Wednesday, July 16, 2014

No Respecter of (Third) Persons: Part Two -- The God Problem

All right, so we were talking about third person and why it's preferable to first, especially when you use it. Again, I don't necessarily mean you you, but I do mean the general you that's out there, 95% of whom are all writing in first person. Seriously, there was a study. Okay, well, I bet there really was a study, but I'm not actually citing any study. I'm just saying... The actual study was actually with ewes, and that study found that all ewes, all ewes that write, that is, write in first person. As it turns out, ewes aren't very imaginative, and most of the stories they write, something like 99.8% of them, contain a wolf or a big bad wolf as the antagonist. The other .02% contain a bear. The most frequent line in manuscripts by ewes is "I was scared," followed closely by "I was afraid," and even more closely by "I was terrified." Some of them write in present tense, too, so it's "I am scared."

The literary history of sheep. It's a thing.

So anyway...

Why shouldn't you write in first person? You should definitely go back and read part one of this to find out the obvious reasons. The other reason is larger but more subtle. Not as noticeable in general but more pervasive. It's the thing I think that most often wrecks first person manuscripts. I call it the "God Complex."

This problem springs up because, as the author of whatever you're writing, you know everything. That knowledge, however, does not extend to your protagonist... or, at least, it shouldn't, and that's a really hard line to hold in your head. It's the thing that makes first person perspective writing, good first person perspective writing, more difficult than third person perspective writing.

One of the most common abuses of first person, and it is an abuse, is the assigning of feelings of other characters by the protagonist. For instance, "I could see that she was hurt." On the one hand, this seems like a perfectly natural thing to say, and sometimes it is, but there are a couple of main issues with it:
1. It's a shortcut that allows the author to skip showing us the actions of the character in question, and it's the actions that should show the readers the emotions, not just being told what they are.
2. The protagonist is always right about how other characters are feeling which makes for an overly empathetic protagonist. Knowing people and how well people generally relate to each other, I find it difficult to believe in a protagonist that always just knows how every other character is feeling in any given situation.

Another issue is that first person protagonists are always incredibly observant, like Sherlock Holmes levels of observant, and that's also just not realistic. People don't notice things, so, coupled with the empathic-ness just mentioned, it's like every first person story was written by the same superempathic, superobservant hero. And this also goes back to what I said in part one: If you want to give detailed descriptions, just write in third person. At least, that way, it's an outside description and makes sense in setting the scene (or whatever) for the reader.

This also applies to first person protagonists explaining how things work, especially in sci-fi novels. When your protagonist is explaining how devices work, something is wrong:
1. How many of you know beyond, say, a general idea how your television works? Or your car? Or the Internet? Basically, you turn on your thing (whatever that thing is) and you don't worry about it as long as it works. So, when your protagonist goes to use the teleportation device and explains how the thing works (probably because the author had a "cool" idea and just had to put in a description), it's not realistic.
2. Besides, even if you did know how it works, would you explain it to yourself (which is essentially what the character is doing) every time you went to use it? Or the first time each day or whatever? I mean, when you turn the TV on, do you muse to yourself how the remote control activates the television and what brings the picture to the screen? I don't think so.

Your first person protagonist needs to only pay attention to things that s/he would pay attention to, which is actually difficult to do, because there's always more information that the author wants to give other than what the character would be able to give, which leads us to the last thing:

Frequently, in first person stories, the protagonist knows about events s/he should have no knowledge of, both things going on concurrently with the character and historical events (back stories) that the character has no business knowing. It's entirely too easy for the author to make the assumption of his/her knowledge about what is going on the world equate to the protagonist's knowledge, essentially making the protagonist omniscient. And that's true of all the other things I mentioned. Now, really, unless your character is actually God (or a god) or Charles Xavier or someone like that, your character just shouldn't know things.
And it's difficult as a writer to confine yourself that way.

Which is why you should be writing in third person, because, then, you can let us know whatever you want us to know. Even how your nifty teleportation device works.

Or the opposite happens and your character doesn't know basic things about, say, his or her own culture and has to have them explained to her by some other character. For me, that's even more annoying than the character explaining things to herself. For instance, I was reading something recently and, basically, some other character mentioned (the equivalent of) college and the character was, like, "huh? What's college?" Seriously? If your character is that ignorant of his own society, you might want to rethink your choice of protagonist.

All of that to say that I know first person seems like such an easy choice to write in. It's natural and all of that, but it's also way easier to mess up. It's really all about discipline and control, and you ought to learn that stuff by writing in third person where it's not so easy to see when you stray from what you were trying to do.


  1. Well, I do wonder how things work. Like how my smart phone can act as a remote control for my TV. How cool is that? But, when it was explained to me, I tuned out because I was bored and realized I didn't care. I just wanted it to do what it was supposed to do. I'd hate to do the same to my readers.

    I'm working on showing not telling now. It can be pretty rough.

  2. I write a lot in first. It is a more natural way to tell a story and it gives an easier way of connecting with the main character.

    But everything you mentioned here is a problem. I tend to think of my first person narrative a bit differently though. It's a person who is telling you their story, not a person that you have a telepathic link to. The difference is that they are trying to give you the info you need, but you aren't experiencing the world via their eyes necessarily.

    That said, I'm trying to move away from first person in my longer fiction. It's just taking me forever to get any of that stuff out. I do think its a very limited means of telling a story, especially a big one.

  3. When it comes to first person it's best not to think about who the narrator is talking to unless there's a clear framing device like in Frankenstein and Dracula where it's mostly letters or diaries or whatever.

  4. Good points. The objectivity of third person might tend to make a writer think through things and reason out complications, whereas the subjectivity of first person might tend to make the writer take certain things for granted which might be confusing to the reader who doesn't know the same things the writer does.

    First person can flow when writing it, but a lot can be missed in the telling if the writer is essentially acting out the story in his head and not observing other perspectives to a greater extent.

    Tossing It Out

  5. I can see your point Andrew. It takes discipline and control which isn't easy.

  6. Good points. I agree with Pat that having a framing device for first-person narratives can deal with some of these issues.

  7. You know, I started out writing third, then moved to first, then came back to third. I think there's an intimacy you lose when in 3rd, so it's a question of what genre and audience you're writing for. It's definitely true that while writing in first you have to be hyper aware of the potential pitfalls, but when done right, first person is truly my favorite to read.

  8. Elsie: You vaguely wonder but not enough to know, and you wouldn't, probably, go around explaining it to everyone if you did. Not for very long, anyway.

    Rusty: On the one hand, I get what you're saying about the person giving you the info you need to understand, but that puts you in the framework of an old guy in a chair telling you a story, which is fine (actually, I love that; that's like The Hobbit and Narnia), but you can't have that person telling you things that that person wouldn't know.

    Pat: I think a framing device is great, but most people don't bother, so you're left with direct narration to the reader (which, I think, is actually what most people are going for) which is why it's important to limit that narration to what the protagonist would actually know.

    Lee: I think that's a key issue, that acting it out in the author's head. That's why I think third is essential when starting out. You learn how those perspectives work together and learn how to cut out the ones you shouldn't have when working in first.

    Maurice: It does take a lot of discipline, discipline I think most people don't bother with.

    Sandra: Actually, I think they just help you focus on what you should be telling.

    Crystal: See, I think you can be just as intimate in third as in first; it just takes more work.
    I do think that well done first can be great, but at least 90% of what's coming out these days is virtually the same as everything else. There's not a thing that sets it apart, author to author.

  9. I don't write much in first person for all the reasons you listed

  10. I SO wanted to try to write a comment in first person explaining how things were doing. So I am going to.

    "After I read Andrew's post on the blog, I just knew that he was angry at people who use first person. And not just angry-- FURIOUS!!. I could just tell. So I took out my laptop com-puter, and made sure that I pressed the round button that forces the elec-tricity to go from the "battery," where it is stored, into the micro-processor. I could almost hear the "electrons" whirring back and forth like angry bees as they loaded up the "Inter-net," the waves of information beaming wirelessly around my head, coming from"

    AH GOD I'M BORED. Also, I should've thrown something in there about how this is a dystopia with some weird sort of rule, like how Wisconsin has been transformed into a fiefdom of Chicago and we all have to provide 2 pints of blood per day to the Overlord.. Only I'm not going to because Mr. Old Man down the street told me I'm CHOSEN and I will rise up and lead the Cheeseheads in rebellion. He even gave me this box to help us. He said not to open it until the time is just right, and that my heart will tell me when that is.


    And then I saw that Andrew was even FURIOUSER.

    HA HA.

    Anyway, these are awesome points. I think the people who say that there is greater intimacy in first person miss out on the point I made about Nigel's book, that NOT taking a step back and explaining everything can create that same feeling of intimacy. And you're definitely right about the telling how teleportation works. I don't even think to myself how TOOTHBRUSHING works, let alone my laptop or cell phone.

    I did think it might be neat in a scifi novel to have those things as sidebars or something, maybe end notes? So that it doesn't interrupt the flow of the story but is still there if you're interested. And I don't mind explanations if they're well-written. Larry Niven gives all kinds of expository/explanatory stuff but his writing is good enough to carry it.

  11. Nigel: I think they are good reasons.

    Briane: Oh, man, you hit just about every single thing! Plus things I'm going to be talking about next week and the next few weeks. You peeked, didn't you?!

    Almost anything can be done if the writing is good enough.