First Among Equals

CONGRATULATIONS to the NaNoWriMo’s in blog land! You are my heroes! How did it go? Please share your experiences. What was most helpful? Least helpful? What strategies did you develop? What discoveries did you make? How will you use the experience in the next eleven months? What did you learn that might help the rest of us? And please post any questions that cropped up along the way.

On October 4, 2017, Poppie wrote, I’m writing my fairy story in first person. I tried third person and it made my MC Lio feel “distant” from me, like I couldn’t feel for him as much. First person works better for me in this story. My problem is whether or not first person is overused these days. It seems to me that over half the recently published books I pick up are written in first person.

I’m also a little tentative when it comes to first person because some of the most annoying characters I’ve ever come across in books have told their stories in first person (although Mrs Levine’s characters are wonderful in both first and third person). 🙂 Any thoughts?

Thank you, Poppie!

Two responses came in.

Song4myKing: I know what you mean about annoying first person characters. Two causes I thought of (there probably are others):

1. Sometimes, it seems the author thinks the bigger the attitude of the first person narrator, the better. Basically, the annoying or arrogant character should NOT be the one telling the story.

2. Sometimes there’s too much “telling” – relying on witty commentary or unusual ways of saying things rather than backing off and letting the reader see it. Let the reader experience the story, not just hear it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’d worry about first-person being over-used. It’s a form of storytelling. It doesn’t fall into the same category as cliches.

Christie V Powell: I found this one of Gail’s posts helpful: Personally, I prefer to stick to writing in third, but I agree with Song4MyKing not to worry about it being over-used. When you only have two choices like 1st and 3rd (unless you’re being really fancy with 2nd), both of them are going to get used a lot.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for shouting out to a past post!

I agree that first-person over-use is one worry we can cross off our list. If only there were dozens of person choices!

On that score, I wonder if it would be possible to write an entire novel in first-person plural (we). Has anyone encountered such a book? One possibility might be a Greek-chorus sort of narrator. Or twins or triplets. I’ve always been intrigued by the myth about the Myrmidons, descendants of ants who were turned into human soldiers by Zeus for Achilles’ grandfather’s benefit. In the Iliad, Achilles’ soldiers are called Myrmidons. A Myrmidon, or a squadron of them, could narrate in first-person plural. Or, there could be a dystopia in which group-think has taken over, and the narrator is the group.

I agree with Song4myKing that a first-person narrator’s voice–in general–needs to be straightforward and to not call attention to itself. Whether our narration is in first-person or third, it should get out of the way of the unfolding story.

But I say in general because if a more idiosyncratic first-person voice works, then it’s fine. In writing, the rules can be broken. The only absolute law is: Thou Shalt Be Clear. We can deliberately confuse a reader along the way, which can be fun, but at the end, he should know what happened in the story–unless we’re writing experimental fiction. An unresolved ending is okay, as long as the reader understands it’s unresolved on purpose.

When I think of successful quirky voices I think of Mark Twain. I love his narrators! And I give Twain a pass, as I usually don’t, when the narrator runs on a tad too long. I tried, though not exhaustively, to find a contemporary quirky voice I like. Salinger’s narrator in Catcher in the Rye (high school–maybe middle school, I’m not sure–and up) is certainly quirky. Originally published in 1951, I doubt it can be called contemporary, and I can’t say I like it, because I read it many decades ago and, though it was an important book for many of my friends, it wasn’t for me. I didn’t dislike it.

The keys to a successful quirky voice, in my opinion, are likableness and interest. If the reader loves this MC, he’ll love the odd voice–especially if we don’t overdo it or make it hard to read. And if what this crazy narrator is telling our reader is fascinating and in synch with the voice, he’ll want the story served up exactly that way.

When we’re not going for quirky though, the voice can be similar to a third-person narrator’s, telling and showing what’s going on and reporting thoughts and feelings. Our character can be full of personality and still narrate simply. Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins is a marvelous example of this. The reader will experience the personality through dialogue, action, thoughts, and feelings. The last two can be told rather than enacted. For instance, let’s take fear. Our first-person MC can report symptoms like icy hands, rather than narrate Aaa! Eek! Yikes! Oh, no! which, piled up, is likely to become tiresome in a hurry. (One Yikes! is fine.)

When I write my post and you guys comment here, we’re all writing in first person, our own first person. We each come off a little different. We sound like ourselves, and we’re not annoying. We have something to say, so we say it. Same for our first-person narrator, who has a story to tell.

The delight of first-person narration is the opportunity to reveal character through storytelling. Our narrator reflects the world as she sees it. Her responses can be different from what ours would be in her place. Empathy is called for. How would someone like her react to this or that? We come as close as possible to another person–even though that person is invented.

And the sensory data we talked about in the last post can flow naturally. Our MC, on the spot, tells the reader: I felt the wind, shivered in the November chill, saw the ordinary backyard in flashlight glow, tasted the vinegar of my unease, heard the rustling fallen leaves as Reggie veered here and there–and then choked and snorted on the stink of skunk. (As you may guess, this has happened to Reggie and me more than once.)

One last thing: choice of narrator. Usually our MC is our first-person narrator. So far, all mine have been. I’ve tried and failed to narrate from the first-person POV of a secondary character. Someday I’d like to succeed. Two examples of secondary narrators are found in the Sherlock Holmes tales told by Dr. Watson and The Great Gatsby (high school and up) told by Nick Carraway, both of which I love. In each, the secondary character tells the story because, I think, the MC is by nature unable to. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a narrator! The digressions! The technical language! The abandonment of the story for a new case.

There can be other reasons for a secondary narrator. This secondary narrator, unlike the MC, may be on the spot for all the story’s important moments, or may be a more reliable narrator, or may care about our MC in a way we want to convey. We can try more than one narrator before we settle.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your telepathic team is engaged in a difficult enterprise. They may be building a seawall against an expected tsunami and time is running out, or protecting their citadel from a much bigger force of non-telepaths, or mounting a political campaign to restore democracy in a dystopian future. You pick which and narrate the scene in first-person plural.

∙ Write the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” from the first-person POV of the fairy who prevents Beauty from dying.

∙ Pick a scene in one of your stories that’s written in third person and translate it into first. Do more than just change pronouns. Make the first-person version more internal.

∙ Your MC has trouble focusing on anything. He worries constantly and has synesthesia. Here’s a link to a description of this quality: He is assembling a seven-foot-tall model of a dinosaur for his cousin whose birthday is the next day, who has had a tough year, and who adores dinosaurs. The manufacturer’s directions are hard to follow. Write the process in the voice of this quirky narrator. Your goal is to make the reader like him and not be put off by the odd voice.

∙ Write a scene of a family dispute told from the first-person POV of the dining room table.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Anthem by Ayn Rand is in first-person plural for most of the book. It’s a dystopia where nobody’s original and no one knows the word “I” anymore, so even though the narrator is just one person, he narrates as we for most of the book. It’s confusing and cool. Great book, too! (I had to read it for school, but still)

  2. What a fascinating article (the one about synesthesia)! I’d heard of the concept, particularly the sound-to-color variant, but I was intrigued to read about the spatial-sequence/number form type. My siblings and I have talked about how each of us sees strings of numbers, and I’ve always assumed everyone sees numbers in their own weird way, just like us. Hmm.

    On another note, Cheaper by the Dozen is told partially in first person plural. That is, nobody in the story calls themselves “I.” It’s always individuals by name, or several characters together as “we.” The book was written by two of the Gilbreth children. Both are frequently named in third person, like all the rest of the children, but any group action or opinion is “We.”

  3. I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, and I won for the first time! I’ve participated in 6 NaNoWriMo events, so this was huge! My personal goal was 30k, but I miraculously managed another 20k in the last week.

    My most helpful strategy was covering up the word count bar on my computer, so I didn’t keep glancing at it. Least helpful thing was my inner editor, who had problems with everything! I discovered that, when given a goal barely out of my reach and a good story, I can write 3k words a day! I will use the experience to finish this story and use everything on this blog to edit it.

    I learned that you have to plan the story first. There are a lot of people who don’t need to, but I strongly suggest at least a loose plan. When you’re writing as fast as in NaNoWriMo, it’s much easier to get off track.

    I have two first-person narrators who go back and forth- one is the secretive brother, and the other, my MC, is the innocent sister (framed for a crime she didn’t commit). The problem is she does not have an interesting personality, and the reader has trouble rooting for her.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to change a character you’ve already written a story around?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Congratulations on your achievement! And for everything you learned along the way.

      About your uninteresting MC, everything is up for grabs in revision, even if–gulp!–many pages and plot points have to be rewritten. And two questions: Does this MC tend to be passive? If so, can you give her more agency?

      Other thoughts, anyone?

      • In my current project, I used to feel my secondary protagonist was not very interesting, and it was because he was so nice and too perfect. The “too perfect” part was what really caused a problem. He’s still a nice guy, but now he sometimes loses his patience or speaks more sternly, rather than being endlessly patient.

        Passivity can also definitely be a problem, which I say because I had a character in a group story-telling setting who was so afraid of drawing attention to herself that she never did anything. That made it hard to work with her character. Finally we somehow got her doing stuff.

  4. I love reading your blog! As an interesting note, there is actually one Sherlock Holmes story that is written from Sherlock’s point of view, and one written in the third person point of view. Both are later stories – The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes. In the first story, Holmes is quite self-deprecating about his abilities as a narrator compared to Watson. In the second story, the third person point of view is helpful for the “big reveal”.

    I just thought that might be of interest for other Sherlock Holmes fans. 🙂

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Huh! I thought I’d read them all. Wikipedia also mentions “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” as narrated by Holmes. Thanks!

  5. I completed NaNo too! Granted, I completed YWP. I got 5k words written. I’ve written 5k I think…4 or 5 times now, so that adds up to…20k or 25k? I’m happy. :3 Soon, I want to try upping my goal. 10k, 15k, 20k, etc. I’m also quickly getting too old to use YWP, so…. >~<

    I often switch between 1st and 3rd person views. (Between stories, not between pages xD) I can't decide whiCh I like better. I wrote in 1st a lot when I was younger, bUT I write in 3rd a lot now that I'm older. I'll probably stick with mainly 3rd person limited.

    I've never tried 3rd person omni. Does anyone know of Children's–YA(appropriate) books that are told in 2rd person omni? Let me know please and thanks! :3

  6. This was also my first year winning NaNo, and I feel that I learned a lot about managing my time. I have three young children who need my attention most of the time, so I had to be pretty disciplined to make it work. I didn’t think I could make it, so it was great to discover that I could!

    I had my story outlined beforehand, but I admit that the outline wasn’t detailed enough for this sort of challenge. I had so little time to put into planning out individual scenes that I often felt a little panicked as I wrote.

    A downside to writing so quickly, for me, was that I struggled to connect with my characters in my determination to drive the plot forward. This made the writing less enjoyable because I often worried that my characters were flat.

    I’m far from finished with the story, however, and I know that a lot of these issues are fixable as I continue, and in later drafts. This blog was SO helpful in giving me the needed motivation and inspiration to continue! I feel relieved to have the pressure off, but overall very pleased that I did it!

  7. I love the Sleeping Beauty prompt! I love fairy tales from the fairy’s perspective. This conversation about POV is very timely for me because I have been struggling with which perspective is best for my characters. I’ve been writing my MC for my current WIP in 1st person, but decided I wanted a second perspective. So, I added the perspective of a secondary character, but have been writing him in 3rd person because that felt more natural. Is this weird or likely to be too confusing?

    • If you’re going to pull it off, I’d suggest having a reason/excuse for it. For instance, in my current WIP, I have two of the POV characters in third limited, but my third point of view character is first person. That’s because all of her sections are taken out of her journal, so she’s narrating in her own voice. If you had one third, one first, you probably want a reason. A frame story, a letter or journal, one is psychic and one isn’t…

  8. This was my third NaNo, third time winning Nano, and much easier than last year when I gave birth in the middle of it. My mom took my 4-year-old for a week which gave me a lot of quiet writing time. I find that it takes me about a week of struggling before I get into my “groove”, but after that I have a harder time stopping than starting! I’m trying an adult fantasy this year, so it’s longer than my other books and not done yet.

  9. I was a NaNo Rebel this year and wrote a script for the pilot episode of a TV show I’m creating. I didn’t make it to 50K this year, but I completed the script, so I am happy as I have met my intended goal.

    I’ve learned that I struggle to finish NaNoWriMo when I am not taking my ADHD meds, which I can’t take while I’m breastfeeding. Every time I have done it when on my meds I have won, and every time I tried doing it without my meds I failed to meet my goals. So I have learned to cut myself a little slack and be satisfied with what I do accomplish rather than getting upset that I don’t meet my original goal. And considering that I have a toddler and a 9-month-old baby on top of dealing with unmedicated ADHD, I think I did a good job.

    Strategies that have worked for me in the past are doing a good chunk of the world-building and research before November so it doesn’t eat up your time, and doing word sprints and word wars in the region chat rooms.

  10. I’ve recently finished the first draft of a story, and in editing, I realized that I want to more openly display my MC’s anxiety. I can describe it accurately enough, and though it is believable, I’m worried that it will be annoying to read. As the story is in first person, I’m worried that this will exasperate the reader to the point of being unwilling to read on.
    The obvious solution would be to cut out the effects of anxiety on her life, but I feel like that would be unfair to the issue. The story isn’t about anxiety, and it doesn’t present itself in every situation, but it is a part of her struggle that I feel is important to include.

    If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be grateful!

    • First of all, good job on finishing a first draft!!!
      I don’t think I’d be annoyed about a character with anxiety, because I guess to a certain point I can kinda relate. Um, of course I don’t know the story and what you feel would bug the reader, but maybe you feel like it’s stopping the action? Or that all of her anxiety attacks are the same? I feel like there’s tons of options for things that can spiral off of an anxiety attack, like your MC has to make a decision and the weight of the consequences stresses her out so much she makes the wrong one. And she has to live with that. Plus, it stopping the action can be purposeful and, I dunno, be part of another conflict or something. Anxiety, like every other personality trait, can be used in like a bunch of ways. Just some thoughts. Sorry if these weren’t the problems you had in mind!

      • building off these great suggestions, could you show how the action is continuing in spite of the anxiety? The character may be frozen but the action around them isn’t going to stop, how does their anxiety change the way they are reacting to the challenges around them? The source of anxiety or the nature of the anxiety attack may be repetitive in itself, but it ca)n look and feel different when it is surrounding environment changes. Maybe the first attack happened at a relatively safe time, the second happened at a time that was socially awkward, and the third at the worst possible moment imaginable. You can play with the different results of the same incident in different settings.

    • Zoe/TheSixthHobbit says:

      I’d suggest you read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, if you haven’t already. The main character has OCD, and the author does a great job of showing what it’s like to live with that condition, and it’s not at all annoying.

    • I would recommend the novella by Patrick Rothfuss called The Slow Regard of Silent Things. The MC has OCD and probably anxiety as well, and the way that element of the character interacts with the action (and leads it, for the most part) is actually very fascinating!

    • The Mysterious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime is a popular book about a boy with autism. It’s well written so you can understand why he acts the way he does, and even relate to him. The story is mostly about his relationships with his parents.
      I think it would be exasperating or annoying if the character were written in a stereotypical way or in a way that shows that the author views these people as exasperating. But if you’re treating it as an honest condition and showing how the effects work, making her a real character who’s an individual, it could be very powerful.

    • I know that for me,personally, if the main character is crying over spilled milk, so to speak, then that will grate on my nerves. But if its more severe than that, then I believe you should include it. Also, depending on whether or not it works for your story, adding humor, might provide breathing space between the descriptions of anxiety.

  11. This is a bit random, but I made a personal goal to finish this current draft of my first novel (I tell myself and the general public that it will be my last draft), by Christmas- and I only have a FEW CHAPTERS LEFT! Exciting, yes? But I’m also terrified that I will ruin everything. Please send much luck/waves of ingenuity to the humble little city of Rochelle, and MERRY CHRISTMAS!

  12. You can do this, Carley Anne! I’ve been through the final stages of a book just before publish, so I feel your pain. Keep pushing! : )

  13. Gratias tibi tam!

    (Mrs. Powell, I have no internet at my home; this is probably quia optimis.)

    I’ve been spoiling myself this holiday season by reading some of my favorite book-ending books *siiiiigh of happiness* to help with some inspiration!

  14. I need help. Has anyone here ever been in a car crash or even witnessed one? I hope to high heaven that no one has been, and I understand if you’d rather not talk about it, but if anyone can explain their experiences or tell me anything useful, I’d really appreciate it!
    Here is what I have so far – Righty so MC (main character) in story is in a car crash they’re on a four lane highway. MC is in left lane, because there is an on ramp. Car in opposite left lane turns across right lane to get off an exit. Car in opposite left lane swerves over into on coming traffic to avoid car pulling in front of them. Hits MC’s car (truck). MC’s windshield shatters. The MC’s car is from the 70s (maybe 78 or 9? I need to research about seat belts before I decide.) so it doesn’t have air bags.
    More specifically, could anyone tell me if this sounds…realistic? How fast would the cars have to be going for the windshield to shatter? How badly would two people in the driver’s and passenger’s seats get hurt if the windshield shattered? If you can help me in any way, I’d really appreciate it! Thanks so much!

    • I’ve been in a few, though not as bad as they could have been. For me, at least, the experience is total confusion. If there’s a crash going on, I have no idea which lane is where, it’s just a total mess of confusion. Usually, in my experience, the blow comes out of nowhere and you’re not sure where it came from, even if you’re paying attention to the road–your mind is set in ‘driving’ mode and switching to ‘crash’ mode is discombobulating. Especially if the windshield breaks, they won’t be able to see what’s going on. For me there’s always a split-second of calm where you realize that a crash has happened, and you don’t know at all what the consequences are yet but you’re willing to act as needed and deal with the consequences as they come.

      Is the main character the driver? As a passenger, you’re especially unlikely to know the details of the crash. You just know there was a big jerk, some spinning, and a lot of confusion. Depending on the landscape, you might have dust and parts swirling around and blocking the window. Or there could be snow blocking your view in the winter.

      • I was in one as a passenger. The driver got distracted, ran a red light, and hit another car. (Nobody was hurt, thank goodness!) We’d been going 30 MPH or less when he slammed on the brakes. The car took serious damage to the front, and the airbag went off (Man, that smells weird!), but the windshield was fine.

        f you need the windshield to shatter, maybe a rock or something could get kicked up?

        You might want to look into when safety glass was invented. My mom’s windshield shattered once. Either a small rock got kicked up or someone shot a BB. Anyway, it made a tiny crack, and WHAM! The windshield became a mosaic of little lice-blue glass pebbles. You couldn’t cut yourself on them.

  15. I’ve been in a couple crashes where thankfully no one was hurt. One of those times was at an intersection. Another car didn’t yield on green, and cut across in front of us, and we hit it. We were probably going about 35 (maybe?). I remember seeing this white car zip out in front and thinking, “Oh my – no, maybe we’ll miss it-” CRASH! Except that I don’t think I was actually thinking in words. The next thing I knew, was white dust (I was terrified it was smoke), and my brother and dad in the front were pushing billowy white things out of the way, and the passenger’s side of the windshield was all white and crinkly and draped in. It seems the dust was from the air bags, and the air bag deploying may have also hit the windshield. Or perhaps something got thrown.

    Like Christie, I remember a split second of calm in both that one and another one, but to me it happened just before the crash, when my mind thought way more thoughts then should be possible in that short time. Maybe it makes a difference if you’re driving or not. I wasn’t, so I guess I didn’t go into the same reaction mode as someone driving would. It was more, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

    A few details from a head-on collision my sister was in, when her friend did get badly hurt (but made a full recovery, hallelujah!). They were probably going around 55. The friend’s side of the car was crushed so badly that the front seat met the back seat. “Jaws of life” had to get her out. She spent several days in the hospital unconscious. My sister only had a cut above her eye (no idea what specifically cut it) and several other minor scrapes. Both were basically showered in glass and found glass throughout their hair afterward.

    In your story, is the MC’s car hit head-on or from the side? My sister’s was lop-sided head-on. From the side would also result in very different degrees of injury between the two people. Also, am I reading it right that it’s a truck hitting the car? Is this taking place in the 70s or 80s or today? Because you definitely need something of equal or greater weight to do damage to a 70s car. Everything else feels like tin foil after driving one of those!

    • Thank you so much, Song4myKing! I’ll remember that, about the glass in their hair. Sort of. The truck is hit from the front left side. So about at the left headlight. No, it is the car hitting the truck. I was thinking maybe an old minivan from the 60s or maybe a newer, big vehicle. Thanks for pointing that out about the weight.

  16. I am writing in first person for this story I’m writing, but I don’t like not being able to write certain things. Things the MC wouldn’t notice and stuff. Is there something I can do about it?

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