mid grade reader, but I loved these books as a kid. The stories are told by Harold, who happens to be a dog. Because of a brilliant premise on how the story is introduced by the author, there is not a single sentence in where you think the story is written by anyone else but the dog. There is no sense of the author himself anywhere in the book once the story begins.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I recently read Jim Butcher's first book in his Dresden Files series. This is a very popular series with even its own graphic novel and tv show. I did not really enjoy this book. I felt the entire time the author was in the background waving at me "I'm here, this is my story! Dresden is me!" So I really never got the sense of Dresden as his own character in this book. It just felt like the author put himself in the story and he just wouldn't stop talking to me. It never felt like I was actually listening to Dresden tell me his story. This series has several books in it by now. I wouldn't be surprised if the writing style has improved since then. But for first person, this first book just does not fly.

So when writing a first person story, it's important to keep in mind that you, the author, are not the one telling the story. The voice must belong to your character and you need to disappear from the narration completely.

Secondly, I highly suggest taking the time to ask yourself if the first person is necessary. Is there something that first person brings to the storytelling that your book would lose if you kept it in third person narrative?

A great example of this is John Dies at the End. This book would absolutely not be the same if not told in first person from David's point of view. Part of the fear is knowing only what David knows and unraveling the horror as he does. The humor comes from how David relays these terrifying events back to us with more personality than normal narration could ever achieve. It's funny as hell. This book definitely wouldn't be as good if told in third person.

That's pretty much the deciding factor. Is the main character's first person account of the book's events going to give the reader a better experience than normal narration? And also, as a writer can you distinguish between your own voice and the voice of your character when writing the story? They're important things to think about when developing your story and, I fear, not as many authors consider this as they should.

Cons of Writing in First Person:

1. The reader misses out on scenes that don't involve the main character. I absolutely hate it when something good happens and I don't get to be there because I'm stuck with one character and I can only know what they know.

In Nancy Haddock's La Vida Vampire, scenes not involving the narrating character were just told in third person. How does that work? First person is the character telling you what happened from their personal experience. It's like reading a diary. You can't just add a scene in a different format in the middle of your story. I really don't know how that author got away with that and still got published. If you absolutely have to have scenes without the main character in it, the entire book should be in third person.

2.The reader can get tired of the main character. I love Patricia Briggs' writing style, but I really wish her Mercy Thompson novels weren't in first person. Not only is it guilty of con number one, having cool scenes we never get to see because Mercy isn't present for them. I also get so sick of Mercy yapping at me. The more books I read, the less I like her character. The writing style is lovely, the plots are interesting, but I'm so sick of having that main character in every single scene. She's pushy, stubborn, and proud. After a while, she gets annoying. I'm dying to have some scenes without her in them just to get a break from her. I love the rest of the cast. I'd love to see what they do when she's not around.

3.It is difficult to develop any other characters beside the main character. Nor do we get an unbiased view of them. It's pretty much the main character and then everyone else is just background noise. We're expected to hate and love the characters the narrator hates and loves and we don't really get a chance to see the lives of anyone else which is unfortunate if the main character is not your favorite person on the book.

4.Sex scenes. Maybe this is just my opinion, but there is nothing more uncomfortable than reading a sex scene in first person. I don't believe I'm being too prudish about this. I don't mind sensuality in my novels. But I really don't want the equivalent of a stranger sitting next to me at the bus stop telling me about their wild night blow by blow. I'm looking at you, Charlaine Harris. Yours is the first book that ever made me actually sick to my stomach from first person smut.

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