Elizabeth: I said, She said

ConflictI’ve been working on revisions lately but, since I’m pretty sure talking about my current process would be about as exciting as watching grass grow, I thought I’d talk about something else today instead.

While the (paraphrased) Hippocratic Oath is “first, do no harm”, my writer’s oath in recent weeks has been “first, have some fun.”   This week that fun turned out to be playing around with POV.

I read a fair amount of cozy mysteries, which have a tendency to be written from the 1st person point of view.  After I finished the last one on Saturday, I decided to take the ongoing detective story that I’ve been writing for our Friday Writing Sprint posts and see how it would work in 1st person.  I’m generally not a big fan of the 1st person POV, but sometimes it’s just what the story needs.

While the 3rd person POV has the advantage of being slightly above the story with access to the thoughts and experiences of all the characters rather than just one of them, it generally feels a little distant.  One of the things I enjoy about 1st person stories is that intimate feeling that the character is talking directly to me (the reader).    There is no break in the story flow caused by POV character changes and I really feel like there is a strong connection with the narrator.

The first question I needed to answer as I made the switch was:  who will the 1st person character (narrator) be?  That was a no-brainer.  I have been writing the story installments from Cassie’s POV consistently, week after week.  Although Nicolai appears in the story, he has never had any POV scenes.  Making Cassie the narrator was the obvious choice.

1st person POV has its drawbacks.  Since the story will be filtered through Cassie, she’ll be telling her story, not the entire story.  She will also have to constantly be “on stage” during the story, since if she hasn’t seen something or done something, she won’t be able to tell us about it.  I think that will work well for this story and will allow me to really showcase her personality.  As I’ve been rewriting from 3rd to 1st person, I’ve seen a lot more of that personality come to the forefront and it has given me a much clearer view of Cassie as a character.

1st person POV can be challenging if the narrator is unlikable or uninteresting, but I don’t think that will be a problem with Cassie.  I think she’s pretty entertaining, though I may be biased.  One thing I will have to make sure I avoid is spending too much time in her head “thinking” or “feeling” and not enough time “showing” what’s happening in the story.  So far, there is a lot of back-and-forth banter, so there is no time to get stuck in anyone’s head.

One other concern I have is how to make sure the other characters in the story don’t fade into the background with Cassie doing all of the narration.  That may take a little more thought.  I may have to read a few more 1st person stories – for research of course – to see how other authors have solved that problem.

In the meantime, here’s how the story starts:

I dug through the pile of shoes on the floor, searching for the just the right pair for tonight’s undercover assignment as the Dolphin Lady at Barnacle Bob’s Bordello and Steakhouse.

Perfect.  I fished a pair of green and blue sequined stilettos out from beneath a flip-flop and my old hiking boots. The shoes were just what I needed to complete my costume. I had fond memories of the last time I wore them, though my informer Snake would probably disagree since, in a pinch, the stilettos were detachable and lethal.

So, do you have a POV preference for the stories you read?  Have you experimented with different POVs in your writing?

10 thoughts on “Elizabeth: I said, She said

  1. I don’t have a strong preference. I’ve written in both first and close third (and, back when I didn’t know the difference, a weird blend of omniscient and close third). I originally wrote The Demon Deals the Cards with Dara’s part in first and Belial’s part in third. I’ve seen this mix a lot recently in women’s fiction, where the primary protagonist tells her story in first and the other players contirbute via close third..

    The advantage of writing a character in first-person and then switching to third is what you mention above–you, the writer, get a much stronger sense of who the character is. The downside is that swapping all those pronouns is a lot of work–I think I spent 8 solid hours or better just locating and changing the “I’s” and “me’s” and “my’s,” and even then I found stray ones I missed for months afterwards.

    • Jeanne – I know what you mean about switching all those pronouns. On the plus side, when I when through the exercise it made me take a fresh look at the story and make some changes that – I hope – make it stronger.

      As for preference, I lean more toward third, as it just feels more natural to me, but maybe that’s because it is what I am used to reading. I also have a draft project on the back burner that is a combination of first and third, but I’m not sure if it will stay that way once I start actively working on it. I may have to search out some examples of how others have accomplished that, so I can get a better feel for how it can work.

  2. I wrote a couple of exercises for class in first person, but normally the “I” thing makes me itch because it really feels like I’m talking about myself rather than seeing action through a character’s eyes. I had a fairly easy time writing the exercises I wrote in first person because they really were about me, with embellishments. I enjoy books written in first person, although it does seem to be used less often than third.

    • I know what you mean about the “I” thing Kay. I’ve had to pretend I’m my character, Cassie, when writing, otherwise all the “I”s feel awkward. When I was researching before writing this post I came across one article that said that first person was only really used for memoirs and autobiographies. The next article said it was the most commonly used POV in fiction writing. Pretty sure neither one of those is correct. I’ve mainly seen it in cozy-mysteries. They seem to work well in 1st.

  3. I’ve always written in close third, because I wanted the story to be a more or less even mix of the hero and heroine’s POV. Right now I’m writing in first because my current story belongs entirely to the heroine. I’m finding it harder than I expected, because instead of working hard to make the narrator invisible, the narrator is the POV character so the story is carried by her voice, personality and opinions. It’s a different mind-set and I’m wrestling with it. I’m hoping the words will flow more easily when I get to know Alexis better, because every few days I wonder if I should be trying to write this in third, and the answer is always ‘no’.

    I wonder if it’s at least partly to do with sub-genre. I like historicals, contemporaries and suspense in third, because I like two POVs in those sub-genres. With fantasy and urban fantasy I like first if it’s just the heroine, third if there are two POVs. I don’t like stories that bounce around between first and third. For some reason I find it distracting.

    • Jilly – I didn’t realise your new story was in first. That makes sense though, based on your heroine. Based on my own (very) limited experience, I’m guessing that it will flow more easily once you know Alexis better. At least that is how it worked with Cassie for me.

      I think you are right regarding the POV and sub-genre link. Some just seem to be better suited to first than others. I don’t mind those stories that bounce around between first and third, as long as they don’t do it in a rapid-fire way and as long as there is clear delineation between the two. If a story is interesting and engaging, the POV isn’t really a factor for me. If the POV is really bothering me, then it is often a sign that I’m just not that invested in the story.

  4. “Third-person objective” stories tend to feel too cold to me, leaving me less gripped by the protagonist’s plight than do either third-person subjective or third-person omniscient narratives. First-person narratives are a sharp knife, to be handled with all due caution; I can’t remember the last time I read an entire novel that was written in first-person and didn’t feel awkward. (Short stories, on the other hand, can sustain the “I’m telling you a tale from my life” feel more easily.)

    More than usual, all of that seems terribly subjective and only one reader’s opinion, but there you have it.

    • Scott – I think you summed it up in a nutshell with “terribly subjective.” Like anything else, preferences seem to vary, though I’ve yet to find anyone who says they definitely prefer first person.

  5. Ah. I think you found her. I like first-person when reading — when it’s done well, it’s great. In particular, I adore Thurber, who tells the most outrageous stories in a dead-pan first person.

    And, a lot of my early stuff is in first person. But then someone said “u r doin’ it rong” and I switched to close third person. Which is fine. Sometimes very good. But I do have stories that flow better in first.

    What I haven’t done is switch POVs. I think I have to do it on my WIP (both of them), and it scares the bee-jee-zus out of me. I’m afraid I’m going to “lose” one of my voices, or get them mixed up or something.

    What I’m trying to do is take some advice this week: pretend it’s a dream I’ve dreamed (or that the character has dreamed — I’m that scared, which is so stupid), and find an entry point into the story that way. It’s starting to work in my head, but I haven’t written anything yet, except some voice memos on my cell phone.

    • Good luck with the dream-advice Michaeline. Hope it works out well for you. One of the writing/creativity books I just read talked about getting stuck in the writing process by the fear of moving ahead. No easy answers about how to get past that. I’m going for the “just close your eyes and leap” approach and hoping that will work. If not, then “pretend it’s a dream” will be next.

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