1. Patriot6
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    Patriot6 New Member

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    Frustrations with 1st Person

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Patriot6, Apr 12, 2010.

    So, I'm working off several brainfarts and time-spenders with the hopes that I can turn them into something much bigger. At first, it was just something I did on the spur of the moment; I felt moved by a certain event (not recently or televised) and, with all the inspirationg begging to come out, I banged out a few pages of... something. Thing is, I can't get away from this something -- I have a desire to add more into it, maybe skip ahead in the timeline and fill something out there.

    Anyway I'm trying to put myself in the main character's position, all while incorporating elements of what is happening around me (just as I was inspired by a certain event). I know many see this as a terrible idea, but I want to give it a shot and see how things work.

    I've found writing in the first person to be quite grueling. I always feel like I'm putting too many "I"s and "Me"s and "My"s. Is this normal? Are there better techniques to writing in the first person?
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    One of the main pitfalls of first person, and one of the reasons so much amateur writing in first person is so terrible is that authors don't distinguish between the character and the narrator in first person. Yes, by all means, get into the head of your MC and see the world as he sees it, but don't forget that there's a whole world beyond your MC, a world that, as narrator, it is your responsibility to inhabit, explore and relate to the reader. A good novel in first person should be able to incorporate plenty of elements that are around the character, so you don't need to keep repeating I, me, if you realise that you can write in first person in a detached way as well as in a totally intimate way. So, if you feel yourself writing too many I's, look at the sentence, see if you can describe what is happening in a more detached way. Often, this will involve switching to a more passive voice, and that's something you need to be careful with (depending on your market), but with a little thought and some creative rewriting, you can generally eliminate the problem of too many first person pronouns by enforcing a separation between narrator and narrated character.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You've put your finger on why first person is a poor choice for most new writers. The tendency is to treat the main character as a third person the reader is constantly watching, observed by himeslf or herself.

    Stop looking inward all the time. Look outward instead. Instead of "I saw Jake leaving the bus stop," write "Jake was just leaving the bus stop."

    Even so, you may find there are actions the first person character takes that cannot be written without I or me, and it can make first person very tedious to read. You have to break up the action more with (outward) observations, dialogue, and so on to sound less egocentric.

    There is no doubt about it - writing first person well is more challenging than writing third person successfully.
     
  4. Patriot6
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    Patriot6 New Member

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    Good advice; I'll get around to posting snippits of the stories.

    My problem with third person is that it feels too hollow and overdone... then again, every other attempt at writing I've done has been in third person.

    I guess I'm just going first person because I want to test a new medium.
     
  5. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    The first-person perspective, by its very nature, is going to lead to writing with a lot of "I"s and "me"s in it. That isn't bad in of itself (try writing third person without using "he" and "she" just as much), but it can sound pretty bad if you group too many of them together. This is probably best illustrated by the example below:

    Kind of grating, right? Now read it again in third-person.

    Doesn't sound as bad, does it? And all I did was replace the first "I" with the character's name and all the other "I"s with the pronoun "he." The third-person perspective is more forgiving of "I did this, I did that" writing. (Not that I'm advocating that kind of writing. I just wanted to point out that it's not as painfully obvious in the third-person POV.)

    Now, how to handle first person well! Don't worry, I'm not going to attempt to cook up a shining example of my own. Much better to point to a master. The following is an excerpt from Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler:

    I think I'll let the prose speak for itself. That's how you write first person.

    One last point I'd like to make: Third person doesn't have to sound hollow and overdone. (And if it does, it's the fault of the writer.) In fact, you can easily get the intimacy of the first-person viewpoint in third person. To illustrate, I'll convert the above excerpt from Bloodchild into third person:

    Same intimacy, third person, and all I did was switch a few "I"s for the character's name and some pronouns.

    So why use first person at all? Why not just write everything in third person. Well, good question. The vast majority of stories published are written in third person. And there's a good reason for that.

    First person is distant in time--if you're using past tense, which I'll assume you are. (First-person present is a whole 'nother can of worms.) The narrator is telling the reader about something that happened to him/her in the past. That has certain implications. For example, during moments of peril, you know the narrator is going to be fine in the end because you wouldn't be hearing the story otherwise. Now, that's neither good nor bad; it's just a consequence of first-person past.

    Third person is distant in space. The action can feel very immediate--no sense of distance in time--even though it all happened in the past, but you have a sense of being detached from the action, as if watching everything through an invisible camera that's following everyone around. The time problem of first person can't be easily solved without dabbling with present tense, but we've all seen the space problem of third person worked around quite well. (My third-person translation of the excerpt taken from Bloodchild being a great example.) This is called third-person limited using deep penetration. It is basically first-person made into third-person. The advantage is you can back out of that character's thoughts, or even his/her viewpoint altogether, much easier than you can with first person.

    Anyway, I could go on and on about this stuff, but to sum up the rest of what I wanted to say: It's all about the flavor you want for your story. First person is hard to work with and is, frankly, fraught with perils that you don't have to deal with--or that are at least easier to deal with--in third person, but first person sounds and feels different from third person, and sometimes that's just what you want for a story. If you have a strong narrator with an interesting way of spinning things inside his or her head--think Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye--then feel free to go for it. Maybe it's just the flavor you're looking for.
     
  6. Delphinus
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    Delphinus Senior Member

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    I think - what do I think? I think that mastering first-person is a task that takes some thought and practise. It's the creme brulee of the tenses; easy to get wrong with disastrous consequences, but delicious if you can pull it off. Second person is the fuku; poisonous if prepared without a great deal of skill, but a delicacy when served by a member of the select élite who know how to handle it. And third? Third is the chocolate cake; easy to get right, and delectable to the majority of palettes, but soon becoming cloying and sickly sweet unless a delicate touch is applied to its preparation.

    But don't trust me! I'm an unreliable first-person non-omniscient narrator! This writing style deliberately invites you to interpret my words for yourself, and although your attempts to circumvent the bias of my sick and depraved mind might end in failure, the cerebral exercise provided by the mere attempt is invaluable.
     
  7. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    Phantasmal, the example you gave sounds more like a third person piece switched the first person at the last second. There's absolutely no difference in style from third person, except for switching "he" with "I." That, in my opinion, is not a good first person style. The narrator is supposed to be the character, and therefore we're supposed to see his thoughts, not summaries of his thoughts.

    I would post my own professional example to illustrate what I'm talking about, but the few books we have in first person... I despise for one reason or another. So I'll just post an excerpt from an older piece of my own writing. I'm NOT looking for critique here; I know it's not a masterpiece, and I know there's a little cluster of I's near the end. I'm just using it as an example.

    Then again, maybe there's a reason the author in your example wrote it that way. That's beyond my ability to guess. All I can say is personally, I don't like that style. It reads more like third person.

    My opinion is that first person narrative should be written in the voice of the character playing the role of the narrator. He/she doesn't just slip in and out of the role at certain moments of interest--he's got the job for the entire story. If the narrator has a few thoughts about something that just happened, the just say it. Don't give a summary, and certainly don't add "I thought" at the end of it. That sort of defeats the purpose of first person. And lastly, don't use words or references that the narrator wouldn't actually use. No modern third graders saying "This has turned out to be quite an imponderable chain of affairs," and no stereotypical hillbillies referencing ancient Japan. Not even in the narrative. Unless there's some reason for it.

    Pretty much, if you can take out every "I" and substitute them with "he/she/a character's name," then your story isn't in first person. It's third person and wishing it weren't. That's what I think, anyway.
     
  8. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    Anything written in first person can be converted to third person; you hit the nail right on the head. There is nothing magical about the first person perspective. I personally like it--I think it gives the story a different feel that's sometimes desirable--but truth is truth. The one thing first person has over third person is ease of access to the POV character's thoughts. It can be done in third person, and is all the time, but if you want to spend a lot of time inside the character's head , then first person is going to be superior in most cases.

    Pick up a copy of the full story. Those two paragraphs I pulled were from a part of the story that was more "doing" than "thinking."

    Yes it is. It may not be the kind of first-person story that you enjoy, but it's still first person. :p
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Sorry, but that's incorrect. What you will end up with will probably be third person limited, but in any case the result is third person narrative. Chances are you'll need to make some changes other than pronoun/noun/verb transformations to make it work right, but it is, nevertheless, a change in narrative voice.
     
  10. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    Thing is, I've always felt you're supposed to be in the character's head the entire time, not just at certain moments. We have our own thoughts and feelings about pretty much everything that happens around us. We might not take the time to put those thoughts into words, but they're still there. Why not use that to flavor the narrative? It makes it feel more like the narrator is telling the story rather than jumping in at random moments and then disappearing. And besides that, beefing up the narrative a bit can help separate clusters of unavoidable I's and me's.

    Of course there's nothing magical about first person. But it is supposed to be different. The examples given were no different from third person, save a few pronoun swaps. I think that if you can substitute every "I" with another pronoun and have it read well without changing much of anything else, then there's almost no reason to write it in first person rather than third.
     
  11. Phantasmal Reality
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    Phantasmal Reality Contributing Member

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    I was referring to a narrative that uses the first-person pronouns "I" and "me." Even if it reads like a third-person narrative and can easily be translated into one, the fact that the narrator exclusively refers to him or herself as "I" and "me" makes it, by definition, a first person narrative.

    A first person story that stays in the narrator's head the entire time is going to turn most readers off. You need to balance it. The nice thing about first-person is that when you do want to get at the character's thoughts, it's very easy and transparent. That's why first-person stories should spend a good deal of time in the narrator's head. The character's musings shouldn't be the whole story, however. A story in which nothing happens, even if commented on by the most interesting of narrators, is still going to be as boring as watching paint dry to most readers. Maybe you can pull it off, but... good luck.

    First person is different, but that doesn't mean it has to be so different that it can't be translated into an equivalent third-person narrative. Just for reference, though, tell me if the following excerpt from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is more like what you're thinking of when you think of first-person narratives:

    This would be impossible to translate into third person because it takes advantage of first person's greatest strength: speaking directly to the reader. There is no fourth wall in first person. If the author takes advantage of that, the result is something for which there is no third-person parallel. Not every author chooses to do that, though. Nor is there any rule that he or she has to. That's really all there is to say.

    (Apologies for my previous statement that anything written in first person can be translated into third person. I forgot about this important exception.)

    I've enjoyed this conversation. Very stimulating. :)
     
  12. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    Yeah, that's more like what I think of when I imagine first person. Like the character is speaking to someone, or writing down his literal thoughts. The example I gave is generally how much of my stories are written, more or less.
     

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