Friday, September 07, 2007

I, the Jury

Marco Polo Relic, Adriatic,
Edgar Payne, (1883-1947),
oil on canvas.

When the question of first person narration comes up, a good number of people will avow they don't like it and won't read it. - unless it is done well.

A comment that, while safe and true, isn't at all helpful.

We assume that some may dislike the intimacy and identification, and that others may find first person limiting and restrictive. They prefer panaorama POV.

And there is no question that a strong "voice" is necessary to carry it off. Otherwise, the narrative may become as tedious as listening to one's dotty old aunt reminisce.

Seldom do we hear the specifics of why first person may piss people off.

So, I was delighted to read a post by Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency recently where she discussed some first person faults.

Naturally I neglected to nail down the date and now I can't find it to provide a proper link. My apologies. I hope I can paraphrase her comments with reasonable accuracy, for I thought they were valuable.

Her irritations:

(1) long-winded internal musings: extensive dissertations wherein the protagonist dissects their thoughts and feelings in excruciating detail.

One can see how this would really bugger the pace of a novel.

(2) double voice: authorial insertions, which sound out of character. I wonder if addressing the reader by use of "you" is sometimes an example of this, if it is too direct.

(3) Clumsy foreshadowing: the "little did I know" fault.

Not only clumsy, but a cheap cliche.

Any others?


Church Lady said...

Since my first and only book is in first person, I can add a couple.

-Sentence construction. Beginning too many sentences with the word "I."

-Too much dialogue. Using dialogue as a pseudo-narrator.

I will probably come up with more.


Jaye Wells said...

That's weird. I went back to look for that post too. Seems like it was very recent. Church Lady's first point was what I was going to say, however I would add using "I" too much in general is not a good idea. When I began writing in first, I had a critique partner who went through and circled all the "I"s to show me how often I used them. This helped a lot.

Robyn said...

Count me as a reader who prefers the 'panarama POV' though I have read some first-person I loved. Lani Diane Rich's Ex and the Single Girl was first-person, but the character focused more on her reactions and feelings about her family than herself. It didn't seem limiting.

jason evans said...

What Church Lady and Jaye said. The I, I, I, I, I phenomenon.

It seems like most folks like limited third person POV (to one character), not omniscent third person. Once I was corrected when I wrote about a facial expression of my POV character. He couldn't see himself. That really hit home for me.

The funny thing is that limited third can feel more intimate than first, because a little bit is held back from the reader. That little space allows the reader to fill in what the reader imagines. In first person POV, if it's not on the page, presumably the character didn't think it. There is no space for idealization.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I write most short stories in first person and all novels in third. I'm gradually switching to third for my stories as well. The ultimate test is to copy your first person story, find-and -replace "he" for "I" and see how it reads. Shocking, how first person can disguise bad writing--usually mostly in the eyes of the writer.

December/Stacia said...

My problem with first is how easy it is for all Firsts to sound alike. I think it's ahrder to have a unique voice with first; also, when describing action it can feel egotistical.

Plus, as I've said, first-person sex scenes don't appeal to me. It feels like porny whispers or high-school giggling.

Bernita said...

A good one, Chris. "I" is necessary and unavoidable, but not a litany of "I walked, I ran, I hit"
Think dialogue should always alternate.Five pages of dialogue can make me skip.

Think I read it within the last week or ten days, Jaye.

Right, Robyn.Some detachment on the part of the narrator is necessary to avoid a self-centered, mememe effect.

Not sure I agree entirely, Jason. First person can suggest and imply all sorts of emotions, often by what the narrator does not reveal. Andre Norton is particularly good at this.
For me, it's part of the charm of that POV.

And I find I'm testing out switching from close third to first, SS!

Bernita said...

Character development can certainly be an issue, December, and sex scenes a real challenge.

Charles Gramlich said...

Those can be problems, certainly, but I think of them as "author" problems not voice problems. When it works, First person is, for me, the most immediate and intense read available.

Scott from Oregon said...

I prefer a good first over any type of narration.

But you're right, the voice has to sound authentic.

Bernita said...

You're right, of course, Charles. And some problems/weaknesses may be more apparent in first.

If I'm not shaving the words too closely, I suppose some see reading as as an experience, others may see it as an activity.

And you, Scott, have a very strong voice.

raine said...

I've only tried one first person piece, but enjoyed it. May try it again.
And I have read some narratives that were, I thought, excellent.
But the ones that irritate me did it because of the reasons you mention--especially addressing me as a reader ("you know how it is"). BIG NO. Dragging me into the story that way reminds me I'm reading a story, and takes me out of it.

Too much detail (which isn't exclusive to first person, but maybe more tempting to the author). I don't want to know every thought, every twitch, every detail of the character's life. Sleeping pill supreme.

I also think it's harder not to make the secondary characters seem 'cardboard' with first person pov, since we don't always know their feelings, motivations, etc.

Kate Thornton said...

I do a lot in first person - but I do a lot of re-writing, too to get the voice clear and not have The Voice by My Voice.

It's especially difficult when I choose that self-imposed torture, the MC who is somewhat like me (same age group or whatever)and must distance myself from my potential Mary Sue.

Gabriele C. said...

I've read a number of books in first person that worked fine for me, from Bernard Cornwell (Warlord trilogy) to Jacqueline Carey. Esp. in the latter case the voice mattered a lot for me, because I liked Phèdre as observer and narrator, not as character (I wanted to shake some sense into her more than once).

As writer, I prefer omniscient because I have such vast tapestries of novels, but I've written a few short stories in first person.

Bernita said...

Yes, Raine, that excessive detail irritates me to.
I suppose the answer to secondary characters is dialogue - and an extremely preceptive protagonist.

Kate, that is the hardest part for me too - no matter what age I choose!

Bernita said...

Definitelly, one can like a narrator while at the same time want to bitch-slap her/him, Gabriele!

Angie said...

Another problem is that a lot of routine tasks -- describing the characters strengths and faults, mistakes they made, what they learned, bad luck and injustices committed against them, even just giving the reader a physical description -- can be tricky in first person. It's very easy for the first person narrator to come across as egotistical or whiny or manipulative or overly ingenuous. Making it all work smoothly is certainly doable, but the tolerance level for mistakes is much lower when the protag is actually talking about him- or herself, or his or her opponents.

My favorite POV is deep third, where all the narrative is done in the voice of the POV character, even though that character isn't actually narrating everything. You can get just about as close to the character as you can with first, but without as much danger of having him or her come across as a stuck up git or a whining baby. [wry smile]


Bernita said...

Very good outline, Angie. Thank you.
Re-caps and explanation of how the narrator mis-judged things can be over-done.The danger of telling us twice.

Zany Mom said...

This is perfect timing for me, because I usually write in third, but my new main character's voice is coming to me not only in first person, but first person PRESENT.

I'm not a huge fan of first person books, though will overlook that if I like the story (ie I won't put it down just because it's in first). Present tense has been a real turn-off as a reader because most I've read has been (or has seemed) very pretentious.

I've already had to start over (Ricky Ricardo syndrome, I Aye eye!) and have been looking for some good pointers for first person.

The Anti-Wife said...

First person can be very irritating or very engaging. The quality of the writing will make the person leap off the page or lull you to sleep no matter what voice is used.

writtenwyrdd said...

I like first person, but when the pov character keeps rehashing the same damn thing over and over, it will bug me. I know that people do that for real, but in fiction, you need to be able to have it referenced to more than rehashed. Otherwise you get reader rebellion (less fondly known as book tossing).

What bugs me as a writer of first person pov is when a use of 'you' when the character is talking to themselves is ixnayed by critiquers. There IS a difference. Really.

writtenwyrdd said...

I am also thinking that many women, at least, are starting to think that first person means Chick Lit. And many writers of chick lit seem to agree that first person is required. so if it is a female protagonist and is in first person, it needs to have shoes and snarky humor.

Bernita said...

I hope that the comments help then, Zany.

Indeed, AW.

Right, Written, re-hash is tiresome padding.
I forego the shoes and fashion fuss when I write first. The tone may be sardonic, however.

moonrat said...

thank you for lurking ;)

my belief--it's true that first person novels can be very poorly done indeed, but so can third person novels. and there is nothing more delightful than a truly subtle first person narrator. i think most of my favorite books are written in first person. take kasuo ishiguro's delightful REMAINS OF THE DAY--he is the king of unreliable first person. what a treat.

arthur golden wrote the entire manuscript of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA in third person before he realized it wasn't right. that's how one modern masterpiece could have gone wrong.

Bernita said...

And thank you for coming by, Moonrat.
I do enjoy your blog.
I also enjoy the unreliable narrator.

Sam said...

I love first person POV so I'm hard put to criticise it.
Maybe like Nephele said 'too many internal musings' - that would be a fault to watch out for.

Bernita said...

And until she mentioned it, Sam, I didn't nail down the specific reason why some books bugged me and some did not.

dink said...

hi bernita,

I ended up here on the blog hopping trail.

I find first person unnatural. A compelling voice or creative boundary-pushing can trump that though. I have loved books with first person POV --but not a lot of them.

I think the POV often has an artificiality because so much of it tends to be the thoughts of the narrator. I don't think most people think in narrative sentences nor do most people report to themselves what they're doing. Thoughts are full of incomplete sentences, phrases, single words, flashes of images--thoughts wander all over the place, etc. I'm not sure realistic thought would work in fiction without being maddeningly confusing so first person feels like a very difficult POV to pull off in a believable way, for me the author is often to visible, tinkering.

I love discussions like this--so much to learn.

Bernita said...

Nice to see you, Dink. Thank you for posting.
Complete sentences don't offend my sense of reality even in the narration of internal thoughts, since I use them in real life when relating my thoughts/impressions/reactions in real life.
That said, I'm fond of sentence fragments and even single words.

Scott from Oregon said...

This post, bernita, actually inspired me to write a fist person short piece where ONLY the words of one character is shown. In other words, he's talking to others and we only see what he says, and yet, a full transmission of story occurs.

As to Dink's assertions, first person comes across poorly when too much play by play is described.

If you think of the narrator as the story teller just telling what recently happened to him/her, it can work wonderfully. I prefer this voice to all others, ala The Catcher In The Rye...

spyscribbler said...

Miss Snark once mentioned Lee Child's (er, I forgot which one. The one where it starts with the officer who is about to die.) as a great example of first person.

I agree with everyone who said not to make the "I" intrusive. Drop the "I thought," and just write "I's" thoughts. Same with "I looked," just write down what "I" is looking at.

I could go on, but it's your blog, LOL. :-) Maybe I should post on it this week. Speaking of which, weren't you going to do a blog on adverbs?

Nine more days ...

Bernita said...

That's right, blame me, Scott.
Do you make use of indirect dialogue or is it a clever monologue?
I notice many of my favourite books are in first.

I like the
Lee Child's I've read, Natasha.
On checking a short story I'm tweaking, I am proud to announce I've used only one "I thought" in circa 2200 words.
Yep, I was, and then you blogged about it. I was also going to blog about writing groups but I see that Charles is channelling the same spirit guide, so maybe I won't...

Scott from Oregon said...

Actually, it was a guy in an interrogation room explaining why he looked guilty as hell in a murder but was really quite innocent.

His responses and explanations are all I used.

It was interesting to see how much could be left out, like seeing the word ev**yth*ng...

A good lesson, I suppose, for over-describing...

Marija said...

Hm... I never disliked the first person, but am now in the middle of writing a novel in first person, I`m growing tired of it, I want and desperately need the panoramic view of the situation.

Marquez wrote a novel in first person that is pure genius, there are sentences as long as the book pages and the voice of the main character grows inside the reader, I don`t know how it is translated in english so I can`t give you a title, sorry. ;)

SzélsőFa said...

I loved, LOVED this dialogue between your readers and you, Bernita.
I'm only at the toddlers' phase of writing in English and I fall a lot. This entry was really helpful. Once I chewed myself all the way through, that is :)

The short story I'm writing (and not-writing) uses a third person pov, and from time to time it switches to first person.

IM Cupnjava said...

I can enjoy both first and third person writing. I do lean toward third and the "little did I know" irritates me like crazy. If it's used as an after the fact hyperbole, then I can handle it. However, I've seen "little did he know" used in third person too...if the POV isn't handled correctly, it can be just as cringe worthy.

Bernita said...

Thank you for stopping by, Marija.
If you are finding first too restrictive for your plot, perhaps you could try a third person version and see how it goes.

The posters here are absolutely splendid, Szelsofa. They have helped me so much.
Your control of English is much, much better than you think.

Right, IM, some faults are irrespective of POV. As Charles pointed out, they are writer problems, not POV problems.

BuffySquirrel said...

An egregious fault I've seen, in both "The Time Traveller's Wife" and "The Historian", is supposedly different first persons that sound alike. It was handy in TTTW to have the character's name at the beginning of each section, and in TH to have extra "s around one of the narrators, otherwise I couldn't have told the difference.

The sad thing is I love first person when it's done well. When done badly, it truly hurts.

Bernita said...

Makes one want to throw things, Buffysquirrel.

sexy said...