Friday, May 22, 2009

First Person

One of my students raised an interesting question in class about point of view, something that seems to come up in one way or another every class session. This time it was about first person. "I couldn't figure out whom this 'I' person was telling the story to," he said during a critique session. Then the following week, we had a story that was an actual monologue, purporting to be told directly to an FBI agent, but in some ways this only muddied the waters further, since no one telling a story to another recites whole long exchanges of dialogue word-for-word. "I don't see why you just couldn't tell this story in third person," said another student.

To some extent, all first-person narratives are artificial -- even more artificial than other fiction, and for the reasons given above. No one does recite, or even write, to another person such long scene-by-scene stories that include detailed exchanges of (to name just one element) other peoples' dialogues. This is why the first novels in English were epistolary (Pamela), written as exchanges of letters between characters, or else pretended to be diary entries (Robinson Crusoe). But as the form evolved, that proved to be too limiting. So the first-person-narrative-told-to-no-one-in-particular-and-in-artful-detail came to be accepted as a convention, and now no one except thoughtful writing students wonders at this.

I like first person. Even though it limits the scope of the action (your narrator must be present in order to include the scene), I like the freedom it gives to roam around every corner of my protagonist's head, as well as to saturate the prose with his peculiar diction. My current project, a long YA fantasy, is in first person. So, it turns out, is nearly every story I've written that has won an award (the one exception is "Beggars in Spain.") Perhaps some writers just have a built-in affinity for a specific point of view. If so, then I -- like my sister, the professional actress -- really like to spend months of work time being someone else.

9 comments:

Kendall said...

I like first and third person. Complaints about first person always sound bogus to me; no one says "but who wrote this story [in third person] about this group of people? where they watching from a distance?" etc.

In contrast, third person occasionally annoys me--when it reads like first person where the author just changed "I" to "he" or "she" just to avoid first person. Talk about artificial! If it's in third person then having the whole thing written in unusual diction as if the protaganist were writing it makes no sense. (This style's more and more common these days, I believe...ugh.)

Andrew said...

Who the first-person narrative is being told to should be clear: it's being told to me. In some cases that might require I fictitiously be an FBI officer; in others it's quite plausibly just plain old me.

In contrast, the rare story told in second person is much more likely to seem artificial. It's almost impossible for an author to convincingly tell me what I'm doing or thinking. I found it bizarre that "The Button Bin" was nominated for a Nebula--the revelation that I, the reader, was guilty of incest and rape and must now pay his dues was both gimmicky and offensive.

(Coincidentally, your book on viewpoint is on my bedside stand presently!)

Douglas said...

This is a very encouraging entry, thank you Nancy. If there was any deliberate or conscious decision-making on my part re: using first person in my debut novel, I'm the last to know.

20,000 words & Part I first-draft complete later, I listened to you and realized I must listen to my characters. Don't they have a say? Shouldn't I honor how they want the story told?

Six months ago in one of several workshops (not yours) I heard silly tsk-tsk feedback: "You are making a terrible mistake, Douglas" and "You are choosing a limited and claustrophobic POV."

Throw in a little bit of "this is too ambitious for a debut novel."

With your encouragement I didn't listen to discouragement. I let the voices speak and soar as they should.

Perhaps, too, I was the last to know I'm writing multiple first. I didn't know it until my second character began narrating. This scared me a little at first (no pun) and I know it is considered ambitious for a debut.

I didn't hesitate this time to ask you for direction. Thanks for helping me climb up and over the self-doubt.

Maybe it sounds newbie and naive, but I didn't make these choices consciously. My characters Sarah and Jarreaux tell their story in multiple 1st. That's the beginning and ending of my decision making.

Mike Flynn said...

If first person is unrealistic for the reasons given, then what are we to make of stories in present tense. The action clearly is not taking place right now in front of us.

The whole point of conventions is that they become transparent to the reader.

That said, I don't know that I've ever written more than a couple of shorts in first person, and "Werehouse" is the only one I can think of ottomh. (And portions of "Dawn, and Sunset....")

junkfoodmonkey said...

I did my first - and so far only - first person novel for NaNoWriMo in 2006 and though I loved writing it questions like this kept popping into my head, like how do I handle stuff that he doesn't know in the time he's talking about, but does know by the time he's telling the story. What about tense? What about things like in my characters case after the "dark moment" of the story he stopped taking any pleasure in life, whether it's food, or noticing women, or whatever. If he's in that mindset when he's telling the story after it's over for him, then won't he display that attitude all the way through, so how do I convey that change?

Heh, it got me in some knots doing that story, but once I stopped overthinking it and accepted the artificiality of it I found it easier.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Wondering here...have any mighty novels been written in the 2nd person?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Wondering here...has there ever been a mighty sf novel written in the =second= person?

James A. Ritchie said...

I believe first person is the most realistic form of narrative. It's being told to the reader, just as similar tales have been told scross the kitchen table, or the campfire, for many thousands of years.

If you have trouble knowing who first person is being told to, what about third person? Talk about unrealistic!

Mark said...

I just have to add this: One of my favorite works is Jos. Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It starts out in 3'rd person, but most of the story is 1'st person as the first scene sets us up for the 1'st person narration. This method also introduces the option of gracefully dropping back into 3'rd person (returning to the initial scene) to do stuff like character description, etc. That may sound like a solution for junkfoodmonkey.

I believe Wells also used this technique in some of his works, but I can't immediately recall anything written after WW1 using it. I like it, myself, but haven't noticed this used much anymore.