Monday, April 07, 2008

More Idiomancy


Spring at Leete's Island,
Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)
oil on canvas.

No, I don't believe it's a real word, though it could describe any romance with a TSTL heroine.


Some readers don't care for stories in first person.

The reason most commonly given is that they seldom see it done well.

But they seldom/never express the why/how come of that failure.

KM Frontain (see sidebar) commented (last post) that some readers prefer omniscient or third because they feel uncomfortable with the intimacy, the default identification of first.

Readers may actively resent that familiarity, preferring the psychological fail-safe of third and the fantasy of distance that third allows.

A hard-wire issue -- perhaps complicated by early imprinting that use of "I" represents egotism and conceit.

Perhaps this reluctant identification accounts for a heightened degree of critical analysis of first. An urge to shed a subconsciously guilty association with the narrative voice.

But what are the usual failures in first person narrative? Are they truly peculiar to that voice?

At last.
They have come in their centuries.
Going past in the pale dawn,
In echelon across the high blue of the morning,
Beating the sky like water,
Black and eagle gold in the sun.
With trumpets.

They have come at last.
My brothers.

43 comments:

SzélsőFa said...

I have not checked whether anyone noticed those two or three lines in the last post, but now it's more obvious: the geese on the sky. You captured them so nicely!
I love watching them.
The mesmerizing factor of their sight gets very close to that of experiencing a steam engine.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Szelsofa.
Their fly-over is the final proof that winter has gone down to defeat.

Lisa said...

"A hard-wire issue -- perhaps complicated by early imprinting that use of "I" represents egotism and conceit."

I think you may be on to something. I wonder (but have no idea) if the discomfort with first person may increase proportionately with age.

At some point, we began to teach children that they were the most important person in the world and before that the focus was more on others. I don't mind a story told from first, but I gravitate more toward those told from third. I'll be very interested to hear what others say.

StarvingWriteNow said...

Glad the birds have returned! We're getting the "morning wake up" calls here as they squabble for good nesting spots and stand off interlopers. It's fun to watch.

kmfrontain said...

I've seen this happen in more POV styles than first person, but I think it's more obvious when a narrative voice is not established. In third person, when the character yammers on about how he feels, why he's doing this or that, and what his plans are, a reader may not notice the lack of story depth to go with all that character motivation, but the moment you replace he/his, with I/my, you have a glaring lack of depth. The "I" perspective definitely becomes egoistic reading at that point.

I wish third person writers would practice writing in first person. They might actually notice the above flaw in their writing better if they did. One of my biggest reading peeves is getting smothered with character thinking. I like to get involved with the character, sure, but not float in the nebulous grey space of a world that never quite formed. This has happened more often in third person stories than I can count.

kmfrontain said...

I heard the geese three days ago. The male red-wings have arrived, but haven't quite decided to set up territory. My nine foot high snow pile at the front of the house is now six feet high. :-)

Lovely poem, Bernita.

ChristineEldin said...

Beautiful poem! And I love that painting. I will have to see others by him.

I had a hard time with time progression in my first ms. The character is literally everywhere. Like, do you write hour by hour, or by days, or alternate? The following two gross examples:
"I am going to sleep now."
"The next morning, I awoke...."

That, to me, was a difficult issue.

I decided to write it over a span of three days, so I didn't have to worry about this.

BernardL said...

Other POV's are the most difficult to bring out naturally in first person. I enjoy getting a hint of what other characters think in relation to the main character. First person is definitely a tough one to pull off. 'At Last' - very nice.

Bernita said...

Lisa, I suspect academic formality as one of the possible causes for this aversion to first in some.

Makes one realize, WriteNow, how one misses bird song.

Karen, I agree.
That's an excellent point and instruction. "Telling" is much more obvious in first.

Thank you. The last of the snow from the front went yesterday - of course the house faces south and forms a sun trap. The back still has snow. Haven't seen the bottom two steps from the sun room yet, but here it's going fast.

Thank you, Chris.
One can trust the reader to a large extent on time-lines, as long as they are given a clue.

It's a challenge, Bernard. One must use dialogue and physical actions/reactions to show other characters' minds/mental states to the reader.
Thank you.

Sam said...

Spring at last...And we get our first snow!
LOL.
I like all POV's, but truth be told, it depends on the author's voice for first person. Does it fit the character? Can it be sustained? Does it 'show' enough without resorting to tell, tell, tell?

Bernita said...

As Karen suggested, Sam, third could benefit if writers realized that every "third" person is actually thinking in first.

Robyn said...

We're glad to have hosted your geese for another winter.

I read a lot of blogs. Considering that most blogs are people yammering about themselves, I should love first person, but I don't. As for books, first POV can quickly become whiny rather than introspective. I can only read "Why do I let my mother get to me" so many times.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I find voice often overwhelms most first person stories I read. It's easier for a writer to make mistakes because the sound of their own voice covers it up. I also believe first person voice lends itself to more subjective opinion--you either love it or hate it. For instance, one story I recently rejected had a voice I loved at the start. 2000 words later I was thinking: Enough's enough.

I found it interesting that in this new WIP I found myself slipping into first person before I knew the protag very well. It was almost like a subconscious effort to get inside his head. Five chapters in I know him better and it's no longer a problem.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Robyn!

I worry that I don't have enough inner thought/analysis in the WIP - and that the lack might make it seem cold.

Bernita said...

"I find voice often overwhelms most first person stories I read."
That, SS, is a very good point and a real concern.
Wonder if more dialogue and action would alleviate cases where that happens.

bookfraud said...

interesting post and comments. it's been drilled into me that there needs to be a reason for everything in fiction, including point of view: if the writer decides to write in the first or third person, there has to be a reason for it.

in other words, one has to think about how much and what type of intimacy, omniscience, and perspective the manuscript demands before setting down a word.

i can't condemn one approach or another. "lolita" or "david copperfield" would have never taken off without the first-person narrator; likewise, a book like "ragtime" could have only been written with an omniscient narrator.

my problems with first person is when the writer revels too much in "voice," and the voice becomes the story. it's the first-person equivalent of a third-person narrator going too far in describing a cadillac.

bookfraud said...

of course, just as i post my comment condemning too much "voice," i see others' have already said it right above me. sigh.

Bernita said...

Doesn't mean you can't say it too, Book.
I agree all elements should have a reason for use.Hopefully, a sufficient one to justify them.
Voice, in first, as I understand it, underlines character. Perhaps some characters become unlikeable?

Jaye Wells said...

Interesting points, Bernita. I just find my voice sings better in first. It's also possible I'm an egomaniac. Either way, I've always wondered how someone can condemn all first POV books. You never hear someone say, "I hate everything in third." I find it curious.

raine said...

My only beefs with SOME first person povs is that

1) Too much note of the too fine details. Don't want to know every single movement the character makes.
2) I like hearing the voices of the other characters more often than not.
3) If you're going to get me that deeply into your character's head, she'd better have thoughts that are interesting enough to keep me there.

Of course, these could be flaws in any pov, they just seem to stand out in first. How she's going to afford her next pair of $400 shoes doesn't do it.

They have come at last.My brothers.

I knew you were waiting for them. ;)
Congratulations, Bernita!

Bernita said...

Being omnivorous, I find it curious too, Jaye.
Perhaps first carries with it, to some minds, the suspicion of subjectivity, and hence unreliability, where as they see third as more objective and authorative.

December/Stacia said...

My problem with 1st POV is, it's so hard to make the character different. It seems to me that a lot of 1st heroines sound the same, and it's more difficult to get past that when it's all "I, I, I" everywhere. I know there are some great writers out there whose 1st stories I'll still read, but if I'm not familiar with the author I'll generally give a book a pass if it's in 1st. I want story, not mental meanderings.

Bernita said...

Yes, the unnecessary minutae, substitutions for plot, Raine, but, as you say, these also occur in third, but somehow may appear less boring.
The fault may lie partly in cases where the narrative character is just not that interesting as a person.
First may demand a more exciting character, or at least one involved in exciting things.

Raine, they make my heart leap.

jason evans said...

Some of the problem is technical. When sentences start I...this and I...that, they tend to become perception and thought oriented. If it's not kept in check, all of the other potential richness of the scene is lost. Other things can be the subject of sentences, not just the "I." One way to demonstrate how to keep 1st person strong is to try writing a scene in the 1st person without using the word "I."

I find that third person is more intimate than first when done well. The reason? The reader gets to fill in more of what the reader would want the character to think and feel. In first person, the reader does not have that opportunity. If the reader doesn't relate to the 1st person character, there is no opportunity to believe something else.

Scott from Oregon said...

Looking at the shadow this conversation casts... first person allows for novel voices and third person forces authors back into traditional boxes.

First person well done, for me, is infinitely superior to third person well done.

The feel of a story being passed from one person to another is usually not present in third person, but is central to good first person story telling.

Bernita said...

Interesting, December. Yet readers do not have the same reaction to he,he, she, she.
Of course, the avenue for alternatives, like nouns, is broader.
Again, a common failure seems to be not enough plot.

writtenwyrdd said...

Speaking of geese, we saw a quartet of them this morning, flying north.

I think that first person is great, because I love the thinking aloud feeling you get with first person. I've never noticed first person being inherintly worse or more difficult to deal with as a reader. I suspect it's a matter of taste.

Bernita said...

A good exercise, Jason.
Whay I would call the "Of arms and the man, I sing" approach.

Third more personally interactive? Not sure about that.

Interesting, Scott. Though all story telling has formalities and boxes,I gather you perceive first as the original meld.

Bernita said...

Probably, Written, to which we apply rationalizations.

I'd like to see a bumper sticker: Honk if you love geese...

Billy said...

The syntax has to be superior for first person to really work.

An astonishing poem!!!!!!

Charles Gramlich said...

I've always particularly loved first person stories. Nothing seems to involve me so immediately in the action.

Your ending poem is gorgeous. Geeze and ducks I take it?

Bernita said...

Billy, syntax pretty well has to be superior for either voice to work.
Kind of you to say, considering how superb your poetry is.Thank you.

Wild geese, Charles. Thank you.
BTW, Amazon just e-mailed me. Your Taleras are finally on their way to me.

Steve Malley said...

1st person narration (FPN) has a few things against it:

1) Buy in-- You like the narrator or you don't. That can be alienating.

2) Lockdown-- stuck in one set of eyes, it can be difficult to take the reader where she needs to go. Also, far too tempting to resort to mirror-looking description. (shudder)

3) Ease of Use-- FPN's are easy to write, especially when they sound like the voice of our own thoughts. Many beginners start with what's easy, and editors, agents and readers tar them all with the same brush.

That said, FPN's are still quite popular in mysteries and litfic, and more than a few FPN's win awards every year.

I don't think the problem is narrative voice...

Bernita said...

Thank you, Steve.
Though I've read more "mirror descriptions" in third than in first.

Price of Silence said...

"Every third person is thinking in first"--thanks for that. It's something to ponder.

As a person who wrote a novel in which the first person voice was overwhelming, I know how that goes. As Bookfraud said, the voice became the story.

To get out of it, I tried turning it into a screenplay. That solved the voice problem, but then I realized my characters really weren't doing anything interesting--which the voice had covered up.

When voice becomes a problem, I find it useful to write some background in a different POV, just to see what happens.

I'm also noticing birds these days. I realized that Canada geese are no longer hanging out in the park. And I saw my first goldfinch in breeding plumage--that was a spot of color on a snowy spring day in Colorado.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Price.
The idea that voice might overwhelm the character, as several of you have mentioned, is something I had not considered.

Carla said...

Love the poem!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.

Suzanne Perazzini said...

I love writing in the first person and reading it too as long as the voice isn't too chicklitty. The main drawback is, of course, the inability to get inside anyone else's head but I love getting to know a character so intimately. You could be right that the like or dislike of first person is dictated by one's hardwiring.

Gabriele C. said...

I have no problems reading first person, but present tense (esp. in third and omni) tends to put me off in novels. Short stories are another matter.

Bernita said...

"isn't too chicklitty"
I feel the same, Suzanne, too much smart mouth becomes tiresome quickly.

Am not fond of present tense either, Gabriele.

Chumplet said...

Not unlike the motorcycles flying on the highways in a V-formation. Much like the geese! A true sign of spring.

Bernita said...

True, Sandra.
Along with listing invitations from real estate agents and door-to-door evangelists, I have always counted bikers as part of the terrestrial triad.