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Monday, August 10, 2015

Pros and Cons of First Person, How to Deflate the Cons




By request (you can thank anonymous), I'm going to do some blog posts on points of view, talking about the pros and cons, and how to get around some of the cons. I'll be pulling from two sources, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress and Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. They are both good books to have for those learning the craft of writing, and they should be easy to remember since their titles are nearly identical. I like how the authors explain point of view in those books the best. They go in depth.

Now, there is a reason I'm pulling from those texts. There has been so much that has already been said on point of view that I didn't think I had anything new to add, but when I started putting this post together, I realized I did. Some of my opinions on point of view are different from the general rules. So, in this post, I'll list the general rules and then my own opinions on them after.

But let's start with the basics.

There are three points of view:

First-person: I thought I was going crazy.
Second-person: You thought you were going crazy.
Third-person: She thought she was going crazy.

Please note that narratives are hardly ever written in second-person point of view, but it has been done, by authors like Jay McInerney.  You usually see second-person in other forms of writing, like role-playing games or do-it-yourself books. Most novels and short stories are written in first-person or third-person.

Today, let's talk about the common pros and cons of first-person, and then I will go and debunk a lot of those with my own personal opinion and tell you ways you can get around some of them.


First-Person


I thought I was going crazy.

When using first-person, you are telling the story as a character. Usually that's the protagonist (not always, for example, Sherlock Holmes is written from Watson's viewpoint, but Holmes is the main character, but that's the exception rather than the rule). This means the prose will be rendered in the character's voice. I did a couple of posts on character voice that you can read here and here

It's more than simply using the pronoun "I." You have to constantly be in character of your viewpoint character.



Pros


  • The reader will get very close to your viewpoint character because the whole story is told from his point of view. Think about it. Your reader is basically slipping on the body and mind of your character. Can you get more personal than that? With Twilight, many readers fall in love with Edward because we are reading about him from Bella's point of view. It makes a better love story from Bella's point of view. First-person can be powerful in coloring the reader's thoughts and feelings about people and experiences in the story. 
  • If your character has a very entertaining or eccentric voice and/or interesting or insightful views on life, the story will be more engaging in her point of view. 
  • This isn't so much a pro as it is a perk, an option, but you can play with making your narrator unreliable, which is fun. Your character is lying to the audience or herself. (But I would argue that you can still get this effect in third-person, which I'll talk about another day)
  • Move more easily between memory, flashbacks, and opinions. Since we are always in the character's mind, it's easy to render memories, flashbacks, and opinions, because people's thoughts naturally slip into them.

Cons


  • Your story is limited to what your viewpoint character experiences or hears, which means that your viewpoint character needs to be in all the key scenes of the story. The reader will only know what your character does, will only notice what your character notices.
  • It's difficult to switch between multiple viewpoint characters. First-person best lends itself to one viewpoint character. You can get away with switching between two or maybe even three viewpoint characters, but for most stories, you don't want to go beyond that. Every time you switch viewpoint characters, you need to clue the reader into it, so you might say: "Chapter 1 / Alec," "Chapter 2 / Jennifer." Again, each viewpoint needs to be in character--in the voice of that character. A couple of years ago I read a popular series (told in first-person with two viewpoint characters) and one of its biggest weaknesses is that each character had the exact same voice. There was no differentiation. That's a weak way of using first-person.
  • If your character has a voice and attitude that's unlikeable, your readers won't want to read 300+ pages colored by their viewpoint.
  • Your viewpoint character can't die. The fact she is telling the story means she survived the events of the story.
  • Your character must be writing about the past, because he's written all the events in the story, so first-person doesn't feel as immediate. Also, that means your viewpoint character already knows how the story will end. So, you can lose some tension in the story.
  • Your character must be the type of person who would tell the story in the first place, if you are truly writing from their viewpoint.
  • It's artificial. No one has ever told their story in perfect details, while remembering what people said perfectly. No one has ever sat down and told their own story in 6-12 hours (300+ pages) to someone.
  • When writing about emotional experiences in character, you have to ask yourself how coherent your character would be. Would she be able to properly tell what happened? How well? with how much detail? How do you get around that if she isn't?
  • You can't withhold information and thoughts that your character knows at that time. The reader should always be privy to what your character is thinking about at an important point of the plot. That's one of the reasons we use first-person to begin with.

Pitfalls


  • New writers tend to choose first-person to (subconsciously) hide weaknesses in their writing. They think it's easier to write first-person; since the character is telling the story, they can break all the stylistic writing "rules"--like avoiding to-be verbs. They think they can write it however they want because it's just the character telling the story. The truth is, if you are trying to do first-person right, it's just as difficult and sometimes more difficult than third-person. Like Orson Scott Card says, if first-person isn't revealing who your character is, then it isn't worth doing.

Okay, let's get back to the cons. A lot of them are just silly, and some of them you can break the rules on, if you know how to break them well. So, here is my personal take on the common cons.


Cons (Debunked or Deflated)



  • Your story is limited to what your viewpoint character experiences or hears, which means that your viewpoint character needs to be in all the key scenes of the story. The reader will only know what your character does, will only notice what your character notices.
This is true, to an extent. Some important scenes can be told to the viewpoint character, later. In Catching Fire, Katniss is left in the dark about the most important part of the book: that there is an alliance working to save her in the 75th Hunger Games. Of course, it's almost always most powerful to have the viewpoint character present.

The second part is true in many instances too, but the reality is you can write first-person in a way that allows the reader to pick up on things that the viewpoint character doesn't. It's called subtext, people. It takes talent to do it, but rest assured that your reader can know more than your character even if the story is all in first-person. Sure, the reader can't notice things the viewpoint character doesn't see/hear/taste/smell (because if the viewpoint character doesn't notice it at all, then it won't be written, since it's all written from her point of view), but the reader can notice (deduce) more about what's mentioned than the viewpoint character does.

For example, in Catching Fire, Plutarch shows Katniss a Mockingjay symbol. Katniss and the reader see the same thing. Katniss doesn't catch onto the fact that Plutarch is saying he's on her side, but if Collins had made the subtext a little stronger at that part, the reader would have. It's all about subtext, baby.

Learn how to write subtext here.

  • It's difficult to switch between multiple viewpoint characters. First-person best lends itself to one viewpoint character. You can get away with switching between two or maybe even three viewpoint characters, but for most stories, you don't want to go beyond that. Every time you switch viewpoint characters, you need to clue the reader into it, so you might say: "Chapter 1 / Alec," "Chapter 2 / Jennifer." Again, each viewpoint needs to be in character--in the voice of that character. A couple of years ago I read a popular series (told in first-person with two viewpoint characters) and one of its biggest weaknesses is that each character had the exact same voice. There was no differentiation. That's a weak way of using first-person.
Overall, this is true. If you are going to have a lot of different viewpoints in your story, chances are you'll want to write it in third-person. But it has been done in first-person in books like The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. That novel has a lot of viewpoint characters. Note though that the Bronx Masquerade is more focused on capturing a setting and community rather than a plot. You wouldn't want to do this with something like Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, a story that has a complex plot and a lot of viewpoint characters.



Again, keep in mind that every viewpoint character you add is a whole new voice and attitude that the story has to be told through. They need to be distinct from each other.

  • If your character has a voice and attitude that's unlikeable, your readers won't want to read 300+ pages colored by their viewpoint.
This is true, but note that an unlikeable voice and attitude is different than a character having dominant, negative qualities. You can have an awful person as a viewpoint character and still make his voice and attitude as likeable as heck. It is possible to make awful people into entertaining narrators. Hey, just pick up any of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The stories all revolve around the protagonist's "wimpy" character qualities, but his voice and attitude are mucho entertaining. The author uses a lot of subtext to make it that way. 

To learn how to make unlikeable people into likeable characters, check out this post.




Another option is to pick a different viewpoint character. Sherlock's viewpoint would have been very arrogant and intellectual. As the audience, we wouldn't be able to keep up with him. So, instead, the stories are told in Watson's point of view, so we admire Sherlock and can relate to Watson. Sherlock is the protagonist. Watson is the viewpoint character. Keep in mind though that this is rarely the best option of telling a story. Most professional writers would advise you to make the protagonist the viewpoint character. Still, there are reasons for breaking that rule, and you have to have good reasons, and nice writing skills.

  • Your viewpoint character can't die. The fact she is telling the story means she survived the events of the story.
I get where this one comes from. It goes back to the idea that your character is an actual person writing down or telling her story, which means she has to be alive. And then the other challenge with doing this, is, how do you render a first-person account of dying? And do it well? And if the character doesn't die at the denouement then how do you finish the story if she's dead?




For the first point, I feel like most readers don't take the validity of first-person to that extreme. I mean, they know it's a fictional story. And if the character dies, I honestly don't think the reader is going to feel like the story is unrealistic for being told in first-person. Personally (again, let me emphasize this as my own opinion), I don't have a problem with the idea of having the narrator telling the story from beyond the grave, if we are going to question the reality of the viewpoint character to that extreme. Heck, if it fits the type of story you are telling, I don't have a problem with you following them beyond their death.

For the second point, I feel like if you know how to write well, you'll figure out how to write the death of a first-person narrator well. Go look at some examples to see how professional writers have done it. If the character needs to die before the story is all tied up, then get a different first-person narrator to do it. Some will say that doing that makes the story feel disjointed, but guess what? That's what it's actually like when someone does die. They aren't here to tell the rest of the story. They're gone. Others are left to tie up their loose ends. Maybe it does feel disjointed. But maybe the pros for having your character die outweigh the cons of the narration feeling a bit disjointed. Writing is often a give and take.

Also, if you don't like that transition, you can structure the story with two viewpoint characters and have the living one finish the story.

But honestly, guys, if having your first-person narrator die actually makes a better story, then by all means, go for it. Yeah, it won't be all smooth sailing, but surely the story itself is more important than a few bumps in the narration.

A more important question to ask is, should this very significant character die? And should he die at this point in the story? And how will your readers feel about it? But that's a whole other topic.

  • Your character must be writing about the past, because he's written all the events in the story, so first-person doesn't feel as immediate. Also, that means your viewpoint character already knows how the story will end. So, you can lose some tension in the story.
Your viewpoint character might know how the story ends, but the reader doesn't have to. I get the immediacy problem. Admittedly, if it's told in first-person present tense, like The Hunger Games, it feels more immediate to me--like it's happening as I read it--than it does in first-person past tense. In first-person past tense, it does feel a bit more removed. First-person present makes me feel like the character is telling the story as it happens. But please don't choose your tense solely on that. First-person present-tense has kind of an unusual feel to it because it hasn't been used very much, and some stories are stronger in a more traditional past-tense. That's one reason why I like futuristic stories in present-tense and past or more traditional story in past-tense. That's just my opinion.

  • Your character must be the type of person who would tell the story in the first place, if you are truly writing from their viewpoint.
Again, I don't think most readers think or care about this, but I get the argument. 

  • It's artificial. No one has ever told their story with that much detail, while remembering what people said perfectly. No one has ever sat down and told their own story in 6-12 hours (300+ pages) to someone.
I feel like most readers accept that first-person isn't completely realistic. I honestly don't feel like it will stop readers from reading your story.

  • When writing about emotional experiences in character, you have to ask yourself how coherent your character would be. Would she be able to properly tell what happened? How well? with how much detail? How do you get around that if she isn't?
While I understand and agree with this concern for the most part, I think there are more important concerns. I mean, if we are admitting that first-person is artificial, then I think it's fine to bend this rule a bit for the sake of the story. Tell the reader what he needs to know. but keep it in the voice of the character.

  • You can't withhold information and thoughts that your character knows at that time. The reader should always be privy to what your character is thinking about an important point of the plot. That's one of the reasons we use first-person to begin with.
Sure, this is a writing rule, and one that beginning writers should follow, but the truth is, this rule has been broken like all other rules. In Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins keeps Katniss's thoughts and opinions very ambiguous in a crucial part of the story--a part that could completely reshape people's opinions of Katniss's character. Because of that, I've gotten in several discussions with people about Katniss's character in that scene and what she really thought and meant. Suzanne Collins didn't do that on accident. She broke the rules on purpose to create the effect she was going for. So, follow this writing rule and if you decide to break it, do so intentionally. 


Closing


So those are some of my thoughts on first-person point of view. People have gone into way more depth than I can for my blog posts. That's why there are actual books written on the topic. On another day, I'll look at the pros and cons of third-person.




6 comments:

  1. "No one has ever sat down and told their own story in 6-12 hours (300+ pages) to someone." Excuse me? Isn't that exactly how a character's memoirs or as-told-to autobiography are written? Also, they may not know something at the time, but may learn about it before telling their story, thus coloring the tale differently than if they wrote it at the time.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, they are. CHARACTERS do that. Have you ever met a *real* person in the *real* world who has done that? Sat down and told (verbally) you (in person) their autobiography for 6-12 hours? That's what I mean by artificial.

      Thanks for your comment. I assume you read my whole post, which would have indicated that I think this argument is unimportant (I even think it's kind of stupid). It's not something *I* have a problem with; it's something *other people* in the writing world have a problem with.

      Delete
  2. You raise interesting questions and defend your opinions well. I write in first- person, present-tense. I find it easy to slip into my main character. I use third-person, present-tense for the other main character. He sees her and we his impressions of the situations as well as his agenda.

    My mistake was writing a series from three different sets of main characters. Aparrently the reader only wants to follow one couple. Oh, look at me, breaking a rule!

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    Replies
    1. I love a good ol' broken rule. As long as it's broken well and with purpose ^_^

      But yes, it is true that the reader usually only once one or two sets of main characters.

      Delete
  3. I'm aware this was not your intention but it sounds like you agree with the cons of first person. In each one, your response is basically "this one is true but...."

    It's a weak counter argument to say things like "use subtext", "if you're good enough" and "readers don't care about this".

    If a character is a secretive person who doesn't like talking about their past in the story then why would they tell it to the reader? If a character dies then the author has no means to continue telling the story, unless they move to another character.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this. In my efforts to understand, appreciate, and acknowledge all perspectives and arguments, I sometimes make my opinions sound more muddled to others. This isn't the first place this has happened, and it is something I am working on communicating more clearly in my personal life.

      However, we will have to agree to disagree on some of those points, which is fine. I strongly disagree--using subtext is *extremely* powerful and not a weak argument. As I mentioned, I did a whole post on writing subtext and how powerful it can be: http://www.septembercfawkes.com/2015/03/how-to-write-whats-not-written-subtext.html The topic, in my opinion, is way too big and broad to add to this post on first-person, so I referred to it in passing.

      How talented you are with writing will absolutely play a role in what you can get away with and how well you can get away with it. (Side note: I believe talent is something that can be learned, not something that someone strictly has to be born with).

      I personally feel that the reader's experience is more important than these other technical issues that often only writers really care about, not the general audience.

      I think all rules can be broken, if it makes a better story. A story should not be weaker in its effort to adhere to certain rules. Rules should be adhered to if it makes the story better, not worse. In some cases, if the story is better with the character dying, then go for it.

      That's just my opinion. I appreciate and respect yours. Also, sometimes I think these sort of things depend on your goals and priorities as a writer. Based on my goals and priorities, these are my opinions.

      Thanks

      Delete

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