1. daemon
    Offline

    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2014
    Messages:
    1,361
    Likes Received:
    982

    Style First person present by necessity

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by daemon, Nov 17, 2014.

    This is a question to anyone who dislikes first person present for any given reason, since there are a lot of you out there. Especially anyone who has ever said it is just a gimmick to make the narrative feel more immediate.

    To decide on a narrative mode for my novel, I have followed a process of elimination that has led me to conclude the only narrative mode that really works is first person present. But I have not made a decision. With the following information in mind, would you forgive first person present, or do you have a better alternative?

    This is the process of elimination:

    Person

    The protagonist does not really have anyone to talk to about what is important to her. (No one knows who she is or remembers anything she says.) But the thing is, the very point of the novel is for the reader to get to know her (eliminating second person). So her words have to come out somehow. Either she talks to herself, she writes the story of her life (even though her writing is invisible to everyone else), or the reader is placed directly inside her head.

    A character who spends half the time talking to herself gets annoying really fast (eliminating third person).

    Furthermore, third person somewhat defeats the thematic purpose. The protagonist is a nonperson because the world's collective knowledge keeps rewriting itself as if she never existed. I would interpret a third person story of her life as some kind of piece of history that was not rewritten, which would falsely imply her existence is not entirely erased from the world's collective knowledge.

    That leaves first person.

    Tense

    The last words of the book are the last words she says/writes/thinks in her life. By the end of her life, she has lost all her own memories. Therefore, there is no point at which she can look back on her entire life. That eliminates a completely after-the-fact past tense mode, leaving epistolary and present tense.

    Epistolary actually has a certain appeal; in fact, this novel is inspired by an epistolary novel (fictional journal) that works quite well. However, when I think about it, the logic justifying her motive to write the journal breaks down. Maybe if I studied real journals, then I would change my mind. But as it is, since no one else can read her writing, she is writing it either for herself or in vain hopes that someone will be able to read it one day.

    For herself: she is just not really the type of person who would feel the need to write about her experiences to... remind herself of her experiences. If she writes for herself at all, then her writing probably just consists of research notes and/or wish-fulfillment fantasies (born of starvation for meaningful human contact). Either way, it would be difficult at best to make a good novel out of that, and I cannot justify why she would keep writing after she loses her own memory.

    For posterity: she is passionate about leaving a legacy by contributing to the arts and sciences. And she has a lot to contribute. If she writes anything in hopes that someone will read it one day, then I cannot imagine that she would spend her time writing about herself. She would write about ideas in the same way she would write about them if others could read her writing, although her views certainly change over the course of the novel.

    That leaves present tense.

    In addition to that process of elimination, there is my general finding that, in any fictional writing, first person eliminates the need to filter subjective human experiences through filtering (e.g. "this is the most beautiful place in the world" vs. "this is the most beautiful place she has ever seen"), and present tense allows the narration to move back and forth in time more freely. Along with some other general findings that favor first person present.

    So after all that, if first person present is still intolerable, then what would be tolerable without breaking the story?
     
  2. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,566
    Likes Received:
    3,563
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    Sounds like for your story the present tense is the way to go, then. I'm not sure why you need your choice validated by people who generally don't enjoy reading present tense. I've seen authors use it in a way I don't much enjoy, but I've also read books where it's been done well, like Jay McInerney's Story of My Life. If I were you, I wouldn't get too bothered by people who prefer 3rd, just do my thing and do it well.

    You don't need to use filters in 3rd person either.
     
    daemon likes this.
  3. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    I am not convinced by your rationale. But it doesn't matter. It's your story, and your choice of person and tense will work, or it won't. If it fails, you can try a different approach, or you can give up. Or you can try again to make it work, using your original choices.

    Succeed or fail, you have an opportunity to learn.
     
    daemon likes this.
  4. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,975
    Likes Received:
    5,497
    Your post seems to assume that the existence of the book needs to have some explanation in the context of the book. I would say that most books have no plausible excuse for their existence, in the context of the book.

    Dresden, for example, of the Dresden Chronicles, isn't seen frantically scribbling down every word that he said in every conversation, or recording the conversations, or casting a spell to replay his life so that he can write it down. The stories are told in first person from his point of view, with no hint whatsoever of how those events ended up being put on paper.

    And that's just one example, I'd guess that well over half of first person books have no real explanation of how the events got to be in a book, and a much larger majority of third person books also have no such explanation.

    If I were writing this book with your stated goals, I would write it in third person past tense.
     
    daemon likes this.
  5. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    It always amuses me that some people are so against using certain combinations of POVs and tenses.

    @daemon, when I first read your post, I was thinking of suggesting going the epistolary route, but if you think first person present is better, go for it. I don't mind first person present tense at all. Of course, this is just one reader's/writer's opinion.
     
    Jack Asher and daemon like this.
  6. A_Jones
    Offline

    A_Jones Member

    Joined:
    Nov 12, 2014
    Messages:
    21
    Likes Received:
    7
    I had the same exact issue. I hated first person. I thought it was badly and overly used in YA but I found that there was no other way to go. Now I almost exclusively write it. It is probably one of the hardest tenses to write so do your best. Dont let anyone get in the way of how you think you should write your book. I have met lots of people and have talked to them about 1st pres and almost all of them have told me of books that they read and didnt even realize they were 1st pres till after they were finished. As long as you do a good job, there will be no issues.

    Dont let anyone tell you any differently, your book is yours to make all the decisions you want. Good luck and keep writing!
     
    daemon likes this.
  7. daemon
    Offline

    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2014
    Messages:
    1,361
    Likes Received:
    982
    To clarify my intent, I ask the question less to seek validation and more to understand (in the context of my own project) the reasoning of people who do not tolerate 1st person present, especially those who make blanket statements like "it is a gimmick" or "it is unnatural". Maybe they know something I do not. Which is why I asked for recommendations in the OP. Or maybe I can provide an enlightening counterexample to those blanket statements.
    Are you referring to the use of italics to represent a character's thoughts? Like this:

    "She stared at the pictogram.

    Now, does this one refer to a tree or a flower?"

    Instead of:

    "She stared at the pictogram and wondered whether it referred to a tree or a flower."

    Or different way to avoid filtering in 3rd person?
    Could you clarify? Do you mean you have in mind a way, other than 1st person present, to accomplish what I am trying to accomplish, and it works in a way I overlooked? (If you do, then I am interested in learning about it.)

    I realize and accept that I have to do my own work, no one can tell me how to write my story, the only way to figure out what really works is to try it and see how it turns out, etc., but if I am wrong about anything, then I would really like to know why.
    Point taken that there does not need to be an in-universe explanation of how or why the story is told.

    In third person past tense, how do you convey a character's thoughts, especially questions she asks herself, and her thoughts about the future? With italics like the example I wrote above?
     
  8. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,975
    Likes Received:
    5,497
    An example: (Edited to add: And, no, I wouldn't use italics.)

    She stared at the pictogram. Did it refer to a tree or a flower? Probably a flower, knowing Jane. Flowers, puppies, fat-cheeked children, that was Jane's thing. Bleah.

    She looked at the next slide, and smiled. Much better; here's an artist. Who...wow. John? Who knew John could draw?

    She reached for the phone and went through the tiresome whirr whirr whirr process of using the rotary dial. She mis-dialed twice, and was in a cursing mood when John finally picked up the phone. "John. What the Hell are you doing in data analysis when you can draw like this?"
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2014
    KaTrian, daemon and Renee J like this.
  9. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    One thing I'll add is that a lot of YA novels today use first person present. So your approach may be easier to sell to a potential editor/publisher if you're writing YA fiction.

    Also, you should definitely read some books written in first person present. Ask yourself why the author chose to go that route. There are plenty of great writers who have used first person present at some point, including Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Samuel Beckett.
     
    daemon likes this.
  10. daemon
    Offline

    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2014
    Messages:
    1,361
    Likes Received:
    982
    So basically the third person narrator has the same voice that the protagonist would have if narrating in first person, asks the same questions, makes the same interjections, etc. That works pretty well. I like how your example is written.

    How do you handle thoughts about the future? It feels natural to write sentences like these in first person present (where the narrator is alone with her thoughts):

    "Jane, if you ever remember me, then please forgive me for this..."
    (third person past: "Jane, if you would ever remember her, then hopefully you would her for this...")

    "When I die, will even my corpse be forgotten?"
    (third person past: "When she would die, would even her corpse be forgotten?")

    "Jane.
    John.
    As long as I live, I will do the remembering for us."
    (third person past: "Jane. John. As long as she would live, she would do the remembering for them.")

    The meaning of each of those lines is totally lost in the translation and I cannot think of a way to do better.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,975
    Likes Received:
    5,497
    I'm giving your examples a try, adding some detail because it's hard to rewrite just the exact words; you usually need to also tweak some of the sentences that they're set in.

    When you're deep into the character's POV, you can sometimes use literal thoughts, and you still don't need the italics:

    She hesitated. Not too late to stop. Not too late to change her mind. Not...

    No. Do it. She reached out, she turned the lever, and then it was too late. Finished. Done. Please forgive me, Jane. If you even remember me, please understand.

    Edited to add: I just realized that I also did a tense switch, and therefore a switch into literal thought, in my previous example--"Much better; here's an artist" is literal thought.

    She winced at their vague, polite nods. They'd forgotten her; she was a stranger again. When she died, would even her corpse be forgotten?

    She studied the painting, arms folded. John's masterwork. Would the world appreciate it? Would they remember him? She took a breath and closed her eyes for a moment. She'd remember him. As long as she lived, she'd do the remembering for the world.

    The closed eyes above makes it a little excessively...something, but something else could be substituted. I just wanted an action to re-link to the character, so that the continuing thoughts don't feel like they're an omniscient narrator's.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2014
    Okon and daemon like this.
  12. 123456789
    Offline

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    6,346
    Likes Received:
    3,092
    @daemon

    Put up a page of your WIP and I'll tell you whether I think first person present works or not (and why)
     
    daemon and KaTrian like this.
  13. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,566
    Likes Received:
    3,563
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    @ChickenFreak got it covered. :) That's what I meant by not using filters.
     
    daemon likes this.

Share This Page