Starting the year off late, which doesn’t set a good precedent, but also with a surprisingly clever pop-culture reference (as you’ll come to see), which does. If you don’t know the reference… go. Just go. I’m not joking, please leave now.
All those wanna-bes and posers gone?
Good. So, I figured I’d start by ranting about something I see crop up more and more in fiction. Would-be screenwriters, this week might be a bit thin for you, but if you follow along, who knows, I may say something clever.
Anyway, there’s a fiction writer (and sometimes writing coach) named Damon Knight who points out that first person is really a bit of a trap. A lot of people use it because they think it makes their story more personal, more realistic, and easier to get into. It also creates an instant character in the story—the narrator.
Truth is, though, first person is one of the most difficult tenses to write well. It isn’t personal, it isn’t realistic, and it makes it extremely difficult to create a character. I mean if it’s so easy, why aren’t the so-called hacks like Stephen King or Dean Koontz using it more often? Oh, sure, King’s written a few first person short stories, a novella or two, but the vast majority of his work is plain old third person perspective.
The reasons first person is so tough are kind of invisible, which is why it’s a trap. They’re things that make perfect sense when they get pointed out, but until then… well, it’s easy to wander in, set off a dozen tripwires, step into the beam of light, and suddenly you’re at the bottom of a deep hole. Hopefully not one filled with stakes.
To be clear, I’m not saying first person is a bad tense to write a story in. Far from it. Some of my favorite stories are written from this perspective, and it is some gorgeous, genius writing. It’s definitely not an easy viewpoint, though. Even experienced writers will run into a lot of problems with it, and inexperienced writers will often hit them at terminal velocity.
Here are a couple of those hidden problems. If you’ve got a first person story, you may want to take a glance through and make sure it doesn’t suffer from any of them.
The first problem is suspense and tension. You’ve probably heard this one before, because it’s one of the first issues that needs to be addressed in a story with this perspective. Any story has to have a degree of conflict and tension, but in a first person story a thick layer of that tension is scraped off the top because of the format. If we’re only halfway through the book, we know there has to be more than the narrator’s tale than just getting the girl. We also know the main character isn’t going to be killed in a first person tale because… well, they’re telling us the story.
Yeah, there’ve been a couple clever stories that have gotten around this roadblock, but they usually do it with a bit of a cop out. At this point, enough stories have revealed their first-person character is a ghost, angel, vampire, or some such thing that this reveal is probably just going to frustrate or bore readers more than anything else.
From this angle, writing in first person just drives us into a corner.
Next, first person is a very limited viewpoint. The reader can only see, hear, and experience things the main character does. We never get to see the other side of the door and we have no idea what happens to Wakko when he leaves the room. We don’t get the suspense of us knowing something’s happening that the character doesn’t know about. This also means we can’t be privy to extra detail, nor can we have any doubt if something did or didn’t register with the main character.
By its very nature, this also requires most first person stories to be told from a very “average-man” level. If the character is too smart and figures things out too fast, it kills the story. If said character is rock-stupid and can’t solve a single problem, it kills the story and frustrates the reader. Consider that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories are told in first person, but not by Holmes. They’re told by Watson, a very smart and able doctor–but nowhere near the range of his best friend.
So, from this angle, writing in first person drives us into another corner. A different corner, yes, but a corner nonetheless.
Another problem that relates back to viewpoint is that you can’t have forward motion in your story without action, and the common way action grinds to a halt is when the writer stops for description. I mentioned a while back that the problem with pausing to describe details about the main character‘s height, weight, eye and hair color, shoe size, skin tone, education, and preferred underwear color (sorry Facebook folks) is that everything comes to a halt while we do.
This kind of gear-grinding stop is bad enough in a regular story, but in a first person story what’s the only way we can get this description? That’s right– if the main character starts talking about themselves. And what would you think of me if I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes talking about my chiseled abs, broad shoulders, or rock hard glutes (all of which, I can assure you, are a complete fabrication).
So in a first person story, this kind of description brings the story to a halt and it makes your main character look more than a bit egotistical. What kind of woman writes two pages in her diary about how hot she is? How much of a ninja are you if you pause to admire your posture and build in a convenient mirror?
Heck, imagine how awkward this would seem in a horror or adventure story? I open the door to reveal the armed terrorist/ hungry zombie/ angry ninja and I pause to describe them as they’re leaping at me. The thing is, we see a lot faster than we can write or read. My first person character may register a lot of details, but it’s a very tricky balance leaving those details in or out during moments of action. I can notice the ninja is a woman with green eyes and a wisp of red hair peeking out of her hood, but if I pause to say that it seems that she’s just standing there in a very un-ninja-ish way. If I describe her afterwards, I now have to pause and refer back to something the character actually saw two or three pages back.
And so, here we are, written into a corner again.
For the record, I’ve just decided the word for a female ninja will be ninjette. At least for our purposes here. Just thought I’d get that in writing.
Now, Knight has a nice exercise in his book Creating Short Fiction. What he suggests is to rewrite a few chapters into third person with as few changes as possible. Don’t restructure, don’t add anything– just turn me into him or her. He really suggests rewriting the whole thing, but he’s usually talking about short stories. Twenty or thirty pages will do for most of us here.
Once you’ve done this, re-read your story. If the character you had in first person has vanished, it’s because there wasn’t a character there to start with. Just the illusion of one. If your story vanishes… well, there’s some work to be done. That’s the trick of first person, and why you have to be careful with it. It gives the impression of creating a personality and defining a person, but it rarely does.
This ranty blog (any blog, really) is a great example of a first person trick. I may seem personable, funny, and clever–but do any of you reading this actually know me? Okay, granted, a handful actually do, but I know there’s another, much larger handful that wouldn’t know me if they bumped into me on the street. It feels like you know me, my likes, my dislikes–you may even have an image of me in your head. Once you stop and think about it, though… you really don’t. Try writing down a rough character sketch of me based off the two or twenty times you’ve read something here and you’ll be surprised how little there really is. If I rewrote this post as a third-person column I would vanish altogether.
Which is a great time to wrap this up.
Next week I’d like to take a moment to re-introduce the blog for those who came in late. It’s still early in 2010 and I’ve been at this for almost a year and a half, so it might be good for all of us to recap.
Until then, go write.