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Apr 6, 2009

First Person

A friend of mine in a writing group said this about writing in First Person:

In general, I think the key to writing effectively in first is about not treating it like third person with a find-and-replace button, he or she swapped out for I in the same sentences, structures, and techniques. For first person present to be truly sustainable at novel length -- and, well, more readable in shorter lengths -- it has to be more experiential. If I'm telling a story, "No shit, there I was," I'm telling you about what I saw, how I felt, what my emotional reactions were; how I tell you and even what I tell you will be coloured by what I think of the whole thing.

So the major thing I'd put out there for writing effectively in first would be this: Think about how people actually do tell stories about themselves. What kind of language they use, how casual or formal they are, how they get across their personalities in the style and what they omit and what kinds of things they mention. Think about how they put the listener in the story with them.

I'm toying with the idea of writing my Secret Novel in Multiple First Person. I'm wondering now how different each "voice" should be. My characters are quite diverse in background and age, and I suppose that ought to be reflected in the narrative diction, but I don't want to draw too much attention to it.

15 comments:

Davin Malasarn said...

You're absolutely right. I used to be bored when I would write in first person because I often like the complication of third person with multiple characters involved. But, once I realized that first person has the additional challenges of using that unique voice and tapping into a different perspective, it became really fun for me.

scott g.f. bailey said...

As one who's been writing as the same character in first person for about three years now (when oh when do I get to finish this book?), I have to agree with your friend. You have to think about how that person lived the story, and what he thinks about as he tells it, what was important about the story to him. It's a luxury, as Davin says, and also a challenge. Sometimes I wish I could have scenes that leave my narrator out. Alas!

Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" has five or six first-person narrators in rotation, all with unique voices. I think you should make each voice strongly individual if you go with multiple first-person narrators. One, it will be more believable and compelling, and it will open doors to showing the story from a true variety of interpretations. Which could be very cool. Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red" also does this really well. Iain Pears' "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is the same story told four times in a row by four different characters.

Windsong said...

Wonderful point--about first not being written as third with only a change of pronouns.

I've written one in multiple first persons, and it was a lot of fun. The voices need to be as different as they need to be. You do want there to be different nuances, just as real people would have. My advice would be to just write them in without worrying about whether there will be too much attention drawn to their individual voice. Later on, if you feel there is a problem, you can always revise. o:)

writtenwyrdd said...

I love the internal voice of first person! It's casual and intimate. But, as in one current project, I have multiple pov's and I limit the first person to the protagonist and use third person for the others.

I like to think of first person as part of my strategy. Only the person telling the story gets first person (most of the time.) I want the reader to be more involved with my hero.

But really it depends on how I feel the story is best told. Sometimes you want to have a character who is a bit opaque, and first person overshares in that situation.

As I Lay Dying had some great first person, but as a reader I found it difficult to switch from one head to the other sometimes.

The reaction to first person can be hit or miss among readers anyhow; so mileage varies on the usage both from writing and reading perspectives.

Lady Glamis said...

I think third person limited needs different voices for each different character POV as well, but not sure it's as dramatic a difference as first person.

I like the advice your friend gave and think that it might be a great challenge to write your secret novel in multiple 1st POVs. You'll learn a lot! And then you can share your wisdom with us. :D

Dal Jeanis said...

1) If you have to think about how to make the voices different, then you don't know the characters enough. The characters should speak the way they are, no more, no less.

2) Don't worry about toning it down until after you type "THE END". I often have to remove 20-30% of the dialect words from my Southern characters, since dialog (even personal narration) isn't really writing things the way people talk, but is writing to imply the way people talk.

3) A character's narration during their own section should strongly resemble their dialog during another narrator's sections. Although, the difference between their narration and their dialog can also illuminate the characters of the two people involved.

Take a person who naturally thinks in flowery terms, but who socially restricts themselves to logical statements. That dichotomy implies things about the person's upbringing and the culture they inhabit. Interesting to play with, but perhaps more work than it is worth for a multiple-first-viewpoint work.

4) Remember that all first person narrators are unreliable, in that they have opinions and "filters" based upon their personalities. Develop those quirks before you begin to write in a voice, and the rest will follow.

5) Expect that, if doing multiple firsts, you will have to do a complete pass to correct for voice for each person, once you know the final story. This complicates your editing job, but it means the final layering of the story should be very subtle and rich.

ban said...

another one to really think about tara - dal love "writing to imply the way people talk." i've fallen into that trap too, esp. when a character uses slang or improper speech.

David Russell Mosley said...

Admittedly, I didn't read all the comments, but Scott's caught my attention and I was about to suggest the same thing. Stoker does the same thing with Dracula. Each voice is very unique and very independent. If you want to go with multiple first persons I think they have to be. If you don't want them to stand out, then I would recommend not doing it.
Now I sit back and hope that I don't sound like a broken record.

Cindy said...

That's an excellent point about not substituting I for he/she. I think that's how I used to approach first person and that's why it never worked. Your idea for a story with multiple first person POV's sounds interesting and challenging.

The Screaming Guppy said...

Lots of great feedback in the comments. I think the consensus is this will be a challenge, but we always learn a lot from challenges in writing don't we?

lotusgirl said...

That would be a fun challenge. I think it would be hard to keep it from being caricature-esque.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

My current WIP is first person and I am enjoying writing this way. I actually think I have the voice part down, but sometimes I worry that the tone gets a little too casually chatty - so I think it is something where you need to find a balance.

jessie said...

Good luck on multiple first. You will really get to know all your characters. In fact, that may be a good exercise. Even though I don't intend to write in multiple first, to take a difficult character I'm trying to get to know and write from their perspective for a little while...okay I'm going to do it.

Litgirl01 said...

I am thinking about writing my Keats novel in first person. I'm not sure. This is good advice though! :-)

laughingwolf said...

methinks it's best to write in the way you are most UNCOMFORTABLE with, you are unsure for most of the time, and so tension is built in from the get go...