|I made the mistake once of commenting (on a panel, no
less) to another author that any book written in the first person was fighting an uphill
battle with me. This statement, which expressed (or so I thought) a personal opinion quite
simply and honestly, drew an attack the like of which still leaves me shaking my head.
There was much said of all the books I was missing because I wouldn't read first person
(which I hadn't said), but the most obvious question (at least to me) was never asked:
Why? What is it about first person viewpoint that makes one reader love it and another inclined
to put a book down the minute they see the word "I"?
More generally, why (technically-speaking) choose one viewpoint technique over another?
My preferred style is intense third person ... generally employing several different viewpoints, with viewpoint changes occurring cleanly between scenes, not jumping around between paragraphs within a scene like a hyperactive camera man on speed. I could say something here about what "feels natural," about my one and only creative writing attempt from high school which reflects this style, and about my favorite books growing up and so-forth, but that's not why I choose to write that way now.
Why do I prefer third person?
Third person is inherently the most flexible viewpoint option simply because within its stylistic umbrella you can float seamlessly between first, second, third, intense third and omniscient, thus gaining all the advantages of the other viewpoints while retaining the extreme advantages of the intense third viewpoint.
If writing in third, a shift to first immediately implies tapping into the direct thought processes of the viewpoint character. The phrase "he thought" becomes redundant, making this style not only cleaner and more efficient, but eliminating one layer of explanation between reader and character. Also in third person, it's perfectly comfortable and even natural at times to begin a scene with an omniscient overview that includes authorial observation of the situation, then slides into the intense third viewpoint for the scene itself. (This is a challenge I still hope to meet. CJ Cherryh does it magnificently. Check out virtually any opening scene in any of her books.) This creates a very cinematic mental image of zooming from an overhead establishing shot into place within the character's head.
First person is far less forgiving. A shift to third within a book that has made a "first person agreement" up front with the reader is rarely comfortable and almost always (in my admittedly limited experience) a gimmick to signal a viewpoint character shift.
First person sets an interface that doesn't easily shift for a paragraph or two into another interface. If you've settled into first, the character is telling you his/her story. A shift to third person is a shift away from that implied intimacy, and therefore runs the risk of being taken as an obvious author-manipulation of the reader. This jarring shift tends to make the reader conscious of the style of the writing rather than of the story, thus undermining the fantasy rather than enhancing it. Direct thought processes become clumsy and less immediate, taking the form of explanation rather than direct thoughts.
Variety of Viewpoints:
The number of viewpoints necessary to tell a story is more directly related to the focus of the story being told than to the complexity of the story. There are many excellent books that survive beautifully on a singular vector of information (one viewpoint character, first or third person.) These books, in general, keep viewpoint character "angst" to a minimum. Once you begin to travel that slippery slope into truly tormented minds, or twisted plot convolutions where the motives of both sides are significant, I feel a balance between protagonist self-perception and outside perceptions is useful and frequently essential.
I, as a reader, prefer to be allowed the opportunity to evaluate a character of this sort based on a variety of input. Every viewpoint is inherently biased and if that bias needs to be taken into account for the purposes of the book, that mirror-character, as well as the protagonist, needs to be a viewpoint. The more delicate and complex the character image you're trying to shed light on, the more angles you'll probably need to have on it. A viewpoint shift within an exclusively first person viewpoint book (again in my limited experience) is always accompanied by a chapter heading informing the reader into whose viewpoint they're moving. This is awkward and necessitates the rational intervention of reader intellect to make the shift, breaking, once again, into the fantasy.
With intense third, this signal can be as simple as a shift in the default of the major pronoun within the prose of the scene.
In either instance, the "voice" of the viewpoint character is theoretically the greatest indicator of viewpoint, but unless you're a real prodigy, or happen to be writing characters with inherently idiosyncratic "voices" (i.e. individual cants reflecting social status/group association, foriegn accents or similar obvious differences), this is a master's technique, and not something a beginning or even journeyman novelist should depend upon. The differences might be obvious to you, but not necessarily the reader. (For instance, the Wesser has an enormous vocabulary but tends toward purple prose and loves four letter words...including love. That awareness is on the backburner when I'm in his viewpoint, but it's not necessarily obvious to the reader.)
Depth of perception: basic third vs intense third.
I write very psychological books. This is where the intense third person rather than basic third person becomes invaluable. Beyond character-driven, they are motive- and perception-driven, and Motive and Perception are concepts rarely clearly understood or discussed openly by people with their act together, let alone deeply troubled individuals. I have some characters whom, in order for a reader to understand them, the reader must get to know to a depth the character couldn't realistically articulate. Third person intense gives me a window into those subconscious processes creating a deeply personal rather than a distant (omniscient) authorial commentary on those thoughts. Using intense third, the reader can experience a character's nightmares "real time" with the character, can know the details in a way the character in question couldn't possibly remember after the fact in order to "tell" the reader (i.e. first person-style).
The dreaded "W" word ... Warped or Whiny.
Avoiding the whines is the most delicate balance of all in the depiction of "the tormented character". If the only window the reader has on this character is from within said character's own warped self-image (i.e. in ways they could articulate via a first person narrative), they could be perceived as either cold (the image they choose to project to the world) or that most emphatically to be avoided "w" word: Whiny. Third person allows us to follow their memories with them without the veneer of conscious expression. People remember images and feelings and experiences---the essence of that writerly mantra "show don't tell". To put those images and feelings and experiences into the words "I felt" and "I did" attaches a consciousness to them that I feel frequently results in the "w" epithet.
It is, of course, possible for any character to get whiny, but I think intense third can cross far more deeply into that psychological territory without falling into the black hole of the great W.
<<Hey! Let's be careful here. The Great W could just have other interpretations you know!>>--->The Great Wesser
<Okay, Smith, okay. Just for this article. Deal?>
<<Hmph. Deal. ---Just watch it next time.>>--->TW
Bottom line, if you're a writer and readers who otherwise enjoy the story are complaining that your main character is whiny---Look to the viewpoint. Whether you're writing in first or in intense third, ask yourself, is the character revealing too much? In the case of first, is he complaining to his listener/diary more than he's examining possible answers? In third, is he dwelling on his problems or wallowing in his past more than he's examining and implementing possible solutions?
In first, in trying to impress on the reader the horrors of his situation, am I making him ruminate too much? In third, do I need to bring in another viewpoint to gain the insight in a less personal context?
Credit where it's due:
Please, don't get me wrong. I'm not universally down on first person. From the start, I simply said a book written in first person has an uphill battle to wage to win me over, and many have. First person works great for certain books. Moby Dick most obviously comes to mind: a book written from an observant chronicler of a man caught up in personal obsession---not, you will note, the obsessed personality. There's no attempt to delve into Ahab's mind. The Spencer books, as I recall, were first person, and effectively so: it seems to me first works quite well for the highly focused, clue-driven detective story with its inherently rational, observational storyteller/viewpoint at the helm. There are other exceptions. I believe Michael Moorcock wrote in first person, and certainly ol' Elric is as angst-driven as characters come. I've already mentioned Lynn Abbey's Rise and Fall of the Dragon King and Anne Rice's vampire books, which use the journal-style of first person story-telling quite well, though not in my opinion as effectively as Abbey's book.
Other examples of authors who handle 1st person well that have been pointed out to me since I posted this article:
Fritz Leiber. Norman Spinrad. H.P. Lovecraft. Nicholson Baker. Ian M Banks. L.G. Bucheimm (Das Boot). Peter HØeg (Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow).
In point of fact, most of these were short story examples. One thing I might not have made clear, I feel first person frequently works extremely well in the focused realm of short story. I am primarily a novelist and so tend to think with a bias toward that literary form.
Granted, there are those books out there that successfully overcome my anti-first person bias, but I've read (or started to read) far more books that for me simply couldn't even make it up the first third of the mountain. To me, first is so inherently limiting that even before I started writing myself I found myself going "but, but, but, but, but" all the way through the vast majority of first person books I read. There were all these questions being posed by the story without any sort of follow-through---because the character didn't know. Or the credibility of the story came crashing down as the ignorant viewpoint character is conveniently informed by some loudmouth in a bar about the guy about to assassinate him. Which leads us to:
Viewpoint is the writer's primary control on what the reader knows, when they know it, and with what spin attached. First person, by its very nature and when properly utilized, is a single viewpoint story, and the fewer the viewpoints available to the author, the more questions that must go unanswered. Controlling the introduction of those questions is a highly delicate operation.
It can be done, and Carolyn Cherryh, who always writes intense third, has nonetheless written no few stories with that single-voiced limitation. But she is a master at constructing the information flow and designing the character to have the insights necessary to acknowledge, if not completely answer, those questions. How many writers ... particularly the new ones who are those most likely to write first person ... can make that claim?
Certainly I can't. Yet. We all have our goals.
Oh, can this one get sticky to discuss! When I've asked, people who prefer first person always talk about how closely they identify with the viewpoint character...and yet, by its very nature, first person is a character telling their story. "I did this." "I felt that." An immediate separation takes place, a distance from the events and the emotions. I suspect this is why so many successful (IMO) first person novels end up being journals of one sort or another: there is an honesty about a book that declares up front what the reader's gut instinctively says has to be.
Far be it from me to second guess a reader's evaluation of his/her reaction to a book, but to listen to readers talk about a first person book and/or its viewpoint character, I have begun to wonder if it is identification that's taking place, or that intimate feeling of someone confiding their deepest secrets to you. I wonder if it's not identification with the main character that is inspired by first person, but rather the glow of "treasured confidante."
Why might someone prefer to be a confidant rather than the character? I don't think that's difficult to understand. Angsty characters are inherently uncomfortable. They raise questions about themselves and if you're identifying directly with them, you're being asked to suffer those same uncomfortable feelings. So: (a) It's safer: those perils are never really yours. You know the individual survived ... he/she is telling you about the experience. (b) Treasured confidante is the most time-honored level of friendship. The reader knows this person who has experienced all this self-doubt feels safe coming to them to tell them the story in all its intimate detail, possibly looking for answers, and that gives the reader an almost p/maternal sense of self. (c) It's far easier (more comfortable and safe) to empathize with self-doubt than to directly experience it.
And if not treasured confidante, if the main character is not directly revealing his/her story to the reader, it is conveyed through a journal. If that is the case, then it just seems to me that "connection" is the thrill of voyeurism as one delves into the private journals of the viewpoint character, or the connection between historian/chronicler and student of history. Nothing wrong with it: this type of voyeurism of everything from personal letters to graffiti gives the historian/anthropologist the most direct contact with the mindset of the people living in a long dead world.
But it's not stepping into the shoes of the person who wrote that letter. In my opinion, to accomplish that requires intense third. On the very rare occassion, so rare I almost hesitate to mention it, first person present tense can almost accomplish the same effect. But while I've seen this ploy used several times, and a couple of times with some success, I have yet to see it truly justified.
The great fakeout:
The biggest problem with first person, as I see it, is that it fools the new writer into thinking it's the easiest, most natural style of story-telling when in fact, it's among the most difficult, a master's tool, not an apprentice or even journeyman's tool, because it is the most limiting of options. The more constraints you place on a story from the start, the harder it is for that story to grow to its full potential and for you, the writer, to tell that story effectively.
Let's be honest about readerly preference:
Even if you agree with all the above, the reality of publishing is, first person and detached third sells better. They are easier, more comfortable, escapist interfaces than intense third. At it's best, intense third reaches into a reader's gut and twists...not with superficial fantasy fears, but with real self-examination. The majority of the reading public doesn't really want to do that. If you're looking to be the next Stephen King, first or detached third is probably the way you want to go.
In general, best sellers don't appeal to me, even if they are good stories. Anne Rice was the closest I could come to a widely recognizable referent when I was writing the article and I read Interview with the Vampire twenty years ago, and out of curiosity about a fantasy a book that was required reading for a university lit class. I was working at the university book store at the time and figured it was something I should know about. I found it interesting, but still not as powerful as it might have been, had it been written in third.
Personally, I find Ms Rice's Cry to Heaven far more involving...and it has never achieved a fraction of the attention that her vampire books have. And guess what? It's written in fairly intense third person.
The fact is, third person intense is not for everyone and certainly not for every book. I read and enjoy many books that are straight-forward narrative romps. Few of these books require an intense viewpoint, and could, in fact, bog down under the weight of intense character probing.
The pitfalls of intense third person:
Intense third can become padded and convolute, it can create mires that impede the forward flow of the narrative. My books have been accused of just those faults. The comment has also been made about the same books that the pace is so intense the reader was left exhausted afterward. Go figure.
Ultimately, only the author can know what is "right" for the story he meant to tell, however, if readers who otherwise enjoyed the book are coming back with consistent complaints, it might be time to examine the options, and one of the main options you have as a writer is viewpoint.
If you are a writer and your story is primarily a series of events, you might well choose to back off from intense and concentrate on pure narrative. It's possible that first will do well for you, but if you find yourself creating unbelievable scenarios through which your hero can derive necessary information, you might consider multiple third instead.
So why do I choose third person intense? Because I see no reason to deprive myself of fifty to seventy-five percent of my arsenal of writerly tools and because for me, in the end, the primary story lies in the people, not in the events.