Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Viewpoint: First Person

I think I got a good start on diving back into the new project. I wrote a new first scene/prologue. But then I got waylaid while trying to plan the new version of the next scene because I needed to figure out who the characters in the scene were, and I couldn't find my name book. Without the name book, I couldn't seem to get past names starting with G. I don't know why I was stuck on G, but I somehow was, and none of the names were right. I found the book just before I had to leave for ballet class, but in the meantime, I'd figured out everything but the names.

It's writing post time again, and I need some new topics, so if you've got a question about writing craft, the life of a writer or the publishing industry, please ask!

Point of view is one of those topics that's just about guaranteed to start a debate if you get enough writers together. It's almost as bad as Mac vs. PC. Some people have very strong, practically religious feelings about viewpoint. Readers also may have strong preferences.

The two main viewpoints used in fiction are first-person and third-person. First-person POV would be the "I" books, where the narrator is a character in the book and is telling his/her own story in his/her own words. Third-person POV would be the books where the narrator is not a character in the story and instead is an outside, unnamed storyteller. Second-person POV ("you" books) does occasionally come up, but mostly in "choose your own adventure" type stories (though I think it was popular in the drugs-and-money novels of the late 80s).

The various POVs have their own strengths and weaknesses and lend themselves to different kinds of stories.

First-person is good for creating both intimacy and suspense. The tone can be very conversational and confessional, with the voice of the character built into the narration, and for that reason, this viewpoint is very popular for chick lit and women's fiction. With this viewpoint, the reader is limited to the information available to the narrator character, which keeps the reader in the dark about the motivations and actions of other characters the same way the viewpoint character is, which creates a sense of mystery and tension. That's a big reason why this viewpoint is very popular for mystery novels. It puts the reader in the sleuth's shoes because the reader doesn't have access to any information that the sleuth doesn't have, and the reader has to solve the mystery along with the sleuth. This viewpoint is also very popular in urban fantasy, which in its current incarnation is an offshoot of the mystery/detective novel, with a lot of chick lit influence.

Some pros, cons and things to remember about first-person POV:
-- I've heard some readers/writers say they need to know the reason the narrator is telling the story -- it needs to be a diary, letters, etc. I don't necessarily hold with that because I just assume that it's a memoir the character is writing at some undefined moment in the future. However, I do think you need to keep your narration in character, and that means you need to think about who your narrator is. Not all characters lend themselves to first-person narration. If a character is unassuming and doesn't like to brag about his deeds, and yet he's the hero of the story, he won't make a good narrator because it would be out of character for him to tell the story of his deeds. Or a narrator might not be a good fit for the story you want to tell. A shy or prim person probably isn't going to describe her love life in graphic, intimate detail, so if you want a sexy book with that kind of character, first-person POV might not be the way to go.
-- On a related note, the thing to remember about a first-person narrator is that he/she knows he/she is a character in a story. Narrators are making a conscious decision to tell this story to others. They can choose which details to share and which to leave out. This means that this viewpoint is good for unreliable narrator stories in which the narrator is deliberately misleading the reader by leaving out some crucial bit of information or by lying.
-- The first-person narrator doesn't have to be the main character/hero/protagonist of the story. It can be a sidekick telling the story of another person, like Dr. Watson telling the stories about his friend Sherlock Holmes.
-- Because the narration is limited to what the narrator knows, you'll need to find a way to put your narrator character as close to the action as possible. Otherwise, you may fall into the trap of "telling" instead of "showing," with other characters telling the narrator character about what happened elsewhere. It can be a challenge to find interesting ways for the narrator to find out about things that happened when he/she wasn't present. Your narrator really should be present for any major turning point scenes.
-- It's very easy to go overboard with introspection when using this viewpoint. The narrative itself feels like dialogue, and so you may find yourself going on and on with the character's thoughts. Some of that is part of the appeal of first-person POV, because it's fun to know exactly what the character thinks, but you don't want the whole book to be interior monologue. You still need a good balance of dialogue, introspection and action.
-- One criticism I've heard of this viewpoint is that it eliminates some of the suspense from the story because if the character is telling his/her own story, then obviously he/she survived whatever horrible ordeal in order to tell about it. There is some validity to that. A diary format may work fine for a book about career and dating, but doesn't work so well when it's about adventure or life-threatening danger because the character is obviously writing the entry after the fact. I did once read a book in which the first-person narrator died -- the story got to just before the big, climactic scene, then stopped. The next chapter had a different narrative voice and told about the big event, the previous narrator's death, and then the finding of the journal (the previous parts of the book) in the rubble.

Next time, I'll tackle third-person POV.

No comments: