I changed my novel from 3rd person--past tense, to 1st person--past tense in an exercise to try and get those inner dialogues more natural feeling. I liked it better so kept it that way. Then I went all the way and made it 1st person--present tense. This particular story works out better this way, because the story unfolds for the narrator as it unfolds for the reader; everything seen through his eyes. It's narrow in scope, but it's meant to be. (I hope it works!) The story did change, and I ended up with a bit of a different one.
Thanks all, really enjoyed listening to peoples views on this! I'll have a dabble at it some time, although I think I'll have to read a lot more of the 1st person submissions beforehand.
Hope you don't mind a newbie joining in on the convo ;-)
The books I read and love tend to almost always be in 3rd person. When I sat down to write my own novel there was no way I could write in 3rd and that really surprised me. I wrote it in 1st person because my character had a voice that can only be expressed by her. It's her story and she needed to tell it and if I did it any other way it wouldn't have felt right. Now I did struggle with writing in present or past tense and ended up writing it in both! My end result is 1st person past tense and I feel it really works for this story. Writing in 3rd just didn't seem to make sense for me.
What I lobe about first is the ability to really screw with reality - the only viewpoint is the character, and he's reporting through his lens. How reliable is he? Who knows?
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Both first person and third person narratives have been popular for many centuries. Depends on the kind of story being told. A big, sprawling story with a lot of different characters and locations (like, say, War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings) really need the freedom of third person.
A more personal story like Huckleberry Finn benefits from first person; it's like Huck is speaking directly to us, sharing not only his adventures but his introspection and growth, achieving one of literature's great moral epiphanies. (Its predecessor, Tom Sawyer, is third person; that works well because it's more of an examination of boyhood from the distance of an adult perspective, and also the protagonist isn't as self-aware as Huck.)
One of my odder short story rejections came from an editor who mistakenly thought a first person narrative had to include within it an explanation of how the narrator came to write the story down, as if it were a nonfiction account in the real world. I tried to explain that first person narration is a long, long-established convention that doesn't require any such explanation; but she said she'd reject any first person story in which it wasn't logically possible for the narrator to have physically written the story down. I asked if she would have rejected Harlan Ellison's famous I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream on that basis; I think she said she would've made an exception.
Anyway, sometimes first person is the best way to tell a story. Just please, don't make it present tense unless there's a really, really good reason.
There are two reason for a first-person narrative:
1. You have a desperate desire for autobiography. This need may be subliminal, but it's the driving force.
2. You have an idea for a character who needs to relate the story, but who emphatically is not you.
Unless you have lived a truly remarkable and interesting life, the first is probably a death-knell for the writing.
The second has fueled many many many many fabulous novels, since the earliest days of novel-writing.
I think 1st person is best used when the story is character driven. It has a closer connection to the MC's emotions, thoughts, feelings, reactions and beliefs. 3rd person is best for plot driven because it shows and doesn't tell the way 1st person tends to do. When explaining 1st and 3rd person, I always use TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER.
TWILIGHT is written in 1st person and is all about Bella and her reaction to things around her. It's all about her decisions and how she navigates the problems around her.
HARRY POTTER is written in 3rd person and doesn't focus on Harry's personal growth, rather the world he's in. It sometimes focuses on Voldemort and his thoughts or even the innkeeper at the Riddle House. It changes. It tells about the world, not just Harry's individual feelings.
I love first person. I think this probably derives from having read some really excellent first-person writing at a formative stage.
The major issue with first person as far as I can tell is that done badly, it's much much more horrible than third person done badly. It's a real challenge to do it well. First person's bad reputation derives I think in part from this unfortunate fact, and also in part because some people just don't like it. Which is fair enough.
People talk about how first person is limiting. I don't see limits; I see challenges. Each to their own.
It is interesting however how first person used to be relatively rare and now it's taking over. To stand out these days you probably need to write in third. Eh, mutato mutandis.
But lately I've read some good first person. I think it's very helpful for world-building. For example, China Mieville's The City & The City wouldn't have worked for me if the story was in third person. I liked just going with what the narrator believed to be the truth and not actually knowing.
So my thoughts are definitely shifting. I don't think first person is "inferior," but bad first person is so bad.
I'll put things reductively to keep it short.
A quick exercise: Imagine a very strong character. Take whatever traits strongly color the way they perceive the world and thus their narrative voice--the traits that make their "lens" compelling and interesting. E.g., for my hypothetical character, their snark, determination, and anger. The character at this point is "strong" because they channel these traits, and others, into taking action.
Let's say, instead, the character channeled these traits into doing nothing. The character is snarky, determined not to face his or her fears, and angry at stuff. Well, we've just changed our character into a weak one.
But their lens will be no more boring or bland than that of their strong analogue.
Perception--the "lens"--is a set of attitudes, beliefs, emotional responses, and a bunch of other stuff. Strength or lack thereof is a lot more about how the character is inclined to use all that stuff.
You've probably just read bland and boring weak first person narrators--as you said, first person can be done poorly. But the part of your post I excerpted really isn't true for well-written characters.
Last edited by SomethingOrOther; 04-01-2012 at 10:16 PM.
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And in fact, omniscient can be character-driven as well, because narratorial distance has nothing to do with whether a story is character- or plot-driven.
I personally think it's up to the writer's disgression which works best. And the publisher / editor - ultimately.
To me writing 1st p is easier because I get in a character's head much more than writing 3p. It's a psychological thing. With 3p I don't *have* to think like a character. With 1st p I do, which means I have to envision myself as something I'm not - which is incredibly fun.
I've no qualms with 3p but, so long as I have a choice, I'm writing 1st p. If it's later converted into something else, that's fine. But I'm writing it 1st p and doing conversion later based on my own analysis and other people's feedback.
Finally, I dislike juggling point of views. I can't switch voice that many times in one work. My head explodes trying.
First-person narrators are often not that well developed, it's true. Writers can make the mistake of thinking it's on the page when it's only in their head more easily in first.
I used to not even want to read a book that was written in first person, but ten years later I'm finding that I want to try writing one in first person. I wrote my first piece last night for the Flash Fiction challenge and it was fun, though I'm sure I screwed up tenses something major.
Can't wait to try it again,