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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Reminder To Writers Using First Person Narratives


Writing in first person point of view is a great way to catch the immediacy of a scene and the intensity of the protagonist's situation. I've been reading contemporary middle grade and young adult fiction lately, and have seen some fantastic examples of this POV serving the story.

I also recently read an interview with an agent who was careful to remind writers that, when she looks at submissions written in 1st person, there needs to be a strong voice, or else the manuscript is really better off in 3rd person. She was, of course, not endorsing flat protagonists in 3rd person~ only saying that to carry an entire novel in 1st person, there better be a strong voice.

A strong voice does not necessarily mean that your character has to be extremely outgoing, loud, funny, sarcastic, depressed, etc.

I just read Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, and the two protagonists are definitely not the most colorful characters in the book (that honor goes to Tiny Cooper, a giant of a sidekick and usurper of the book’s spotlight). It means that your protagonist’s voice should be:

-Unique to the character, and hopefully somewhat unique in terms of what’s already being read in your genre.

-Distinct in a way that serves the story.

I’m coming off a 1st person manuscript where the protagonist had a fairly strong, distinctive voice. The voice of one of my new MG protagonists is quieter and more timid, and I didn’t understand what was wrong with the manuscript—why it wasn’t coming alive. Eventually, I realized that the voice of the manuscript was stronger in third person.

This is certainly not true with all categories and all genres and all manuscripts, but in my case, I found a creativity in 3rd person that gave body to the manuscript in a way that I couldn’t have done in 1st person, because of the limits of a single person’s awareness.

I lost the immediacy, but I gained ten-fold in richness of setting and the ability to see perspectives of other characters. Think how much we would have missed if the Harry Potter books were in 1st person limited, with Harry as Narrator.

My point is that I had a little bit of an epiphany: we should serve the story we are trying to tell. Don’t just pick a point of view for your manuscript. Carefully select the one that will evoke the most feeling and the greatest amount of engagement from your reader. Sometimes that POV is 1st person, but sometimes it isn’t.

*PS~ I just got my computer back (see previous posts for my brief, woeful account), and it wasn't earth-shattering expensive. Thanks so much to those of you who shared stories or expressed concern!

32 comments:

  1. How funny . . . Dear Editor talks about this exact same thing today.

    I'm in the process of trying out 1st person in my book. It definitely changes things. So now we'll see if it works out . . . :)

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  2. Great post, Jess! It is important to stop and think about why you're using a specific POV in your writing. Or at least try it out in a couple of different ways to see what works best for the story.

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  3. Everything involved must serve the story, absolutely. The hard part is knowing ahead of time which is right. You can't always know, and re-writing it, while worth it, is a lot of work.

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  4. This is a great post. I'm going to file it away in my "things to ponder" file for my current WIP. Thanks!

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  5. I love writing in first person, for the reason of immediacy that you mentioned. Although that POV comes easiest to me, I'm trying to experiment with third person right now. I think you're right about some stories working better with one or the other.

    Isn't Will Grayson, Will Grayson terrific?

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  6. AWESOME post!!! I'm going to tweet right now. Very important lesson.

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  7. Good point about first person needing a strong voice. A good example is Catcher In The Rye. It would be a completely different book if it was told in the third person.

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  8. Welcome back! I pretty much stick to 3rd person, but interesting still.

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  9. An interesting take on an age-old dilemma...what point-of-view should I tell this story in? It almost seems like you should have a few pages written so that you can determine yourself if it has the voice to go the distance or not, right? Writing is so difficult. Le sigh.

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  10. Excellent post! I've written one book in 1st person and 2 in 3rd. My current work is 1st person. Usually when I write a draft I will swing back and forth until I find the POV that seems to work best for the story and characters.

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  11. Funny, but I just read Dear Editor's post on this today. Her comments mirror yours! You can find her thoughts at http://deareditor.com/2011/11/15/re-is-3rd-person-pov-dead-in-mg-fiction/

    I appreciate the insights, since I'm writing my MG in 3rd person. Thanks!

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  12. Good advice. It's such a tough call, whether to do first or third. And even tougher if you have to go back and change it after the book is written! : )

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  13. Oohh yes! This is why I don't like it when people say they prefer a certain POV over another... it completely destroys the point. Some books are better in 1st person, others better in 3rd. Awesome post!

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  14. Awesome post with great points! I'm so glad you got your computer back. :)

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  15. What a great analysis! Thanks for saying it so well.

    ~Debbie

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  16. I've written in both POV's.

    I agree with your point - "we should serve the story we are trying to tell. Don’t just pick a point of view for your manuscript. Carefully select the one that will evoke the most feeling and the greatest amount of engagement from your reader. Sometimes that POV is 1st person, but sometimes it isn’t."

    I let the voice come out as I start to write.

    Great post.

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  17. Glad you're back, Jess. :-)
    I write in third because I like it. You're right about voice having to serve the book. I just added a POV to a horror ms because its subplot created more tension.

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  18. Yay for getting your computer back!
    You bring up a great point. I usually have to think on it and just wait and see how the story speaks to me when I open up that fresh word doc. I'm in the process of changing a third person story to first person. After careful consideration, it's just the way my characyer's voice comes across better.
    Lisa Gail Green had an excellent post on voice you could prolly find in her archives. Basically, for me, it's the way my character says things... like how that character describes a room full of people. Each person would describe the same room differently, so that's more or less what gives a character their own voice.

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  19. this is such a great point! and something i always struggle with, which perspective is going to serve the story best. it's hard to tell, but i try to think of what am i more trying to get across, the internal struggle or the external one? not that either is mutually exclusive, it just helps me find a focus...
    anyway, very insightful. great post, and I LOVE TINY COOPER!!!

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  20. "A strong voice does not necessarily mean that your character has to be extremely outgoing, loud, funny, sarcastic, depressed, etc."

    This really hits home - it seems like it would have to be one of those things, but you're right, and it can't always be.

    Thanks for a very helpful and thought-provoking post, and glad you had an epiphany :)

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  21. Great thoughts. Makes it all the more confusing when we start a novel, though! We may not know a diff POV is best until we're into it a ways. Not a big deal I guess--we just try it out differently, and if it works, we make the big switch! :)

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  22. Thanks for the tips. I don't choose 1st or 3rd consciously. I even did present tense once without thinking about it until I had a few pages done. I try not to write for a trend. Right now I'm writing omnipresent, which I've never tried before. It's a challenge!

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  23. So glad you are back and that the kids can still go to college! ;-) Great information. I am so new to writing and I am thankful for your thoughts.

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  24. Great analysis! I usually write in first person, but am coming to terms with the fact that my WIP (which I've already started) needs to be in third. I'm not looking forward to those revisions, but as you pointed out POV really does make a difference.

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  25. Fantastic! I write what my characters say to write. But it is usually third. However, MG teens want first more often so they can live in the MC's head more.

    *waving*

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  26. That is the best explanation of when to use 1st person I have ever heard/read, and I've been to a ton of conferences and conventions.

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