Wednesday, July 9, 2014

No Respecter of (Third) Persons: Part One -- How Does That Make You Feel?

Somewhat recently, I was presented with the question of... okay, I don't remember, exactly, what the question was, but I'll say it like this: Why do you believe that third person perspective is superior to first person?
That's a really good question, especially since I don't exactly shy away from first person.
So, I suppose, the real question is more along the lines of "Why do I think you shouldn't use first person?"

Well, okay, it's not that I think you, the specific you sitting here reading this post, shouldn't use first person; it's that I think the general you out there shouldn't use first person. At least not until you have figured out how to write in third person. First person, especially for the beginning writer, has too many traps and short cuts; until you know how to get around them, you should write in third. And, actually, it's writing in third that will help you to learn to avoid the snares.

So let's start with descriptions.
There is what I think must be some sort of automatic desire to want to describe our characters to our readers. I suppose it's natural. But, really, how often do you describe yourself? And, more importantly, how often do you describe yourself... to yourself? I'm going to guess, here: almost never. Maybe, completely never. And, so, when I'm reading something in first person, and the protagonist starts describing what she looks like -- her sparkling green eyes or long, silky blonde hair -- I can't stop myself from groaning. I'm not even sure that incredibly vain people actually think about themselves that way. So, basically, if you have an uncontrollable desire to describe what your character looks like, write in third person.

Besides, descriptions aren't nearly as important as some people seem to think they are. For instance, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, we get no description of the protagonist; heck, we don't even get a name. We know he's a man home for a funeral remembering something that happened when he was a kid. That's all we need to know. Descriptions would be superfluous. And, in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, we never get anything more than a vague description of Harry. We know that he's tall, which he tells us in relation to things when it matters, like a tall man squeezing into a Volkswagen bug or that he can run fast because of his long legs. But he never tells us what he looks like, and he doesn't need to. Readers are quite capable of envisioning what characters look like all on their own.

Then, there are emotions.
Dealing with emotions in first person is problematic at best. It's too easy to fall for the "telling" short cut. I mean, you know how your character feels, right? And your character knows how she feels, right? So why spend a paragraph showing us how she feels when you can do it with one simple telling line: "I was mad." Or, even, "I was mad. No, I was pissed." [Which is an actual line from a book I read not too long ago.] The problem there is that it doesn't tell us anything significantly different from "I was mad." The terms are too subjective, and I've heard just as often, "No, I'm not mad; I'm just pissed." Evidently, there is no clear line as to which side of mad pissed lies.

And just saying "I was mad" or "I was sad" or "I was happy" or I was anything doesn't do anything to connect us to how the character actually feels. However, there is a significant difference between "I was mad" and:
As she stood there listening, her face turned red. It worked its way up from her neck and crept up her cheeks as if it was sneaking up on her eyes. The more red her face became, the tighter her fists clenched and the more her jaw bulged from the pressure of her teeth grinding together. If he had been paying attention, he would have seen the signs of the coming explosion, but he was too busy wallowing, so he was caught completely off guard by the verbal eruption of "You lousy bastard!" and the slap that followed it. He hadn't quite caught up to what was happening when the dishes began flying, the first plate catching him under the eye and covering him with the carefully prepared dinner.
That's not really a paragraph that translates well into first person. You can't see when your face turns red and most people are, actually, completely unaware of their physical reactions to being angry, so a first person description like that is rather like the character talking about her lustrous blonde hair. At any rate, it's the showing of the anger that really allows us to connect with the extent of the anger. And the above paragraph is much different than, say:
As she stood there listening, her face turned red. It worked its way up from her neck and crept up her cheeks as if it was sneaking up on her eyes. When it got there, it spilled out of her eyes as small crystal drops that rolled down the heat of her face. Her teeth ground together and she turned and stomped out of the room. So caught up in wallowing in his own misery, he didn't notice her leave, not then, and kept right on talking.
Those two paragraphs give us two very different reactions to the same statement of "I was mad" and, although you can get a little more detailed in first person than the simple statement, you can't give us the same detail, like the male character continuing on after the female character leaves.

In fact, it's all in the details.
The truth is that first person allows us much more easily to skip the details and go right to the conclusion. Things like, extrapolating from the above paragraph, "I could see that she was getting mad," or, "I knew she was hurt." Instead of showing us her rising anger. And, yes, you can skip those details in third person, too, but it's easier and more natural feeling to skip them in first.

When it comes right down to it, third person, not first, should be your default perspective from which you write. What that means is, unless there is a specific reason for using first person, you should use third person. The perspective you're writing in should serve the story and, if first person doesn't add to the story, if first person doesn't bring something to what you're doing that third can't, you shouldn't be using it. One is not as good as the other where writing is concerned, especially when everyone out there is writing in first person. Which may not seem like a fair thing to say, but when all first person voices sound the same (and they almost all do when "everyone" is doing it), there is nothing to distinguish your book from anyone else's. That's not a problem with third since, to a certain extent, you expect third person to sound the same. It's the observer's view, after all.

Remember, your best question when writing, even about something as basic as perspective (or, maybe, especially in the case of something basic), is "Why?" So, when you ask yourself the question, "Why am I writing this in first person," if your best answer is "Because it's easy," then you need to look at what you're doing. The perspective should serve the story, not the other way around.


  1. I see exactly what your point is and yes, you can't give the same level of description in first person. But I always write in first person, and it has nothing to do with it being easy. It's simply the viewpoint I feel most comfortable with. I like being inside my MC's head. Does my description suffer because of it? Debatable. Does my MC's voice sound the same as everyone else's? No. That's where dialogue and action come in to play.

  2. I favor first person when I write. Much like Ellie, I also enjoy being inside my character's head and then conveying how they feel. It's true, it's easy to "tell" rather than "show" but I think as long as you're aware of it, you can avoid it. For me, I like a bit of description of the main character. Just a bit, so I have a starting place for my imagination.

  3. You're swimming against the current on that one. In "Chance of a Lifetime" I cheated to get a description of Steve becoming Stacey by having him have an out-of-body experience. The first version of Where You Belong was in third person but the first person version worked much better.

  4. I write in both first and third, depending on the story. I wrote Lyon's Legacy in first so I could use Jo's voice. (Later on, we find out that this story is her journal, so it's natural for the story to be in first.) The sequel, Twinned Universes, is mostly told from the POV of her son, Paul, but sometimes I switch viewpoints when I need someone else's perspective. Third person worked best for that story. If the POV has a strong voice, I may write in first, but my default is third.

  5. I've written in both, and I LOVE how personal first person is. It really sucks you into the MC's head and helps you empathize. At the same time, if the MC is at all stupid or silly in their thinking, it will alienate readers. I've got back to third after dabbling with both, although I do have at least 3 books written in first that will remain in first. 3rd is so much easier for showing the entire story. =)

  6. Ellie: You might consider that if it's the viewpoint that you feel most comfortable with that that makes it the one that is easy. That's sort of by definition. When we go outside of our comfort areas, things get more difficult.

    Elsie: It's fine for you to have an idea of what your protagonist looks like as long as your protagonist doesn't monologue about it.

    Pat: Yeah, I know I am. First is popular, right now, but that doesn't mean that it's the right choice for people. I think first is fine for people once they've practiced in third, if that makes any sense. When you have only ever written in first, the POV lacks... variation.

    Sandra: See, and I think that's an important thing to say: "depending on the story," because the story ought to tell you what perspective you need to use. Most people, I think, just write in first and try to make the story fit that viewpoint... and fail.

    Crystal: See, I don't know that I ever feel sucked into the MC's head in first person but, then, that may be just bad first person writing. Even books that are reasonable well-written, I don't feel all intimate with the character (for instance, my recent review of Old Man's War).

  7. It does give many more choices based on the story.

  8. Maurice: I think flexibility is good.

  9. Well, those people who read my article on this in the July issue of IWM ON SALE NOW GO GET IT FOLKS! Click that picture at the top right side of the blog know how I feel, and you touch on it here: do everything for a reason.

    I'll comment on character descriptions: As you note, is it important to the story? I feel like most of those descriptions are important to the writer, or the reader. It's important for people to know that Katniss is beautiful, or whatever, but it doesn't matter to the STORY.

    P.T.'s descriptions of Becky and Scarlet Knight are more important to the story: the contrast between Emma and Becky helps the plot in some cases, and Becky's personality depends in part on the reader knowing that she's overweight.

    I can't recall many descriptions of characters in many books, because I pay them so little attention. The ones I remember offhand are Orr, from Catch-22, whose description was incredibly important to the story because it helped hide what he was doing, and some of the other characters in that book had to be described, too.

    That's all I've got time for, but good article.

  10. "The perspective you're writing in should serve the story and, if first person doesn't add to the story, if first person doesn't bring something to what you're doing that third can't, you shouldn't be using it." I totally agree with this.

  11. Briane: Not having read Hunger Games, I don't know how to respond to that. I mean, is it Katniss that tells us she's beautiful? Because, at that point, it's hardly credible.

    There are things that can be important about descriptions. Let's take Harry Potter, for instance. It's important for us to know about his scar and his unruly hair and the broken glasses. Hermione's hair is also important, as is Ron's. Hmm... Rowling seems to have a thing for hair. Anyway... Beyond those things, though, how they look isn't significant.

    Jessica: Me, too! Oh, wait...

  12. I stand here listening, thinking How can this man be so blind, so selfish... How can he do this to me? And the more I realize how estranged we've become, the louder my heart pounds. We've lost each other, and I can't even remember when.
    I rub my sweaty palms off my skirt, and swallow. He continues to talk in circles, drowning in self-pity, not even looking me in the eyes. My lips tighten. All the things we've shared, what we've been through, our life together just seems to fall apart, right here, right now, and he doesn't even notice. Tears well up in my eyes, blurring his image. I want to say so many things, but the words get stuck in my throat. And what's the use? There's no us anymore.
    It takes all my strength to break out of the daze, but I turn on my heels, and walk away, leaving him there talking, his voice slowly fading into the distance.

    ...I agree that you can't use as much visual description in first person as in third, but you can substitute it with emotional cues, thoughts and perspectives, and thus not lose any of the power. :)

  13. That's true; you can do all of that, which is where 1st can really work. It's too bad that most people writing in 1st stop at "I was mad."

  14. I agree with Veronica. When I write, I "become" the person with all of their thoughts and feelings, almost the same way that an actor would when stepping into a new role.

    I suppose third person would be a challenge and a learning opportunity, but it would feel like an out of body experience. Also as far as love scenes go, I do not want to be the perverted voyeur.

  15. Laura: Challenging your writing is never a bad thing.
    I've never felt like I was having an out-of-body experience...?

  16. I usually don't pay that much attention to descriptions of people in books, but a first person description can be very effective when the narrator is describing someone else. First person is better at conveying opinions, thoughts, and interjected ideas that would sound like the author's voice if used in 3rd person. A lot depends on the story and the type of character and what the author wants us to know about the character.

    An example that I think is good is To Kill a Mockingbird. The narrator brings to life everything around her and vividly depicts how everyone looks and how a child thinks and feels. That book would not be at all effective told in 3rd person.

    Tossing It Out

  17. Lee: True, a lot does depend upon the story, which is why the perspective should serve the story, not the other way around.

  18. I've written exclusively third-person omniscient for over 20 years now, though if a book is focused on just one character instead of an ensemble cast, my writing is closer to third-person limited. I don't get the modern claim that third-person is too impersonal, limiting, old-fashioned, etc. First-person is so overdone these days, all these narrators have started to sound all the same, and pretty impersonal.

    I do enjoy writing short first-person interludes within a book, like a letter, op-ed, journal entry, love note, etc. It lets me get into just one character's mind and voice for a little while.

  19. Carrie-Anne: I agree. How "personal" the story is has nothing to do with what person it's written in but in how the writer conveys the emotions. First person is an illusion.