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Author Topic: Advantages of First Person
QuickSilver
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While browsing some of the olp posts I've seen it mentioned a few times that a story shouldn't be told in first person unless that's the best option.

Under what circumstances is it best to use first person?

Thanks.


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erpagris
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To limit the access to other characters. The first person narrator knows everything about the first person only. Third person narrators can know everything about everything.
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QuickSilver
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In terms of what the narrator knows isn't limited third person just the same as first person then?
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Ray
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This discussion we've had before may help.
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Survivor
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First person is mainly for creating the illusion that the narrator character is a real person, who may or may not be a distinct individual from the author. It only works if the narrator character is the sort of person who would plausibly narrate the story being told.

I've explained this at greater length and detail, but the basics are actually quite simple.


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Christine
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Probably, almost any story told in first person *could* be told in limited third person but the reverse is absolutely not true. When you write from first person POV, there are two stories going on: the story being narrated and the story of the narrator who is writing it down. Why is he writing it down? When is he writing it down? If he is writing about something that all took place ten years ago then why is he writing it now? Moreover, we know he survived it because he's alive to write it down. On the other hand, maybe someone is keeping a journal of events as they transpire. There is a lot more complexity to first person.

First person at once can get you deeper inside a person's head and keep you at arm's length. In third person, you know what's going on in someone's head. In first person, you know what they're willing to write down on paper. This introduces the possibility of an UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, which is something that can be used to great affect by a talented writer.

The trouble with first person is usually that, in the hands of a beginner, it is not well thought out. For some reason this person is one that a great many authors begin with, probably because many of us daydreamed our first stories with ourselves as the heroes. This isn't a good reason to use first person POV, though.


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ChrisOwens
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I think in Characters And Viewpoint, Card said that first person gives the impression of the story being in the past, while third person has an immediacy, an illusion that it is taking place now, even though it is written in past tense.

When I started attempting to write, I started in first person, primarilly because of the Chronicles of Amber. The first short story I hacked out was in present tense. It wasn't purposeful. But perhaps, I was trying to recover the illusion of immediacy only found in third person.

However, I can't imagine the Chronicles of Amber in third person. Neither could Ender's Game be written in first. But when I read the Amber series, and Corwin 'hellrode' his way toward Chaos, I never once thought, "Hey, this isn't immediate enough." I was right there.


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luapc
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There's absolutely nothing wrong with writing in First Person, but as Christine points out, it takes more skill to do it well. Now that I write as much as I read, I'm finding a lot of stories written in First Person that I never noticed before. I think the main reason is that they were masterfully done. For example, The Chronicles Of Amber that Chris Owens pointed out I didn't even remember as being in First Person, but I read it before writing a lot. Another surprise for me, was to realize that a lot of Heinlein's works are in First person.

The main point is that readers will not care whether a story is in First or Third IF it's a good story and well written. So the most important thing is to be a skilled writer and write only great stories!


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oliverhouse
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I recently took one of my own first-person short stories and rewrote it in third-person limited. I wanted to see if it would be better or not, and although I'm undecided, the exercise was good. You might try doing the same thing with a scene or a story you've already written. I found that it quickly drove home the differences between the two.
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franc li
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I think until you know the answer to this for yourself, just write in whatever is easier for you. That's how we get through our million words toward getting published.
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Ray
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Considering that most of us here write fiction, we're never writing about ourselves. Although this is true about nonfiction too, so I don't see where First Person is any more correct than Third.
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Shuizhuniurou
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This is my first attempt at writing a book - and with no background in writing, most of these terms - POV, MC, FP, etc were new and I am still learning as I go along.
With my story, it is a young adult novel that takes place in present time - there are two threads and a main character for each. Their stories are both told in the first person.
From what I have read, first, it is difficult to write in the first person, and I have had and still often go back and rewrite parts that slip from the characters' age and personality. A big challenge is describing the surroundings through their eyes - using terminology they (one is a 12 yr old boy from the hills of Eastern Kentucky, the other an 11 yr old girl from one of China's remote tribal villages) would use. Being a new writer, it really is hard to find and stay in the mindset of a twelve year old (writing in a different character than your own.)
But, what I dont understand, from what I have seen, everyone is saying that first person is told in the past - referring to notes from a diary for example - why can't first person be written or what are the big problems of writing in this style in the present time?
Thanks in advance!


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dee_boncci
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Shuizhuniurou,

What you express is the reason why many authorities discourage relatively new writers from writing in first person (when their goal is to get their early writing published). It demands much more from the writer in terms of writing "in character" consistently, and keeping the voice of distinct characters consistently distinct throughout a story. It's a skill like most others that usually needs to be developed over time and practice. In third person there is a single narrator that's not part of the story and so is expected to add little or no "personality" to it as the narrator only conveys observations of the other personalities (an oversimplification).

[Edited to add the following, I had to run off before I could finish]

As far as tense-related things go, you can do things like create journal entries to mitigate the "delay" factor, or ever write in present tense, but you do lose some sense of drama because you know the character had to have survived to be recording what happened to her/him. Also, it would be hard to convey a first-person account that was captured "as it happened" (because the character is busy with the happening and can't be writing it down until later) which it's plausible the narrator could be doing. You could create a character that always carried a running tape recorder or something.

It's a subtle thing, and for my part I don't experience that first person seems more in the past than third, although I suppose that if I looked for it, it might be there.

[This message has been edited by dee_boncci (edited January 20, 2007).]


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tigertinite
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I am in the opinion that first person is more fun to write than the third person, mostly because you get to be someone else when you are writing. Third person is very useful if you plan to cut between two story lines, because first person cuts are very jarring to the reader, and you don't want that.
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Hookt_Un_Fonix
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I found that with my WIP it is easier to write in the first person. I agree with the getting into character, and writing from their point of view. For me this is much easier since I can really relate with this character. It is a memoir point of view, but in a sci fi setting. I guess the best way to describe it is to picture sitting by a fire place in the middle of a blizzard, so there are no other options for entertainment. Some how, someone convinces Grandpa to tell stories of his life in the military. He touches on the battles, but he talks mainly about the things that were important to him. He talks about his part in history, and how it changed him. I miss the oral traditions of our ancestors, and I am trying to capture that feel on paper. I thick a good storyteller is much better then anything TV has to offer these days. If you have ever seen Band of Brothers, read the book. That is a very effective form of first person, and a very touching story to boot.
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Spaceman
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quote:
Considering that most of us here write fiction, we're never writing about ourselves.

Oh, how this statement is ever so wrong. When you write, it's all about you. How could it not be? You are the only person you have any experience being. You take your mind, your ideas, your thoughts, and your perception, and translate pieces of them into fictional characters. You extrapolate how it feels to be someone else, but everything is measured against the benchmark of being you. That's why Statesman is dead wrong when he says this:

quote:
I only write in first person. Because the way I see it nobody has any right to write a story that isn't about themself, or from their point of view.

Every story you write is about you. If you're really writing, you open a vein and dump your innards onto the page. If that's not the way you write, then you're fooling yourself. Make no mistake, everything you write, particuarly in fiction, is all you.

[This message has been edited by Spaceman (edited January 20, 2007).]


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Ray
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quote:
quote:Considering that most of us here write fiction, we're never writing about ourselves.

Oh, how this statement is ever so wrong. When you write, it's all about you. How could it not be? You are the only person you have any experience being. You take your mind, your ideas, your thoughts, and your perception, and translate pieces of them into fictional characters.


You're right, I didn't phrase that very well. When I wrote that, I was thinking in terms of being the narrator, not the author. The author of fiction is writing about himself, but the narrator isn't necessarily the same person. With fiction, we usually rely on it not to be, because the narrator is usually a character in these fictitious stories, even if it is just as chronicler. Am I making any sense?

In this case, the narrator doesn't have to have any personal stake to the story, just so long as it's an important and meaningful one to be told. The author is writing a fiction about himself, but the narrator narrates as if the story were nonfiction, and that story is not necessarily about itself. Just because the story isn't about the narrator, though, doesn't make Third Person any less appropriate than First Person, and that's what I was trying to say.

[This message has been edited by Ray (edited January 21, 2007).]


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trailmix
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Im currently working on a 1st person project. My question is, how important is it that the narrator address how the story is written down?

For instance my MC is imprisoned in a deep, dark hole when he is writing/ telling the story. Do I need to tell you he wrote it in blood on the walls or whatever I decide he did?

Scott


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Ray
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It's not always necessary that you explain to the reader how the First Person narrator is writing the story, but it is important that you as the author know the circumstances of it. It all depends on what you're trying to achieve. Many times, the circumstances can be implied rather than overtly stated.

Take the children's book series, Animorphs by K. A. Applegate. It's never quite clear how the narrators are communicating their story. All that's made known is that they do it in secret and their manuscript is kept in well guarded places or spots where they can keep their anonymity. Much is left to the imagination. This keeps with the general tone of the series that they are under considerable stress and danger, but they're still taking the proper precautions. Here, we're left to infer most of the narrators' current situations.

Others can be more overt. I can't remember the title, but OSC has a short story about a man who's just committed suicide, but the corpse is still "alive" enough to chronicle the events. The narrator continues writing with a pen and paper and he explains in detail his current circumstances while he's writing. Great description ensues as he talks about what he thinks he looks like and then explains that he's using his own blood to finish writing because it feels like the pen is out of ink. We're given a lot of this information because the narrator is trying to give as accurate an account as he can about this strange afterlife, and it does add its own sense of humor to the overall situation. And in the end, you're not quite sure that the narrator is even giving an accurate account.

It really depends on how important the current circumstances are in adding to your readers' sympathies. Will it make the story any clearer, or explain more of what's going on.

As for the blood on the walls, unless the cell is really large, your narrator isn't going to be able to tell a long story. Writing with your own blood can get pretty messy, and cause a lot of unnecessary pain and time--you have to give yourself some time to heal because your body doesn't have a limitless supply.


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trailmix
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In my particular story the writer is immortal....somewhat. I really have't devised the method of recounting his story. Although something just occured to me.

My character is in an oubliette. Very deep, very dark. He has been down there for over a century. Ive commented that he has begun recounting his history to the darkness, partly to maintain a bit of sanity and so as not to forget his own story. He doesnt believe anyone can hear him. Perhaps there is a shaft somewhere in the underground. He can't see it but perhaps it leads somewhere that someone can hear him. That someone sits there and writes the tale as he recounts it. It may even lead to a rescue.......hmmmmm.


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Shuizhuniurou
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Thanks for the comments. But, it is still not clear why people do not or should not write first person in present time.
Besides being quite a challenge, why not?
Thanks again,
Shuizhuniurou

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Spaceman
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Nobody said don't. If you never write in first person, you'll never learn to do it well.
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Ray
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quote:
He can't see it but perhaps it leads somewhere that someone can hear him. That someone sits there and writes the tale as he recounts it. It may even lead to a rescue.......hmmmmm.

That being the case, you may want to consider framing the story, or rather, having a third person narration about the character who hears him, and then go into the first person account. Of course, this being the case, you'll also need to explain why the person who hears him is bothering to write it down, or at least the parts that he's hearing.

Although with this shaft thing, I have to question how this prisoner wouldn't know about it. After all, if you've been in a spot for at least a hundred years, you're gonna know your surroundings pretty darn well.


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oliverhouse
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Shuizhuniurou, there's no reason you can't write in first-person present tense. It is less common, though. Some people dislike first-person; many more dislike present tense. Both are tough to write well. Whether people don't write it because they don't like it, or publishers don't like it because people don't like it, or people don't like it because publishers don't publish enough of it... well, there might be a chicken-and-egg situation there, but it doesn't really matter.

I've started collecting some basic metrics on characteristics of stories published in anthologies and magazines. You can find them here and here. They're not complete by any stretch, but of the stories surveyed, only about 10% of them are written in the present tense. (The anthologies varied more widely, with as many as 26% present-tense stories in one anthology, and 0% in Writers of the Future.)

Since present tense is relatively rare, you can expect it to interfere with some people's enjoyment of the story. Things that are unfamiliar to us can distract us.

In literary fiction it's much more common, so for that kind of market you're probably fine.

I'd bet (I've done no research) that young adult fiction uses past tense almost exclusively, though.

Regards,
Oliver


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trailmix
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Ray,
The prison is actually an oubliette. A deep, dark hole. No real light source, no room to move around. I have it pictured in my mind like a well without water and deep enough that light doesnt reach the bottom.

I like the idea of starting out with the 3rd person for the character writing it down. I was thinking that perhaps this is not the first time he heard the MC voice. He thinks it is paranormal perhaps. I could even have the 3rd person portion of the story be present day even though the main character is telling a story that starts in the 1700's. He is immortal after all. Im still fleshing it out in my head. I have a beginning and and ending for the 1st person portion of the story. Im still filling out the middle. Just kicking around ideas.


Scott


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Survivor
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Wouldn't your story be framed from the other person's perspective then?
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