Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not as Broad as it Sounds: First Person, Chronology, and Theme :)

I usually write in third person rather than first, although two of my published novels are in first. Here are some things I think/thought I knew about first person that make it different from third:
  • A story in first person must maintain that narrator's voice 100% of the time.
  • The first-person narrator must have a clear, plausible reason for telling the story; we have to believe he'd do it, and telling the story is going to "solve" something for him, which means...
  • The first-person narrator is the MC even if he appears not to be (yes, I'd argue Nick Carraway is the MC in The Great Gatsby). He has a stake in this story's telling that nobody else has, or they'd be telling it.
  • Using a first-person narrator is no excuse for skimping on action and dialogue in order to let the narrator yak, yak, yak. In other words, a weakness of first person is that it tempts one to tell secondhand instead of show firsthand.
  • A striking advantage of first-person narration is ability to maintain POV.
  • Your MC's personality plays a large role in whether you use first or third person. Some characters wouldn't tell their own story to save their lives; others insist on having the floor.
But here are a couple of newer thoughts I'm chewing on, arguments I've come across in my study of the subject: 
  • First person can, and should, open up lots of structural possibilities besides straight chronology.
It's that should that snags me. John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, argues that the storyteller device (of which first-person narration is probably the most popular form) is superfluous, just a frame, if used for a simple chronological story. That kind can be dramatized without the narrator. But in a first-person tale, you have the narrator's entire memory and agenda to play around with. What does she want you to know first? What does she forget and have to tell you later? Both of my first-person novels are chronological. They are mysteries, which also figures in, but yeah--if and when I tackle another first-person book, I'll definitely think about how that might lead into a more creative structure.
  • The theme in a first-person story is more concerned with artistry, truth, beauty, creativity, and so forth, than with heroic action. 
Whoa. I never thought of it that way. But with a bit of thought I can see it: The storyteller, even if relating a story of war, fights, explosions, and heroism, is primarily creating art in telling the story. He's more concerned at that moment with relating what happened than with even the happenings themselves. The theme lies in what the act of storytelling does for the MC, not in what the story itself did for him. But when the story's in third person, with the MC doing exploits but not himself interested in recounting the events, the theme will relate directly to that action and heroism.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? What would you add?


Anonymous said...

Great post. I don't have any thing to add at the moment. But I'm going to read it again later--when I'm not supposed to be rushing off to work :)

cleemckenzie said...

I'd never thought of 1st person in that way either. Both of my published books are in that POV and I don't remember making a conscious decision about choosing that. It just seemed right for those books.

Interesting POV post. Gave me some things to think about.

cleemckenzie said...

I'd never thought of 1st person in that way either. Both of my published books are in that POV and I don't remember making a conscious decision about choosing that. It just seemed right for those books.

Interesting POV post. Gave me some things to think about.

Mary Witzl said...

I also choose the voice for reasons I'm not sure about. I wrote my first ms in third person, but was asked by one agent to change it to first. I strongly considered it -- I was desperate to be represented -- but when I tried this, it just seemed wrong. The ms I'm writing now and the one I've just finished are both in first person. How right you are about that not being an excuse to leave out dialog -- I found that out the hard way.

Katie L. Carroll said...

The idea that a writer can use 1st-person narrative to consider presenting a story in some other way than chronological particularly resonated with me.

I most often think of story chronologically, but telling my newest WIP (which has a dual 1st-person POV) in a nonchronological way just might work. And I've been stuck on this project lately, so this new way of looking at it has gotten me excited again.

Thanks, Marcia!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Marcia, Do you remember the piece you critiqued for me? An agent friend read it and suggested I change it to first person. I was really apprehensive, but it's turning out to be quite fun being in David's head. :)

Vijaya said...

Great post. I think that first person narration has to have a reason to be that way. It's about a character's quest for the truth. It may be an unreliable narrator (most of mine are because how they see themselves and the world is different than the world sees them).

A third person narration is easier because it gives you so much more freedom in telling a story.

I think the statements are true for both 1st and 3rd person narration (in my stories anyway).

Kelly Hashway said...

Hmm, I never thought about it that way, but it does make sense. I write in first person most of the time and I can definitely see what you're saying. I have to agree with cleemckenzie. I think you have to choose the POV that feels right for the story.

Anna Staniszewski said...

Hm, interesting point. I do like stories that play around with structure, and I can see how first person could lend itself to that. Not sure I'm quite ready to tackle a non-chronological story, though. :-)

Marcia said...

Pat -- Thanks for stopping, hope your had a good day. :)

Lee -- I agree that these choices are often instinctive. Tough to sort out sometimes whether we need to be more deliberate.

Mary -- I agree with not switching if it just doesn't work right. Hard to know why they're making certain recommendations sometimes. Possibilities are intriguing, though.

Katie -- Hope nonchronology helps you get unstuck!

Sharon -- Wow, same situation as Mary, different result. So much of writing is experimenting!

Vijaya -- I've never tried an unreliable narrator. I think that's a challenging technique! I think third and first are easier for different reasons. First helps immensely with single POV, for example.

Kelly -- Yes, many stories just seem to "ask" for first or third right away. Experimenting can be good, though.

Anna -- I've never found a reason to try nonchronological yet, I guess. I'd have to feel the story called for it.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wow, you've made some really great points here. I'm still considering the idea of using different structural possibilities besides straight chronology when writing in first person. I wonder, though, if some younger, middle grade readers would find some creative structural techniques too confusing. We can't risk losing our readers, right? So again, choosing the POV right for the story and the audience is probably the key.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

When I first started writing, I took a course and began a story by using first person. My tutor suggested third was much prefered. and was right, because the story became a book that sold.
I still like first person though.
Interesting post!

Rena Jones said...

Whenever I write 1st person, it just sounds like me. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Marcia said...

Cynthia -- I think you raise an excellent point. Some younger MG readers may struggle with a story that's not chronological. Accessibility is important.

Terry -- Tastes about first and third can be quirky. I had a first-person novel turned down BECAUSE it was in first (I'd already worked with the editor and she said so), but the book sold to another house. Some have gotten the exact opposite advice. It really helps to be able to judge what the story needs, which is better for that character, and where the writer's strengths may lie.

Rena -- I do think that's one of the drawbacks of first -- sounding like yourself. Both first and third have pluses and minuses. First means you have to maintain the POV character's voice 100% of the time, BUT first aids in sticking to single POV. There's so much to learn and experiment with!

D.E. Malone said...

Very interesting post! This is something I'll have to consider as I'm working on my WIP.

Christina Farley said...

I think true first person POV is very hard. Many times I find books where the character sees things or says things in their head that a teen or a normal person would never think or even notice. So it's tricky and it's hard to always be filtering things through that character's mind.

Marcia said...

Dawn -- It's amazing what we have to consider when choosing third or first person.

Christina -- First person really does call on the writer to "stay in character" all the time. I read a book in which several first person narrators said "My name is so-and-so," and I kept thinking, Why are you telling me that, and what makes you think you have an audience?" Sometimes the plausibility of first person -- why is it believable that they're even telling this tale, esp. if it's in present tense -- troubles me.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Great post, Marcia. I agree with Christina. I think writing in first person can be difficult. I see a lot of "Hi, my name is ____, and I'm going to _____" stories from students. Or else ramblings that jump all over the place as if the story were free-writing journal entries. Yes, you need to become the character, but the character isn't you.

Elisabeth Burns said...

Great post, Marcia. This is really helping me work out some kinks with Andi and Tommy. Very timely! :o)