1. Anarchist_Apple84
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    Anarchist_Apple84 Senior Member

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    Any tips on using first person narrative successfully?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Anarchist_Apple84, Jan 12, 2012.

    As topic title really.

    Does anybody use first person a lot?
    How do you keep a lot of variety within the limitations of first person?
    Do you know of any very good examples of a strong first person voice?

    I'm not used to using it yet and finding it trickier than I expected! Any tips/hints would be great.

    Thanks

    - Apple
     
  2. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    First of all, you need a main character that can withstand what is called the "elevator test." How would you feel if you were stuck in an elevator with this person for 40 hours? Because that's kind of what a reader is going to experience when they read your book. They have to like the character. That doesn't mean the character has to be a good person, only that they find them undeniably interesting. Also keep in mind that your character is very limited in what he or she perceives. And secondary characters may be portrayed completely differently, since he or she will make her own judgments and come to his or her own conclusions about the others, and that will affect how the story unfolds.

    In a project I am currently working on, I originally had it in third person. But I found I was having a tough time both telling the story and conveying my main character. When I switched to first person, I found her voice was much more interesting and the story unfolded more naturally. I think first person vs. second person depends on the story and main character.

    Some great books written in first person:
    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (book 1, haven't read the rest)
    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
    Trainspotting by Irvine Welsch

    Those probably have more literary merit than my last recommendation, but I got a great feel for the first person after reading this book:
    Manson in his Own Words by Nuel Emmons
    It's famous cult leader Charles Manson's story as told by him. A quick read, and very intriguing. If you like to get in the minds of crazy people, I highly recommend it.
     
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  3. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Lolita. Brilliant first-person narrative. An excellent use of an unreliable narrator as well.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Look outward, not inward.

    Don't obsess over the MC's feelings, thoughts, doubts, etc. Don't say "I saw a road winding into the gloom of the forest." Say instead, "The road ahead lead into the gloom of the forest."

    You'll avoid a bad case of the "Aye yi I I" disease as well as not seeming like a self-absorbed narcissist.
     
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  5. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is probably the greatest single piece of advice you can receive on the matter. Your narrator is a window through which we (the readers) view the story. Please don't close that window and trap us indoors. Unless your narrator is incredibly conceited, or a narcisist, or a philosopher, don't bog your story down with heavy "thought sessions."

    S/he should be doing things, observing things, and getting caught up in the various plot-related events, not sitting around trapped in his/her own head. You develop his/her character by how s/he reacts to things and through his/her narrative voice, not by drowning us in paragraphs of what s/he thinks or feels.


    Also, I would add a piece of advice of my own: don't be afraid to switch narrators. Different narrators have different limitations. Each one comes with his/her own narrative voice and personal spin on the story. I developed a love of the first person POV after reading William Faulkner's As I lay Dying in high school. I can hardly remember the gist of the story, but I distinctly recall the way each narrator was different from the last. The chapters would sometimes overlap, with a new narrator giving his/her take on something the previous narrator already showed.

    Finding each character's unique voice is half the fun of writing in first person. A chapter narrated by Bob should not sound like the one narrated by Jim, even if they're talking about the same thing. And watch out for that evil authorial voice. It'll try to sneak in at the worst moments. Your character is the author now; don't let your voice/opinions/beliefs get in the way of that. Strange, I know, but it's something you'll adust to in time and your story will be better for it.
     
  6. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    You know who was good at this? K.A. Applegate in the series Animorphs. Each book was narrated by one of the six main characters. Each had their own spin on what was happening throughout the series. Applegate screwed a LOT of stuff up in that series (mostly due to a one-month-turnaround!), but her first person narration was quite good.
     
  7. astroannie
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    astroannie Member

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    I don't have advice, exactly, as my first-person narratives have yet to be published. I did get an "expand and resubmit" from an editor on one of them and I can work from the notion that I have some clue or the editor would have politely rejected the story.

    Cogito is right. Don't have a lot of "I" statements. In my writing, my characters tend to focus on their environment and their perceptions of it. Sure, as AnonyMouse says, we're viewing the story. But don't leave it at vision. We're hearing and smelling and touching and tasting through the narrator as well. Show us the story, don't have your poor narrator talking to us unless it's a journal or diary in the "Dear Diary" mode.
     
  8. Mark_Archibald
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    Mark_Archibald Active Member

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    Looking over my collection of novels some that use the first person narrative to great effect are 'The Hunger Games' series. I've written short stories in the first person as a test bed for a larger piece of work and you do have to alter your way of thinking. Its very easy to use 'I' thirty times on every page, to avoid this problem I've tried to avoid scenes where the character is alone. If two or more characters are in a scene you can use 'me' and 'my' to avoid redundancy of 'I'.

    That's the best advice I have.
     
  9. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    Four percent of your post was use of "I" or "me" (which should be considered to be the same as using "I"). Just thought you'd like to know.

    It's a rare novel written in first person that captures my interest. I can't even think of any that I actually liked off the top of my head. Oh. Changed my mind. High Fidelity and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Those were both very well written.
     
  10. Mark_Archibald
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    Mark_Archibald Active Member

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    Thanks I'm not the best at grammar, but I'll remember that bit of advice going forward. The point I was trying to stress to OP is that when writing fiction in the first person and your main character is alone in a scene it is very easy to overuse 'I' and it can be a huge headache trying to write around this problem.

    Another bit of advice I have is to try and rid the use of 'I' in your day to day life. People will look at you weird as you take a moment to rework a sentence in your head, but it will train your mind to be efficient at writing in the first person.
     
  11. Foxe
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    Foxe Active Member

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    [/QUOTE]Another bit of advice I have is to try and rid the use of 'I' in your day to day life. People will look at you weird as you take a moment to rework a sentence in your head, but it will train your mind to be efficient at writing in the first person.[/QUOTE]

    Great idea.
    I've been working on a short story in the first person as well and it has been coming along nicely. The flow goes well with the situation but the problem is that there are only two characters in a fairly static environment. Not much happens. I guess I really have to get into the head of this character.
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    in addition to all of the good advice here, mine is to be sure you have a damn good reason for using it in the first place...
     
  13. Anarchist_Apple84
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    Anarchist_Apple84 Senior Member

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    Thanks for all the input guys, you've given me a lot to think about.

    To be honest I feel my story would work a lot better if you were really in the head of the protagonist. Also, there are a lot of twists and turns because things are happening behind the scenes that he (and subsequently the reader) is not aware of.
    I definitely feel it is the right narrative type for my short story.

    Despite the "Aye yi I I" trap that Cogito mentioned, and one I can see being very easily to fall into , I think it's just very tricky to use until you get to grips with it.

    @funkybassmannick - thank you for the examples, I'll get to a book store tomorrow and pick those up :)
     
  14. Mark_Archibald
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    Mark_Archibald Active Member

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    Are we forgetting 'To Kill a Mockingbird'?

    One of the most acclaimed novels in the past century and it is written in the first person.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    then how can you deal with those things, since if something is not known to or felt by the narrator, you can't write about it?
     
  16. Anarchist_Apple84
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    Anarchist_Apple84 Senior Member

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    After the climax of the story I reveal the bits and pieces the protagonist missed, showing how the antagonist was working behind the scenes to make sure everything panned out the way it did. This means the limitations of first person actually benefit my writing, as I'll use a "need to know" basis with the reader until the end, hopefully prompting them to look back through the story for things they missed - that's my intention, anyway!
     
  17. AmsterdamAssassin
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    AmsterdamAssassin Contributing Member

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    I have just one piece of advice - if you can turn your First Person into Third Person without losing anything, you're not doing it right... :D
     
  18. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    I used to be very skeptical of 1st person, I didn't like reading it and didn't like using it. Then, I decided to give it a go and now I find it very difficult not to use it! I think it's important that the narrative style fits with the character. You, the author, are no longer the principle narrator, and you have to approach it as though you are the character. When this is done well, It can make for a much more engaging novel. The problems I still have with it are that in some cases you do sacrifice some suspense (there are ways round this) and you also sacrifice the ability to write from different perspectives (unless you want to do a Stephanie Meyer and have multiple 1st person perspectives in one novel, which I find to be very distracting). The flip side of losing the multiple perspectives is that you often end up with a much tighter and focussed novel.
     
  19. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    Nice Animorphs reference. But you are completely right... there were like 50+ books in that series and 6 characters so she would alternate which perspective the story was told from in each book. Honestly though I think you are making a bigger deal out of the restriction of being forced to write from one perspective. If the story forces you to write from another perspective, you can get away with writing a chapter from another perspective if you want. It's been done before and it doesn't really take away much from the story as long as you aren't doing it all the time.

    Another thing people sometimes don't think about with the first person perspective is that it's an easy way to "restrict" the information that the reader knows about. Think about Sherlock Holmes, written from the perspective of Watson... the parts of the story where you realize Holmes has solved the mystery but you don't yet know the "solution"... it's harder to pull that off in 3rd person without being obvious.
     

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