Monday 13 October 2014

The Problems of First Person Narrative

There are many articles about which is better when writing fiction, 1st or 3rd person. And most of the time they end up making quite generic points and then put the decision back in the hands of the writer without any real reason to choose one over the other.

The two main points tend to be: 1) Both can be made to work if handled appropriately (which, frankly, could be said about anything) and 2) 1st is trickier to get right than 3rd

Which is true, yet most first time writers are drawn to 1st person, while the majority of published books are written in 3rd. So why is it trickier to writer in first person? And how can you overcome these difficulties?

Like any story the key is to make it interesting. For events to be worth telling, and for the characters to act and react in ways that hold the reader’s attention. But with first person you have an added issue, and that’s that a person talking about themselves can come across as narcissistic and even arrogant. 

Let me tell you my story. I’m going to tell you what happened to me and it’s just fascinating. You just listen.

Of course it’s never presented like that (well, not intentionally), but it’s very easy for it to feel like that to the person on the receiving end, especially if the storyteller doesn't immediately provide proof of just how great a story it's going to be.

A story might require you to feel sympathetic towards a character, usually by having tragedy befall them, and if the character is the one telling you what happened it can come across as self-pity or even whining. Neither of which are particularly attractive. Similarly, if they’re telling you about how they beat the bad guys and won the day it can seem boastful or conceited.

Consider, if I tell you how great Bob’s been even though he’s suffered so much I can make him seem awesome. His wife died of cancer and he lost his job, but he didn’t fall apart, he took care of his kids and started his own business. What a guy! But if Bob tells you himself about how great he’s been despite all the problems he’s faced, it takes on a somewhat different vibe. He can’t be as full of admiration for himself as I could without coming across as an ass, dead wife or no. 

This shift in sensibility is something we all use in real life. We know we can’t talk about ourselves the same way we would talk about someone else, and a character in a first person narrative is no different. But they still need to get across key information and evoke certain emotional responses for the sake of the story. 

In some cases you can get away with it if the events in the story are dramatic enough. Once the reader is caught up in what’s happening they won’t really care too much about how self-obsessed the character is, much as in real life. If you’re really interested in what the blowhard at the party is telling you, you won’t mind so much that he’s dominating the conversation and not letting you get a word in edgeways. But this approach can easily slip into overblown melodrama (which is fine if that’s what you happen to be writing).

Balancing the need for the character to talk about themselves as though they’re the most important person in the world (which indeed they are as far as the book’s concerned) with the need for the story to live up to that is the tricky part. Fast moving thrillers and intense emotional romances that quickly get the reader into the meat of the action can ride roughshod over these sorts of concerns. 

But in some stories not much might be happening, or at least it might not seem all that big of a deal, especially at the start of the story when you first meet the character.  At these times first person narrative can seem egotistical and self-obsessed. 

The writer might think it’s obvious the story is headed somewhere interesting and exciting, otherwise why would they have put it down on paper? But that’s the thing about a person telling their own story. We often meet people who think their life is much more interesting than it actually is. People who believe they should write a memoir because they lived through a particular time. Or people who think what happened to them at work was hilarious and you’ll think so to when they finish telling you all about it. And sometimes they’re right. And sometimes a person’s holiday videos really are worth watching. Usually they aren’t. It’s just a natural human instinct to be wary of the person keen to put themselves front and centre.

On the other hand, if another person wants to tell you about what happened to the main character in the story, there’s a feeling of, well, if this person found it interesting enough to want to tell others, maybe I should find out more. If Dave want you to check out his holiday snaps you might smile politely and hope he forgets. If I tell you you have to check out Dave’s holiday snaps then you’re interest will be piqued. This feeling could be completely wrong. I could just be a big fan of boring holiday photos, but the natural human instinct is to be more open to give this (third person) approach a chance. You know why Dave’s a fan of his own photos, but what made me a fan?

This difference between these two viewpoints is the difference inherent between 1st and 3rd. It is in no way an insurmountable issue. But it helps to be aware of this distinction. 

And how do you deal with it? In most cases it’s a matter of making sure things are kept interesting and moving along at a reasonable pace. But when events aren’t quite so involved, or they could be seen as self-indulgent, a simple solution is to remove the focus on the character and place it on what they’re doing.

You can do this by removing words like I, me and my from the story. This may seem overly simplistic, but it’s similar to the way in a movie you know that when Tom Cruise is fighting an alien or Julia Roberts is trying on dresses that there’s also a cameraman standing there, you just don’t think about it because you’re seeing what the camera’s seeing.

So instead of saying, I visited Sheila at the diner where she worked. She said hadn’t seen Mike since he’d gotten out... you can say something like, Sheila worked at the diner on the corner. She said she hadn’t seen Mike since he’d gotten out...
Obviously you can’t do this all the time, but for those scenes where it seems like the main character is getting in the way of their own story it’s a useful technique. Sometimes it can be quite straightforward to remove self-referential pronouns but sometimes it can seem impossible. At these times just reducing the number or moving them to later in the sentence structure can be as effective.

The idea is to get the reader to the point where they so are engaged with the story that when the narrator reveals himself they only want to know more about what’s going on.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Shift in sensibility - good point.
If I ever attempt first person, I'll try the trick of removing most of the I's and me's from the story and see what happens.

Unknown said...

First person is difficult for me because I always end up putting myself in the story. The I decided if I'm going to try first person, I should write a memoir! lol

Murees Dupè said...

I write from the first person point of view so this was really helpful, thank you.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I haven't the confidence to try 1st person. So often I find myself not really liking the protagonist in 1st person for just the reasons you point out. They're whiny and who wants to read that?

mooderino said...

@Alex - you don't have to remove all of them but early on makes a big difference, i think.

@Diane - well, if it's about you might as well make it official.

@Murees - yvw

@Susan - having said that there are plenty of examples where even whiners can be engaging, just not very easy to pull off.

Sarah Allen said...

Fabulous post, as always. I'm currently working in 1st person, but since its YA I think that's actually more the norm than in most other genres. My first book was an adult novel in 3rd, so maybe I'm going backwards here :D Both have been fun and presented their own unique challenges, as you say. Great tips on handling it!

Sarah Allen
(Writing Blog)

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

As always, I'm opposite everyone else. I started out as a 3rd person writer and transitioned to first where I've stayed. I love the closeness I feel with my character in first.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have written in both 1st person and 3rd narrative. I enjoyed both, though I found the first person narrative easier.

Hannah Spencer said...

Hannah Spencer15 October 2014 14:31
I have used first and third person in the same story to differentiate between the same person in different lifetimes. I have also used first person in a story with two points of view, to merge the characters. I think first person can be a very powerful tool, especially for more speculative stories.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

There are no problems with first person. Anyone that writes in it is perfect as it is perfect writing.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - YA does seem to favour first. Possibly a younger audience are more ready to inhabit the main character directly.

@Mac - that is a major plus when writing in first. You never have to worry about who the story's about, that's for sure.

@Rachna - I think it's easier to get into for the writer, although that doesn't always translate to easier for the reader.. As always, if it's done well then it will work whatever the viewpoint.

@Hannah - I think first person can be a powerful too aswell. i don't think that's in question, it's more a matter of what it takes to use that tool effectively.

@Mike - Lol. You make an excellent point not based on anything but objective logic.

Chemist Ken said...

I've found too many authors like to write in first person because (they think) it allows them to get away with more telling. "It's the MC thinking about what they see, so it must be showing."

I asked my 14 y.o. daughter which she liked the best, and she said 3rd person. She doesn't mind 1st person if she likes the MC, but if not, she admits it can be tiring to spend an entire book in the mind of someone who doesn't think like she does.

mooderino said...

@Ken - when it works it works great, just hard to get broad appeal for the very reason your daughter gave.

Unknown said...

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keli said...

So true, I totally agree with your daughter!

Unknown said...

A really helpful and well written post. Thank you 🙂

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