How many of your favorite stories are written in first person? All, most, or none? Any recommendations? What do you particularly enjoy about them?
One piece of advice often given to newbie writers is to choose the point of view that best fits the story you’re trying to tell. Something that’s shared less often is that for many flavors of genre fiction there seems to be a consensus on that ‘best’ point of view choice. Certainly that’s the way it works for the four hundred or so books in the main menu of my kindle.
For straight romance, I like to know what both hero and heroine are thinking, and I like to get deep into their heads. Two or more viewpoints suits a third person narrator. That’s how I write it, and that’s what I find in all my keeper historical, suspense and paranormal romances, and most of the contemporaries.
I don’t read much young adult, but I believe it’s usually written in first person, supposedly because younger readers enjoy the immediacy and feeling of closeness with the point of view character. I suppose that makes sense, because our teens and twenties are a time of new experiences and self-discovery, so a degree of navel-gazing comes with the territory.
Elizabeth said in her recent post I said, she said that cozy mysteries are also often written in first person. I’m not much of a cozy reader so I’m not sure why that would work well – maybe the mystery is secondary to the cozy detective’s personality and world, and this is the best way to showcase those elements?
And then there’s my current obsession – fantasy. I’d say about one in five of my favorite e-books are fantasy or urban fantasy, and they’re overwhelmingly written in first person. They may have romantic elements and strong secondary characters, but they all have a dominant lead character who is the voice of the story and who carries the reader through their magical journey of challenge and change.
That’s the kind of story I’m currently writing, and sure enough, I want my heroine, Alexis, to be the one to tell it. I’m finding it difficult to adjust, though, because letting a character recount their own story offers a particular kind of intimacy. The story is all about them, but if they spend too much time talking about themselves they come across as some kind of self-obsessed windbag, all me, me, me, I, I, I. Everyone knows somebody who talks endlessly about themselves, and it’s not an attractive trait. That person is not somebody you’d pay money to listen to. And just as in real life, somebody else can say things about a person that they should never say about themselves.
So I’m discovering that writing well in first person is a more subtle challenge than I had appreciated. I’ve been revisiting the first person books on my kindle to see how authors I like have set up their story and established their main character, and to see how they avoided the problem of me, me, me, I, I, I. Take a look at the excerpts below and see what you think.
Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London / Midnight Riot
It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory.
Ilona Andrews – Magic Bites
I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen, staring down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit. My wards shivered and died, leaving my home stripped of its defenses. The TV flared into life, unnaturally loud in the empty house.
I raised my eyebrow at the bottle and bet it that another urgent bulletin was on.
The bottle lost.
Patricia Briggs – Moon Called
I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first.
My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil – and it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get attention I thought he was a customer.
Jim Butcher – Fool Moon
I never used to keep close track of the phases of the moon. So I didn’t know that it was one night shy of being full when a young woman sat down across from me in McAnally’s pub and asked me to tell her about something that could get her killed.
Darynda Jones – First Grave on the Right
I’d been having the same dream for the past month – the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to play doctor with me. I was starting to wonder if repetitive exposure to nightly hallucinations resulting in earth-shattering climaxes could have any long-term side effects. Death via extreme pleasure was a serious concern. The prospect led to the following dilemma: Do I seek help or buy drinks all around?
Karen Marie Moning – Darkfever
My philosophy is pretty simple – any day nobody’s trying to kill me is a good day in my book.
I haven’t had many good days lately.
Not since the walls between Man and Faery came down.
But then, there’s not a sidhe-seer alive who’s had a good day since then.
Megan Whalen Turner – The Thief
I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison. The days were all the same, except that as each one passed, I was dirtier than before. Every morning the light in the cell changed from the wavering orange of the lamp in the sconce outside my door to the dim but even glow of the sun falling into the prison’s central courtyard. In the evening, as the sunlight faded, I reassured myself I was one day closer to getting out.
What do you think?
I didn’t notice when I enjoyed the book as a reader, but I was impressed to discover that Ben Aaronovitch’s hero Peter Grant doesn’t introduce himself until page 3 in the paperback version of Rivers of London. Instead he describes the crime scene, the Metropolitan police’s routine follow-up procedures and London life in general from the street-level perspective of a low-ranking insider, introducing us to his sharp powers of observation, pitch-perfect Londoner vocabulary and darkly funny asides, before he adds himself into the mix:
Which is how I came to be standing around Covent Garden in a freezing wind at six o’clock in the morning, and why it was me that met the ghost.
Did you especially like or dislike any of the excerpts above? Why?
Do you have any other favorites or recommendations? Please share!
I’ve never read any of the stories you’ve mentioned above, but I really like the Ben Aaronovitch excerpt. I especially like that the hero doesn’t introduce himself until the 3rd page. Sounds like by TBR pile just got a little bigger.
As for the cozy mystery / first person thing, I always thought it was a way for the reader to be closer to the story so they could feel like they were actually the detective. I could be totally off-base with that though 🙂
You should definitely put Ben Aaronovitch on your TBR list! The post was running long, so I had to cut him off before my favorite bit of that opening paragraph:
“Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’ – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport – like base-jumping or crocodile wrestling.”
The moment I read that I was sold on Peter Grant. I’m not sure whether there’s such a thing as a California once-over, but the London one is a Thing we all practice daily.
I love first person! But like you said, it’s got to have the right kind of narrator. You hit it on the head when you say, ” (I)f they spend too much time talking about themselves they come across as some kind of self-obsessed windbag, all me, me, me, I, I, I.”
I adore a narrator who can tell a story, and is engaged with the world around him or her. And I really love, love, love Peter Grant from Aaronovitch’s book. He can be a bit of a prat, but he’s young and I forgive him. When he’s smart (which is most of the time), he’s really fun to watch.
I’m not really engaged with any of the other “I” beginnings you quote because I’ve become wary of the “poor wittle me, I’m an abused orphan” trope. I actually had the Ilona Andrews books for years, but never got past the first line. “Drunk woman in a dark kitchen — does not look good.” Which just goes to show, one should not judge a book by its first line, because Kate Daniels turns out to be a very good narrator who doesn’t whine a lot.
“The Thief” turned out to be pretty good, IIRC, too.
I like the one by Jim Butcher because I like moon phases, and the narrator immediately is interested in another human being right away.
The humor writer, James Thurber, often wrote in first person. “Olympy called me ‘Monsieur’ because I was the master of the Villa Tamisier and he was the gardener, the Russian husband of French caretaker, Maria. I called him ‘Monsieur’ too, because I could never learn to call any man Olympy and because there was a wistful air of ancien regime about him.”
in books, there’s Wodehouse. I couldn’t find one that was first person for sure, but I stumbled upon this article by the Guardian about first lines. Many of them are first person, too. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2012/apr/29/ten-best-first-lines-fiction (And the article has more than 10 very good first lines.)
The one that made my jaw drop was an Anthony Burgess one: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” WHOA! The narrator promises to be full of a sort of liberal lustiness, and he’s been around the block a time or two, it seems.
I think you’ll notice in most of these, the story isn’t just about me, me, me. There is definitely a world of interesting people out there, and Our Narrator does seem to be quite engaged with the wider world. Maybe that’s the only trick to being a first-person narrator. Be part of the world — don’t be the whole world.
Thanks for the Guardian link, that was fun! I love PG Wodehouse, and the gag about an Englishman being about to speak French is soooo true. My French ex-boss would love that. The Burgess one is outrageous, the slap of a gauntlet – are you man (or woman) enough to handle this story?
I haven’t read the first Kate Daniels book for a long time, and I was a bit taken by surprise. Kate is so different now, I’d kind of forgotten where she began. And this may be one of the few times in the whole series that we see her drinking. As you say, she turns out to be an excellent, non-whiny, non-egocentric narrator. I’m really looking forward to the next (penultimate??) book in the series, Magic Binds, out in September.
Be part of the world – don’t be the world. I think that nails it very nicely. I’m having a day off to read and cogitate today, but that will be my mantra when I get back to Alexis tomorrow 🙂 .
Be part of the world, don’t be the whole worldl–brilliant!
The novel I wrote before Demons Don’t was women’s fiction about a woman coming to terms with having a lesbian daughter. It was set in 2004, when things were a lot different than they are today. I loved the book and thought the first-person protagonist wise and witty. But my first line of beta readers hated her, called her an interfering know-it-all.
My takeaway: it’s tough to do an “education plot,” where the protagonist has a serious life lesson to learn, in the first person. Her character flaw has the potential to make her (or him) really unlikeable and all that one-on-one time in her head really magnifies the problem.
I think education plots are difficult in general, especially if you have a strong protagonist with an important lesson to learn. It’s such a fine line to tread. One person’s wise and witty is inevitably going to be someone else’s interfering know-it-all. It might be easier in third person though – time spent in the main character’s head maybe could come across more sympathetically if an independent narrator is the one describing it.
Edited to add: or maybe the magnification effect you describe could be a benefit. You just made me think of the hugely successful Shopaholic books. I only read the first one, which is first person, present tense. Clearly many readers found Becky Bloomwood’s journey of self-discovery sympathetic and hilarious. I can’t describe how much her character annoyed me. If I could have reached into the book to give her a sound slap I’d have done it by the end of the first chapter. Good job I wasn’t one of Sophie Kinsella’s beta readers 🙂 .
I’ve thought about resurrecting August LIlies, but I kind of think it’s time has passed, just because things have changed so much, so quickly. Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, it will become a good “recent history” piece.
Maybe give it ‘now and then’ plots – daughter and grand-daughter, or something – I’m thinking of the structure of How to Bake a Perfect Life (if I remember the book correctly). You’d be tapping into a very current topic and the way things have changed so fast, the contrast would be really strong. Might be more fun than keeping the book in a drawer for 15 years.
Oh, one reader? Take with a grain of salt. Two readers? Consider more carefully. Five readers? Well, something is wrong, but maybe not what those guys say is wrong. (-: Especially if all five have been taking the same classes.
I would think with that kind of book, there’s a lot that’s timeless. But a lot of the “drama of manners” is going to be changed — possibly changed forever. The protag will not have to worry about the daughter not being able to support her partner during a long hospitalization — now that they can marry just like any other couple.
But still, there are a lot of worries. They can’t mingle their DNA in offspring yet, for example. A story about that would still be science fiction (and tackled in interesting tangents by Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen).
I don’t even know if that’s an issue. If the real issue of the book is “how do I accept that my daughter is an adult, and she makes her own choices” — well, that’s timeless and without gender. And in fact, something I will probably have to learn to do in the next five years in real life. I would think it would make great fiction!
Another issue with parent/child fiction, though, is that there are so many deep triggers in that dynamic. What pushes one person’s positive buttons may miss Person B’s buttons entirely, and put Person C into a catatonic state of rocking and weeping. Because in all fiction, but particularly in family fiction, the reader brings a lot to the party.
I don’t have anything philosophical to add here, but a general comment about just getting the words on the page: of the seven snippets you’ve included, five of them start with “I” and one of them starts in the third person, so it doesn’t exactly count for my purposes, which is just that it just seems to be hard to stay out of “me” and “I” when you’re writing in first person. Constructing a sentence that provides POV without providing “I” might be harder than in third person. I don’t know; I haven’t tried it. I’ve enjoyed Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, and they’re written in first person. And what’s the first line of the first book? “I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”
Thank you for the reminder about just getting words on the page. I needed that this morning 🙂 .
You’re right that of course you can’t stay out of me, I when you’re writing in first person, but the Aaronovitch third person beginning spelled out to me that if the first person is externally focused then she will naturally use a good chunk of third person to break up the first. Sookie’s telling the story, but her focus is on the vampire and what happened when he came into the bar.
OK. Time to stop sititin’ and thinkin.’ Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Bye!
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