Showing Who’s On First

Sad to say, my comment moderating continues. The spammers may be bots, because they don’t seem to realize that their comments aren’t being published. As soon as the flow slows to a trickle, I’ll return the blog to normal. In the meanwhile, I’ll approve your posts as quickly as I can–and so sorry when there’s delay!

Way back in 2016, on August 7, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you show instead of tell in first person? I find it easy in third–in fact, sometimes I have to go back and add a telling sentence here or there. But whenever I try to write in first person and get into the character’s voice, they just seem to want to tell for pages and pages and never get into showing the story.

Emma replied, I agree that showing in first person is difficult. Here’s an example:

Telling: I took the sword in hand.
Showing: I slid my hand onto the grip of my blade, clenching my fist around it. I could feel my knuckles going white around the cold metal.

I, personally, don’t think telling in first person should be done all the time, because it makes a character sound a bit unrealistic or look like his thinking is very dramatic. The reason it may seem difficult to show in first person is because it sounds the most plausible and realistic for a character in first person to just tell what they’re doing. In third person, it sounds more plausible to show because it’s like the narrator is describing what’s going on. In first person, the narrator is the one doing the action, and therefore doesn’t have to describe what’s being done– he just does it. Does that make sense? So that’s my version of why it’s harder to show in first person. I’ve found that spending an hour of my afternoon describing to myself what I’m doing (i.e. I carefully selected the orange marker from the glass jar to my left. I combed the strand of hair out of my face, using the mirroring surface of the jar to see my reflection.) has been a good exercise to do to get both the showing and the first person juices flowing.

Great suggestion!

Before I start, if you don’t recognize the reference in this post’s title, it comes from an Abbot and Costello routine, which you can google with “Who’s on First skit.” It’s very funny.

I think of my first-person narrator as the every-person of my tale. She’s the reader’s window into my story: the action, setting, other characters, dialogue. Yes, she has a personality and a perspective, which the reader learns through her thoughts and feelings, but she reveals what’s going forward fairly. She’s a lot like a third-person narrator.

So one strategy might be to write a scene in third person and then translate it into first, making as few changes as we can. Then we can ask ourselves if we’ve put in enough of the inner life of our MC, especially her thoughts, feelings, physical responses–like cold hands and a scratchy throat, which, by the way, are showing. We can add those in, and, voila!, we have a believable first-person narration.

Naturally, the two POVs will feel different as we write them, and we’ll inevitably (and correctly) make some different choices as we write.

After doing this for a few scenes, we’ll likely have the knack and can start writing directly in first-person. But if the technique comes slowly, making the change isn’t that time-consuming. More than once, I’ve had person problems and have had to make this switch for an entire manuscript–300-plus pages. Doesn’t take that long, and when the task is over, the pain fades.

Our first-person MC may trap us into over explaining. (Of course, we’ve let her.) She may push us to tell the reader the lead-up to everything. If, for example, her friend Sam behaves badly at a party, she may justify his actions with a digression of telling in which she goes into his past and her reasons for putting up with him. If we start in third person, we may not even be tempted. If we start in first, we can cut the digression when we revise. His bad behavior can just be what it is. If there’s a plot reason for going into its backstory, we can work that in at an appropriate story moment. By then, with luck, our showing has told part of the story, and the reader has already seen why his friendship is worth it.

Some writers take on an unreliable narrator. If we do this, at some point we have to clue the reader in that all isn’t as it seems. In this case, the telling and the showing are very controlled, and in a way the reader becomes part of the story, teasing out truth and falsehood. The only times I’ve done this were at a couple of points in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie herself is confused. She becomes unreliable because she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

If I have a reason to, I’d like to write an unreliable narrator someday, but I expect it will be tricky. In a way, with an unreliable narrator, it’s all telling, because she’s selective about her revelations.

I also haven’t written a first-person narrator with a quirky voice. In my two mysteries, my MC Elodie often says and thinks her favorite exclamation–lambs and calves!–but beyond that, her voice is neutral. I don’t mean that a quirky voice can’t be fabulous. I admire writers who can pull it off, I’m just saying that it can get in the way when we want our story to simply unfold, when we want, mostly, to show. So there’s another strategy: keep our first-person voice straightforward and unembellished.

Another first-person problem that can get in the way of showing is that our POV character may have an opinion about everything and want to share it. A royal wedding is announced, she starts opining about marriage, and the action grinds to nothing. We can let her rip and then trim when we revise.

As an aid to showing, we can remind ourselves that she’s in the scene that’s unfolding and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. We can simply record step-by-step what occurs as it happens, just as a third-person narrator does.

Finally, if third-person is more comfortable, it’s an honorable choice. We can use limited (as opposed to omniscient) third person interchangeably with first. We won’t have failed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take this from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and rewrite it in first person:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

∙ Our MC is going nuts. Pick a setting for the descent into madness. Write it entirely in third person, without any of his thoughts and feelings, but show what’s happening anyway.

∙ Rewrite the insanity scene in first person.

Have fun, and save what you write!

 

  1. I’ve just started drafting a story in first person (third person is usually my default) and I was wondering/worried about this. I tend to shy away from first person because of the telling problem, so this was helpful!

    Question for anyone who can offer advice: In the story I’ve just started working on I have character notes and plot points planned out, and there’s a character I like and want to include, but I can’t seem to find a specific direct purpose for her. Does every character have to hold the key to something, or fit into the puzzle of the plot? It seems like if she could be erased with no problems then she isn’t necessary and shouldn’t be included. But are side characters always necessary, or can they simply exist to round things out? How can I find the purpose for her character?

    Thanks to anyone who answers!

    • Put her in! My so-far-only published novel has a character who was supposed to say 3 words, leave, and never be seen again. He ended up becoming the romantic lead. Sometimes characters find their own purpose.

      • OMG that happened to me too! I wrote a maid who dropped a tray and got fired. It was supposed to show how ruthless the boss was. Well, that maid had a fierce personality, and I thought “hey this would be great to give her more scenes!” By the end, she was my main character!

  2. Thanks for answering my question! For now I’m sticking with third, but I will keep these in mind next time I try a first POV story. I might also write out a frame story, even if it won’t be part of the book, so I know who the MC is now, why she is telling this story, and who she’s telling it to. Don’t know if that would help him/her keep on track or not but it seems worth experimenting.

    So, other commenters, do you prefer first or third and why?
    Personally I prefer third limited. I know the characters better than they know themselves, so third lets me get deeper into who they are.

    • My impulse for just about any story is multiple third. I guess I love knowing what everyone is thinking!

      As a reader, I used to have a hard time with first person. I just didn’t like it, and would choose not to read a book written in it. I think it messed with my mind a little – I knew good and well that author wasn’t really claiming all these things about himself, but at the same time, that’s what it sounded like he was saying (news-worthy but fictional events set in real places bothered me in the same way). Somehow, it seemed like a strange mash-up of reality and story world. Now the only things I don’t like about first person are the limited factor (hey, that’s so ordinary. Fiction is my only chance to get into several people’s minds!) and the tendency for annoying narrators. The first really isn’t a problem, and I can spot the other on page one.

      But now I am trying a story in third limited and one in first person. The third limited story lends itself well to that, since the MC feels cut off from others. And I when I started the first person story, it felt so close and personal to me that first person actually came naturally. Now, as I move past the events that inspired that story, when I write it, the narration brings it back close home again.

    • Failed Villain says:

      I usually write in first person. I like knowing exactly what my MC is thinking. It’s also helpful if another character is up to something. The MC’s suspicions make excellent clues/red herrings.

    • Florid Sword says:

      I prefer first, but usually end up doing third, just because of writing the fantasy series and it feels more natural.

  3. Hey, guys. I have a question. I’m writing a novel about a playwright, Odelia Perrin. She has to write a play to save the theater she works for, but has to balance her love life (she met a guy at the grocery store that she likes, and he likes her back), and her sick and frail mother. It takes place in the 1930s, in America. SinceOdelia is a playwright, I was wondering whether I should write it in a script form, or in regular prose. I was wondering which is easier to read for you, and which would make more sense.

  4. I just had an idea for a book, but I am running into a small problem. The book is narrated by Robin Hood, for he is a hero and villain, and tells the backstories of many fairytale villains. Should the backstories be told as an interview, in flashbacks, a mix, or something else? Suggestions for villains would be nice too! the villains I have so far are as follows; Maleficent, Evil Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, Witch, and Big Bad Wolf. Some characters such as the Big Bad Wolf and Witch are in multiple stories, but are depicted as one character. Thank you so much!

    • Your idea is really neat! I think the backstories should be told in flashbacks; that makes the most sense to me. A suggestion for a villain would be the troll in The Three Billy Goat Gruffs, the snow queens in Snow Queen, Cruella de Vil, and Ursulla. That’s all I can think of right now. I hope that’s helpful!

      • Careful- I think some of these, like Ursula, are specifically Disney creations, and may be copyrighted.
        If you’re writing for fun I think that’s ok, but you wouldn’t be able to publish it. Really cool idea, though!

        • Yeah, Ursula is mostly Disney. The original tale has a sea witch, a really old Mermaid, who is evil but not completely villainous.
          Cruella comes from the book 101 Dalmatians which I believe is public domain (no copyright problems)–it’s also hilarious, and like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, a good example of omniscient POV where the voice narrating the story has a character all its own. Hmm, all three of those are very British… anyone have an American example?

          • I wasn’t sure about 101 Dalmatians, so I looked it up, and found this:

            The Hundred and One Dalmatians is a 1956 novel, adapted into a movie. Author Dodie Smith passed away in England in 1990. So, according to UK copyright law, that work will not go into the public domain until 2061. copyright duration in the UK is life of author, plus 70 years.

            According to U.S. law, works originally published in foreign countries which abide by the requirements of U.S. law at the time of U.S. publishing, enjoy 95 years of protection (or until the work goes into the public domain in the home country). That would place the year of copyright expiration as 2052 in the United States.

            If you need the date for another country, I suggest you check the duration of copyright for that country on the internet. The above should provide you enough details to calculate the date according to that country’s rules. But, given the unification of copyright laws by the Berne Convention, I can safely say that it is not in the public domain anywhere yet.

      • To readers of fairy tales, these are backstories, but for your story, if I understand correctly, the backstory becomes the main story, so you don’t need to think of it as backstory anymore, and the main question is how to combine all of these different stories into one. Are these characters interacting? Do they have a special village where they all live? Or do they all attend Villain Rehab (I think that would be a super fun take, plus it gives you an excuse to have them share their backstories as a step in the healing process)? You could also have loosely related short stories. Or you could focus on Robin Hood and his journey. You could use him as a frame story: he is facing a critical decision that could mark him as either villain or hero forever, and so he is learning the stories of these other villains to influence his decision.

        Are you going for the “villains are actually misunderstood heros” path, like the play ‘Wicked’, or a more “descent into villainy” path like classic tragedy? Do they get an unhappy ending, or do they just go on being villainous? Or do they get a second chance at the end, but the reader is left to wonder if they were able to take advantage of the opportunity and really change?

        I’ve thought of making a short story collection with the villains from my main series (descent to villainy style), but I haven’t yet figured out how to make it not depressing. Their eventual defeats/reformations/second chances don’t come until the main series, so I couldn’t include them in the collection.

        • Daughter Of Merlin says:

          Thank you guys so much! I am not sure, but I think the Evil Queen could be jealous because Snow Whites Facebook page gets more likes then hers, and I have been careful to make sure it’s a in public domain, for I am looking at getting it published. Your advice is really helpful. The book will be light and funny, but intended for upper elementry/middle school audiences. The book will be a comedy, with them trying to convince people they are good and failing. It will also describe their decent into villainy, and each has their own distinctive voice.

  5. TheSixthHobbit says:

    Hi Gail,
    I’m writing a collection of poems all related to depression and looking at things through the eyes of a depressed person, and I’m looking at getting them published. Do you know the best way to get poems published? What would you recommend I do? And also, how many poems are generally in a collection?
    Thanks

  6. Hey! Thanks for all the help on my stories lately! It’s been very helpful.

    Problem-ridden writer that I am, I have yet another question. It’s about transforming a character’s view of someone. In one of the stories I referenced earlier, one of the characters (Mr. Willoughby) is pretty much a scoundrel. He’s signing illegal contracts with the other gentlemen of the era, he’s cheating on his wife, and he’s really nasty to his wife’s friend, Mrs. Mercer, because she calls him on his wrongdoings.
    Mrs. Willoughby eventually gets so sick of her husband’s shenanigans that she pulls away from him, and he’s desperate for a relationship with a woman. Mrs. Mercer is an attractive younger gal, but all the way through the story he downright hates her. Suddenly he has to find her attractive and fall passionately in love with her. Any tips for how to make that work?

    (Not to mention, Mrs. Mercer is happily married and has no attraction whatsoever to Mr. Willoughby; it’s all one-sided)

    • If he’s looking for anyone as long as they are female, I think it’s very believable that he would “love” the most convenient woman available, like Mr. Collins (since Pride and Prejudice keeps coming up). You could also try looking at his positive character traits, hobbies or interests and see if he would find a connection with her over one of them: for instance, being kind to animals. I’m also thinking of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. The main villain considers himself virtuous so he cruelly punishes those who are not, but then he falls for a virtuous soon-to-be nun who is trying to stand up for her less honorable brother. Hypocrisy, yes, but it’s easy to see what makes her attractive to him.

      • Yeah, that sounds about right. He is a lot like Mr. Collins in the sense that he’ll take any woman he can get. And come to think of it, both Mr. Willoughby and Mrs. Price struggle with being fully satisfied in life (although Mrs. Price is generally happier). Maybe he can play on some small dissatisfaction in her life or something.
        Thanks for the help!

  7. I was trying to think of books with omniscient POV where the narrator has a distinct voice, almost another character, and all the examples I can think of are English: anything by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians, The Chronicles of Narnia… Can anyone think of an American example? Or is this a gap that one of us should fill 🙂 ?

  8. Living proof that Gail’s “Save what you write!” is great advice:

    I had a story idea this afternoon, but wasn’t sure what would prompt the main character to do something completely out of character for her society. Then I remembered a file from years ago (maybe even a decade or more!) that I’d saved even though it contained just one unused opening line.

    And by golly, that line just might do the trick!

  9. Cecilia Marie says:

    I’m writing a story just for fun right now, and I start with two characters that I’m killing off right away. So my question is how do get them to be likable so that its sad when they die?

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