For a long time now, I've stayed away from first person. And now, for various reasons, I'm interested in writing my next novel in first person. I did a little free form writing to test the idea and I realized that I have a tendency to babble in first person. Whereas in third person, I get into the events of the story, in first person I find myself getting into the mindset of a person who has survived the story and is now telling it. And that's partly what I want to do because it is why I want to do this in 1st person. But in that mindset, I find myself writing asides, summarizing events (really, do you remember *exactly* what you said or did years ago), and over telling them.
I could go back to my familiar third person, but I figure it's always good to grow as a writer, so I thought I'd ask those of you who like to write first person -- how do you keep it from sounding like a diary?
This is just what helps me out... so consider that my disclaimer.
I've been using first person for a whole series of short stories, and my current WIP novel is 100% first person. The first thing I try to do is get the voice of the speaker into my head. After I manage to pull that off... and I mean seriously hear the voice of who's speaking... then I try to imagine that person telling me the story of his or her life. Now at a few points, the story will sound like a confession or a journal, but then that's the idea. There's a lot of ground that you can play with in there.
Now just because a story's in first person perspective does not mean you can't slip into the omnescient descriptionary mindset. How many times have you told your friend about what happened in the office or at school and described it as though you knew every detail and the mindset of every person? Heck, I do that even when I get a tailgater behind me while driving:
"I swear to god! That guy thinks he owns the road! If he doesn't turn his _______ high-beams off I'm gonna...."
Okay, maybe that was a bad example, but anyway...
I think it becomes a bit of a balancing act. But when I manage to get that voice and the character becomes the storyteller, things seem to flow pretty well. Occasionally it slips into the stream-of-consciousness rambling, but that's not necessarily bad so long as it's interesting and pertains to the story.
Also, it's not a crime to write a story in third-person first, and then go back and tweak the perspective. I've done that a few times when I needed to just get the bones of a story on paper. You have to watch out to make sure all of your tenses and perspectives stay aligned, but it does help to get things started.
On that note... I'm trying to write from a woman's perspective in my current WIP, and the current scene is her and her best friend. I've never tried to write conversation from this kind of perspective before. For a guy... even a married one... this is hard. =o/
[This message has been edited by Rhaythe (edited October 31, 2008).]
The oft-repeated advice I've heard from editors is that you should shy away from first person unless you have a specific reason for doing so. The idea, I guess, is that new writers tend to have problems writing emotionally from a 3rd person perspective, and so often use 1st instead. One complaint I've also heard is that 1st makes one assume that the protag survives the tale, so it can reduce the tension.
That being said, The best 2 stories I've written are both in 1st person, and I think I had good reason for it. But be aware that if you're writing in 3rd close, most of the time you can just swap 1st person pronouns for 3rd person ones. If you can do that, and it doesn't break the story, you might want to stick to 3rd.
I'm going to tout the usual book I tout on almost any topic, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. They have some examples of narration that really show the character through 3rd person narration, emotion and all.
And keep in mind I'm no master. I struggle with it in every story I write, and I'm not sure I've ever succeeded.
I have a friend who writes most everything in 1st person on the 1st draft, then switches everything to 3rd for the 2nd draft. That method didn't work for me, and it's hard to find all the pronouns later.
There's nothing wrong with using First Person, even for a beginning writer. An author should always use whatever tools and methods they feel fit their style and voice and not be afraid to explore new things. The problem is that most beginning writers can't handle the limitations of a First Person POV and make an interesting and engaging story, especially at novel length. The reason, I think, is that First Person POV stories require a different understanding of POV and description from Third Person.
The main reason, as far as I can see, is that almost by necessity First person requires a deeply penetrating character story. The exception is where the First Person POV is only a narrator, so the story is basically still Third, just from one person's POV. OSC would call a narrator POV the "Cinematic" POV, I believe. While this is no surprise to anyone, it is important to what makes First and Third different, and gives a hint to what I think makes for an engaging story in First Person.
In most cases with First POV, as in the one described here, the reader is stuck exclusively in that one person's POV the entire novel, and every thought or feeling is from that same POV. Because of that, the reader's perception seems to change. In most cases, we as writers seem to struggle with the "show, don't tell" thing, which is often truly lacking in Third Person stories, but just as confusing, seems to be a benefit in a First Person story. Since everything in a First Person POV story is thought of from the one POV, everything described or stated is assumed to be from that one POV as well. Suddenly, then, even telling becomes thoughts of that one person.
I've noticed that what a lot of people consider bad First Person stories use the "I", "me", and "my" words far too often. The best, on the other hand, use a lot more description and just "tell" things mixed with these. Because of this, I think the key to a good First Person story is to let the reader escape from that crushing deep penetration by having more general description and telling without these words. The test, I think, is to check the story and see if there are sections of paragraphs where these words are used too much, and rewite them so they become more general. For example, instead of describing the way the character feels from the heat and blast when a car explodes, just describe the car exploding, and not from their POV, but just the way you'd do it from a Third POV. The reader will know it's from the POV of the "I" character, since there isn't any other, and yet allows them some breathing room. This balances out the deep penetration, I think.
Anyway, that's my view on good First person stories. Go ahead and tell some of it.
A critical but subtle distinction exists between a first-person narrator and a first-person point of view. Often, no distinction is necessary; however, separating the two might uncover when first person is effective or not.
A first-person narrator might be one who's not necessarily central to the circumstances of a story. An objective omnisicient journalistic first-person narrator can be intrusive, like a correspondent injecting his persona into a news story. I saw Jack Ruby shoot John Kennedy.
A first-person narrator too easily becomes the directorial I eye, I saw, I looked, I watched, I glanced, I examined, I studied, I scrutinized, and other static actions like sitting, lying, standing, kneeling, waiting, walking, running, swimming, etc.
If the relationship of a first-person narrator to a story is essential, then it's good to establish that. But if it's not, then it's better to avoid first person. If first person is essential, then auxilliary persons are better for relating the not I of a story's circumstances.
The Spanish language has a distinctly different semantic space from the English language, my heart, my soul, the mind, the head, the hand. The head aches, but Don't pull my hair. The personal pronoun is necessary for orienting meaning space relative to the implied imperative you. The hand knocked the drinking glass off the table. The responsibility for knocking the glass off is not that of the core self. It was a blameless accident, perhaps.
Auxilliary persons are vital for varying psychic access in first-person narrative, getting out from behind the third eye of the narrator and into the landscape no matter how near or far in meaning space, which works hard to unburden a story's autobiographical cumbersomeness.
A first-person point of view is one where the narrator is present for the circumstances of a story. It's the not-necessarily-objective standpoint of observation. It's meaning space is immediately relative to the circumstances of a story. I stood behind Jack Ruby when he shot John Kennedy. But from then on, the story is mostly about Jack and/or John. The correspondent has established that he was right there and the firsthand immediacy of his proximity and meaning space is established. A correspondent who wasn't there is obviously more remote from the circumstances. I'd prefer the former version because of that correspondent's immediacy to the circumstances. I would want to know how that correspondent felt about it, but wouldn't like to be told how to feel or what it means. In that is the raw potency of first-person point of view, being there, the firsthand immediacy of the experience, the reactions and meaning of the experience for the experiencer.
[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 31, 2008).]
quote:The Spanish language has a distinctly different semantic space from the English language, my heart, my soul, the mind, the head, the hand. The head aches, but Don't pull my hair. The personal pronoun is necessary for orienting meaning space relative to the implied imperative you. The hand knocked the drinking glass off the table. The responsibility for knocking the glass off is not that of the core self. It was a blameless accident, perhaps.
Hm... maybe think of it as a person recounting their story, but the person has a flair for story telling. The person wants to create suspense, etc. Or the person could be recounting each chapter as it happens.
The best first person stories I've read do, in fact, read something like a diary, only much tighter. The narrative voice is powerful and authoritative. The person has the perspective of time, and so they can drop hints here and there, or skip forward several years to say, "He's dead now. But back then..." Or, "As I write this the wind blows through the window. It's autumn now in Ekbatana, and the smell of the oleander reminds me..." etc. These little moments, in my opinion, are what make first person worth reading and writing in.
So, I think take advantage of your character's perspective through time. Try to avoid "Then I did this, then he did that, then I said this." Relate events only where they specifically relate to what the story is. Make it rich with emotion, but be careful of making it too, "I felt this," etc.
Examples I like and which inspire me: Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea and The Persian Boy. Steven Pressfield's The Virtues of War William Barton's When We Were Real John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meaney.
I thought Ruby shot Oswald and Oswald shot Kennedy.
As for first person, it might be a good idea to let yourself go and ramble in your first draft. Get it all out there, and then pick out the really good bits for the second draft. That way, you are allowing your subconscious to give you what you need, without discouraging creativity.
Once you know what your first person POV character has to say, then you can make sense of what actually needs to be said and figure out if there are ways to say it better.
this is a rather timely thread for me. i had thought of writing my nano piece in first person, something i've never done before (maybe not the best time to try something new). the comments here have been interesting- alot to ponder and test out. i'm going to go ahead and try it, see where it takes me. i always have the option to switch pov later.
question: how do you know if the relationship of a first person narrator to a story is necessary?
i also found the differences between spanish and english interesting. spanish is much more passive. like <me duele la cabasa> --the head hurts me instead of my head hurts. or ice cream pleases me <me gusta el helado> as opposed to i like ice cream.
quote:question: how do you know if the relationship of a first person narrator to a story is necessary?
To each their own necessities. These are mine in reading and in writing;
The foremost necessity being the immediacy of firsthand accounts. When the story is deeper in meaning space from the firsthand account and possesses more authenticity for it than a remoter third-person's account might.
Conversely, an unreliable narrator, one who's version of circumstances can't be entirely trusted, I think, almost has to be in first-person. I've meditated on how a third-person narrator might be unreliable, but haven't figured that out yet or read a story where such is the case. The peculiar feature of an unreliable narrator is that the lack of trust in the narrator enhances a story's meaning rather than jeopardizing suspension of disbelief as might be expected.
Not as much of a reason for a first over a third, but worth consideration, is if the narrator has a vested part in the circumstances and outcome. Say, the narrator isn't at the center of circumstances but as the observer and reporter is changed by the outcome, perhaps, if not conventionally, because of an internal conflict related to the story and not mere happenstance, but not necessarily the protagonist's conflicts, internal or external.
At the back of my reasons for having a first-person narrator who's solely the narrator, a pratical one, a first person narrator who's also the main character at the center of the circumstances and the protagonist who experiences the greatest change and is the point of view character has a multitude of busy roles, too many to hold in one mind effectively for any longish length of a story. Two roles, in my estimation, is busy enough.
I started my first nano story in first person last year, and changed it about 30 pages in. The next 20 pages were full of sentences like, "Jenny's arms were loaded with empty boxes when I heard the door open." It makes for a very interesting editing process, but that's what nano is all about!
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Thanks for the ideas, everyone! Kathleen, I think you probably hit it -- write the first draft however it comes out and tighten it later. I always write an exploratory draft first.
annepin, I liked your point that the person telling their own story can have a flair for story telling. Thinking of it that way may help.
I think the reason that editors suggest that newbie writers stay away from first person is that newbie writers have a tendency to write first person stories that they imagine themselves in without really stepping outside themselves and developing a real character or point of view. It is kind of the natural first way to write stories and I personally did that for many years. It wasn't until I became a serious writer that I switched to third. Third person allowed me to develop a sense of character and emotional depth. Also, it helped me understand perspective. Now, I'm ready to go full circle and utilize the power of the first person, this time knowing full well what that entails. I want my character to look back on her own life, her ordeal, and tell her own story. Of course, she will have survived it, but in this case her survival isn't what drives the story -- it is whether she chooses "good" or "evil."
You might try rewriting some of your 3rd person flash in first person. That should help keep things from sounding like a diary. I say flash because you are experienced enough that I think you'll "get it" after one or two thousand words.