Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!
Lately a lot of questions have come in about person. This one came into the website in October from Anna Baber: I’ve been working on a book and even though I usually use first person, I decided to try third person/second person. However, my characters seem so dead. So dead even I didn’t care about them. Do you know how I should fix this???
An exchange followed with carpelibris, who wrote, A few offhand thoughts:
Do they face challenges?
Do they do things, as opposed to having things happen to them?
Something I read once, although I can’t remember where or who wrote it: “Think of what 9 or 10 people would do in a given situation. Have your character be #10, who does something different.”
Random thought: Why do you usually write in 1st person, and what about this story made you choose to write it in 3rd?
Anna Baber responded, I love reading first person and it’s easy for character development. Aside from that, I’ve been writing for about four years and I’ve written around twenty “novels”–almost all in first person! So I’m much more comfortable in first person. What about you?
From carpelibris: I’ve tried both (even a short story in second once, but that felt weird.) I mostly default to third for novels For short stories (Runs off to do a quick check). Ok, I just did a rough, arbitrary count of my submissions in the last 6 months that weren’t Drabbles. (100-word stories.) 3 were in 1st person and 6 were in 3rd. When I do 1st it’s usually because the character comes into my head that way and their voice is a big part of the appeal, or the story’s mostly about what the POV character’s thinking and feeling.
First off, kudos to carpelibris for putting your work out in the world. And thanks for sharing your success on the blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your stories. The last one made me cry!
And congratulations to Anna for your productivity!
Next a definition: in second person, the main character, instead of being I, is you, as in, You look up from your meal. You swallow, although the gooey mass sticks in your throat and the ton of hot sauce makes tears well up. “Tastes great, Dad,” you say and put your hand in your lap to cross your fingers.
I’ve never written more than this little sample in second person. Seems hard to pull off in a longer form. The only book I’ve read in second person is a young-adult novel by A. M. Jenkins called Damage (high school and up). We need a reason to choose second person. In this case MC Austin Reid is depressed, and second person is a great way to put across his isolation, even from himself.
I love the distinction carpelibris makes between characters doing “things, as opposed to having things happen to them.” When characters are active in the face of the crises in their lives, rather than the passive recipients of events, they come to life. If our MC is hit over the head by a two-by-four, she has no choice but to go down, no matter who she is–-unless she’s a mutant with an extraordinarily thick skull. But in most disasters, our characters face choices. Suppose a tornado rips through town, cutting a narrow swath of destruction. Our MC Jacqui was visiting a friend whose house was untouched. As soon as the twister passes, she races for home. It’s a weekend, and both her parents were there, along with her older brother and the family dachshund. When she gets to her street, she hears sirens, and the house is flattened.
This is where carpelibris’s suggestion comes in, to have our character act surprisingly. What does Jacqui do?
Here’s a prompt: Write nine likely responses from Jacqui at the scene. Write one unlikely response. Write five more unlikely ones.
If Jacqui picks one of the unexpected ones, she will stop seeming dead. The reader will get interested and wonder about her character, feelings, thoughts, motives. We can then selectively reveal her inner life.
And that inner life can be as surprising as her actions. Her feelings may be something other than distress. Her thoughts may be about the neighbor’s house rather than her own. Physically, her heart may not speed up at all; tears may not well up. In third person, we can go into this with our POV character. If Jacqui is a secondary character, we can see that her eyes remain dry, but we won’t have the direct experience of her inner life. She can let us in on some of it through dialogue and whatever she may write, plus other exterior physical clues and further actions.
Of course, if our narrator is omniscient (all-knowing), we can dip in and out of everyone’s mind and heart.
To continue the prompt, write nine likely thoughts and six unlikely ones. Write five common emotional reactions and three incongruous ones.
Trying different POVs is great practice. I’ve suggested before that if a scene isn’t working in third person, rewrite it in first and then translate it back into third, including the material that made it come to life. This translation will probably lead you to see how to use the new POV effectively. You can keep doing this as you go along until third person becomes as easy as first.
• Translate a scene from a story you’ve been happy with in first person into third-person omniscient, bringing in the thoughts and feelings of your secondary characters. If your story takes off in a new direction, go with it.
• Translate the beginning of one of your first-person stories into second person. See if you can go all the way to the end that way.
• Maisy looks out her bedroom window. On the street below, a motorcycle strikes what seems to be one of Santa’s elves, who falls and hits his head on a fire hydrant. The street is empty. Maisy runs downstairs and does something surprising, thinks something unusual, and feels something downright strange. Write the scene in third person. If you like, write the story. You can begin with the accident or you can go back to an earlier moment. Switch back and forth from third person to first if you need to.
• Write Jacqui’s story in third person, but, again, if you need to put parts of it into first, do that, and then change back.
Have fun, and save what you write!