Adventures in first person

Have you tried first, second, and third? No, not bases. Persons? I’m talking viewpoint, not teenage sex (that should get me a few extra hits this week).

After feeling despondent about my first chapter of my new book, I had a 3am epiphany about what was wrong with it. I had written it in 3rd person (“she did this, she did that”) when I really should have written it in 1st person (“I did this, I did that”). All right, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a strong suspicion, and the only way to test if I were right was to rewrite it. I balked at this of course. I am Dr Decisive when it comes to writing (usually, until book #20 stole my mojo), so it was very painful for me to have to go back to the drawing board over such a small mechanical thing.

But wait, not so fast. Not such a small mechanical thing at all. Not just changing the pronouns. Because I chose to rewrite rather than just edit, I found that the moment I switched into first person, good stuff started to happen.

You see, the usual argument over whether to choose first or third person is simple, and goes like this:
First person = direct & engaging, but limited access
Third person = great access, but loss of directness
Second person = only crazy people write this way

I’ve never had much trouble creating a direct, emotional connection in third person, so it’s my usual preference. But on this occasion, I found that using first person forced me to account more fully for the character’s feelings and motivations; that I couldn’t gloss over anything anymore; that I had to be specific. Compare for yourself:

Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics and fortune. In her hurley bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined-nor believed it possible-that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.

I had dreams. Big dreams. Not the confused patchwork dreams that invade sleep. No, these were the dreams with which I comforted myself before sleep, in my hurley bed rolled out on the floor of my parents’ finger-chilling tenement flat. Vivid, yearning dreams. A life of fashion and fabrics; and fortune of course. A life where the dismal truth about my dismal family could never touch me again. One thing I never dreamed was that I would find myself pregnant to my married lover, just before my nineteenth birthday. All through February, I obsessively counted the weeks and counted them again, bending my mind backwards, trying to make sense of the dates. My stomach flipped at the smell of food, my breasts grew tender and, by the first of March, I had finally come to believe that  a child-that Henry MacConnell’s child-was growing inside me.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think all stories should be written in first person: far from it. First person has massive pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced writer (where every first person character winds up sounding exactly the same as the others). But this actual switch of perspective has me feeling like I’m inside the story well and truly now, that it’s possible to write it well and on time, and that I will enjoy the company of my latest imaginary friend.

6 thoughts on “Adventures in first person

  1. hmmm, first person is tricky for the inexperienced. I cannot yet, at this point, pull it off. I find that any book in the first person needs to be written very well or it gets boring. I agree that that first paragraph is better presented in the first person.

    Re second person – whatever inspired anyone to write like that? its a spoken form; written its just terrible.

    Congrats on finding your muse.

  2. Kim, that’s a great example of the power of first person over third person (it seems to work really well for this character). And I agree – changing a story from first to third is not at all a simple thing! It’s a completely different way of communicating.

    I recently rewrote a short story of mine that wasn’t working. It felt too distant from the character in third person, so like you I made the decision to try it in first. Clearly a good decision because where before it had been rejected a couple of times, the new version sold to a magazine. I really enjoy writing in first person, but it’s still something I’m getting comfortable with. I agree that you need to be quite a skilled crafts person to wield the first person perspective properly!

  3. The first person narrative does make a difference, it does seem more gripping to read it that way and i think that you can actually identify with the character more that way because you feel like you are that character, rather than just watching them through a window or something.

  4. I write in third person limited POV. Allows me to show the story from my MC’s POV without the use of ‘I’. Works for me anyway. Good luck.



  5. This may not contradict your theory re: second-person narration and craziness, but have you read Charles Stross’s HALTING STATE? It’s fab (geopolitical consequences of a bank robbery in a MMORPG that looks a lot like WOW, but the setting is near-future Glasgow, post succession from the UK).

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