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: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2017/01/04/showing-whos-on-first/ 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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia. 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!