Wednesday, July 21, 2010

True confessions

My name is Sarah A. Hoyt and I’m a first person pov writer.

For many years, I’ve been driven by society to hide what I am and not to be true to my own self. You’ve heard the hateful lies, as well as I have: first person is an amateurish way to write; first person sounds contrived; first person means you’re just writing yourself; first person limits your scope.

For years I forced myself to write third person and hid my light under a bushel. But since my last two series forced themselves on me as first person, and since both Darkship Thieves and the Daring Finds mysteries are doing better than anything else I wrote, it is time to admit... I’m sorry. I simply write first person better than I do third. It’s easier for me.

Now, I know it’s not easier for everyone, and I’m not going to advocate doing it for everyone. I read and enjoy a lot of third person, just like I read and enjoy a lot of first person. It seems to be only third person writers who are determined to make sure that no one writes in a pov other than third – but perhaps that’s my perspective.

Most classical SF was written in first person. I grew up with Heinlein and Simak, both of them doing the bulk of their work in first person. Most UF is first person. A lot of legendary mystery – some Christie, most Rex Stout – is written in first person. Very few of these sound like the first person is a reflection of the writer.

There are some things you can only do in first person, such as bring the character’s personality across full force. Oh, sure, you can have some of this with third person in dialogue or direct thoughts. But if you pause a third person narrative to convey such interesting insights as Athena’s “A girl’s best friend is a high powered weapon,” say, you’re as likely as not to annoy the reader. While because a first person story reads as “narrated” there is space for some explanation done in a quirky fashion.

Now, mind you, narrated is not the same thing as told. How do I explain this? If you tell your friend what happened to you today, you’ll condense, ellipse and make it shorter and higher-level so you don’t tell him a story that lasts three days. Your concern is not so much with making him FEEL what’s happening as with getting done with it and moving. But when you’re selling a book with a story, you’re selling the experience.

Consider one of my free stories, here: Neptune’s orphans.

If you’re telling that story to a friend you’d say “Dude, we were asleep in our dorm, and these guys came in and started killing everyone.”

If you’re showing the story to a reader, you ARE there, you immerse yourself, you narrate each event, action, reaction, as if it were happening to you at that moment, so the reader can feel it too: Before the first burner singed the air, I had jumped. * I didn’t know why. Perhaps I wasn’t truly asleep and heard strange steps in the hallway. Or perhaps a voice whispering what was planned for us. I don’t know.
Whatever warning there was fell into my sleeping mind and made my body react.* I woke up half way through my jump-and-dive, dragging with me my brother Pol, who slept in the next bed. We thudded together into a too-narrow space between his bed and the wall.
It saved our lives, because the blinding flash of the burner swung in an arc which sliced my bed in two, setting it on fire. Still half asleep, dazzled by the brilliance of the light, the acrid smoke in my nostrils, I pushed Pol further back and down, shoving him right next to the wall and pressing close to him, close, my heart beating a deafening rhythm.
“Cas, what–?” he said, his voice barely audible, because in addition to the sizzling sounds of the burners there were now screams and gurgles, moans and cries for mercy. *I recognized the voices of my dormitory mates, and I didn’t want to recognize them. I’d never heard them sound like that.*

Note the bits between asterisks are “narration” or what I’d call explanation sentences. They’re essential for you to get the narration, and they can be used – if your character is mouthy like Athena – to convey the personality of the character.

There are first person weaknesses: Like... describing your character; or showing something your character doesn't know; or having your character lie. Do you have any questions about how to overcome first person weaknesses? I’ve worked at all of them and might be able to answer. Or we might be able to figure it out together.


C Kelsey said...

I didn't want to write in first person. I knew I'd muck it up. I even considered rewriting everything in third person. It would make for a much more flexible story, certainly. But that's my final, nuclear option I think. Y'see. My character isn't the leader of the pack. She's not a super agressive, highly trained warrioress. She's a cute but semi-nerdy MIT grad who grew up in Cambridge and ruminates about sucking hind tit in the group she's in... and she's perfectly comfortable and happy about it that way. I think that's a rather unique perspective and first person is the way to show that perspective. So third person is the last option.

Of course, the hard part here is that I know I'm doing things wrong so I'm reading as much short fiction as I can find right now. Only to find that, especially in urban fantasy, the hallmark of the narrative is telling, not showing. And that appears to be the expected form. >_< I shall fight it! Death to telling (unless it's one of those occassions where telling is appropriate)!

Anonymous said...

Lying in the first person.

I think, if you don't want to break into the dialog at that exact point either a thought before or after would suffice. [The one thing I must slip into this conversation was...] or [Whew. In all that verbage, the One Big Lie had gone unquestioned.]

The one "trick" I hate from a first person story is having the character do something off screen so to speak, and never refer to it until it becomes the crucial bit that brings down the Bad Guy. If you're setting a trap, I want to see it, and watch it work.


Francis Turner said...

I think one problem with FP is that it is extremely hard to have alternate POV characters. So you are kind of limited to stuff that the narrator knows about unless you find a way to have two or more narrators. Mind you Heinlein did that quite well in Number of the Beast (about the only good thing in NotB) when he had 4 narrators

Kate said...

Some of the methods I've used - and no, not the dreaded "looks at self in mirror" scene - included the character referencing his appearance in relation to someone else and observing the reaction of others to him.

Dealing with critical plot elements the character isn't present for is something I've handled with careful structuring, including inferences drawn from other sources, the character's reaction when he does learn about the event in question, and in some cases foreshadowing so that when the character gets smacked between the eyes the reader doesn't. It's doable, but awkward.

Character lying... Um. My characters have a tendency to be entirely too honest. Some of them are also rather economical about what they consider someone else needs to know (including, alas, me) - something that can be as effective as an outright lie in deceiving someone.

It's whatever the story demands, really. If one character is so dominant that their voice tends to 'leak' across the story, you need first person.

John Lambshead said...

I had a short story commissioned by by a publisher for an anthology, and wrote it in the first person. They paid for the work as per my contract but never published. Go figure.

Chris McMahon said...

I never would have assumed first person was likely to promote a refelection of the writer - perhaps the opposite. Since it enables you to really 'soak' into the character, I would have thought it was a good vehicle to become other than yourself. I have written a smattering of short works in first person, some of which have done well. All of them just came out that way.

I would have thought if a writer had a tendency to write themselves it would emerge in third person as likely as third.

Chris McMahon said...

PS: Congratulations on coming out of the closet, but really we all knew anyway:)

Stephen Simmons said...

I never thought about it, really. I seem to write either first or third with pretty much equal facility, depending on what the story asks me for.

The limitation of first person that I had the biggest struggle with was probably figuring out how to effectively describe a scene that confuses the character (complex aerial combat, specifically) without making the reader want to toss the book aside in frustration. That one gave me a serious run for my money, but I think I muddled through it tolerably well.

Synova said...

I'd always considered having your character lie as being one of 1st POV strengths rather than weaknesses. Granted... your character has to be lying to him or herself. If the lie is being told to mislead, the reader has to be in on it.

Funny to mention Rex Stout. I haven't read them but because we've been watching Nero Wolfe at a friend's house my daughter is reading the books. Because Archie is narrating, he wouldn't have to lie to the reader by not telling what he knows, assuming he doesn't know and Wolfe does.

Synova said...

I think that 1st person was considered amateurish because 3rd person was in fashion and amateurs often wrote amateurishly in first. Now 1st person is in fashion (again?) and professionals often write professionally in first.

What I wonder is... will omni come back into fashion? I think that it's pretty much raw beginners who write in omni... amateurishly, of course.

I think it was Charlie Stross wrote a novel in 2nd person. Even that seems less intimidating to me than trying to do it well in omni.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It's perfectly all right not to have your character be the leader, the genius, etc. Read Rex Stout. HOWEVER it's not okay not having your character do interesting stuff. The stuff she does must be interesting and her take on the "true doers" ironic/bubbly/INTERESTING.

Think of this as sending her to meet strangers. I don't care if she's quiet and retiring. If she's going to carry the story she'd BETTER have enough charisma to carry the voice. VOICE is what matters in this case.

No one wants to hang out with the whiners. We avoid those people at every chance.

As for UF short stories. Sigh. Most of these people broke into NOVELS. Their short story form must not be the best. I don't know much about UF shorts...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I actually meant lying as in "unreliable narrator". The only way I've found to do it is if the character is lying to herself as well, and even then I try to clue the reader in by showing contradictory statements. (Like as people noticed in the first chapter of the new thing, the man has a brand in an intimate place, which, in his profession, is supposed to be well... seen. Um... store fact away, one of these things is not true. Can't be true.)

As for actions out of sight that bring down the bad buy -- bah -- it's a cheap trick. In fact, my character normally tells you what she's going to do, does it, then brags about it. And nine times out of ten you still don't see it coming. How? Well... google "The pope in the swimming pool."

Brendan said...

Is there any reason why you can't narrate mainly in first person but swap to third for events that the reader needs to know but the narrator won't?

One of the good things about using first person in detective stories is, since the narrator is usually a sidekick(Watson, Hastings etc), you dont feel a dill if you fail to figure things out since neither did the person telling the story, and your impressions are coloured by their perspective. A classic example is in one Sherlock Holmes adventure where Watson sees him reading a Russian dictionary. He dismisses the event as just one of Holmes' peculiarities when it is in fact a clue to his thinking.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Meh. I like the NOTB.

That aside, I don't like that narrative device. He did okay, but it's almost impossible NOT to confuse the reader.

Yeah, first person is far more difficult, but what you have to ask yourself is do you NEED other POV's? As first written DST had Thena in first person, Kit first person, her dad in third. Alternating. And then I realized I didn't need it. I can have Kit -- and her dad -- be quite obvious to the reader WITHOUT being in their heads. Yeah, it takes a little more effort. But it can be done. If you think the trade off is worth it. I happen to think so. the one thing that the books have over movies, going forward, is the ability to BE someone for a time. And for that total immersion is better. If you don't change heads, it's easier to create a sort of vivid dream.

Now it doesn't work for some types of thrillers. But for this one, it works.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I will actually describe with minimal strokes. Stuff like "At five feet nothing and a hundred pounds soaking wet with my pockets full of lead." Or I work one of the hundred occasions when we have to referrence our own appearance. "My hair was flying in all directions that day, dry, curly, blond, sort of like an uncontrollable hallo. I wondered if it would fool anyone."

Fully agree with you on the foreshadowing.

As for economical characters, I have one right now who -- I THINK -- has been programmed not to examine certain facts. This is driving me insane.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


VERY weird. Never happened to me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris Mc,

My opinion also, of course, I tend to write characters who are very different from me and I love doing it first person. And the one friend who writes himself over and over again, mostly does it third person.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yeah, but will you respect me in the morning, now you know I prefer first person?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Complex combat... read some autobiographies for that. No, you can't give the panoramic view. You can give your character's white-knuckled view of it. Or you can say "This I only knew afterwards" and give the panoramic view. Refer to Starship Troopers or Citizen of the Galaxy for the technique.

And yeah, I also write how I see it. It wouldn't occur to me to write my Shifters series first person, and the historical dark fantasy now out on several desks (the chewing has reached my elbows, thanks for asking)is third person and multiple perspective because that's what it is. Never occurred to me to do it first.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well, a lot of romance is very close to Omni, and very good. Dumas did Omni... to an extent. I think Omni fell out of favor when we didn't want to convey the "all seeing eye of G-d" anymore, but I think it could be done if you developed a quirky narrator's voice. I've considered it. Maybe when I'm old and bored.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'm an idiot. Citizen of the Galaxy is NOT first person.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


What I mean is you should do the voice that's appropriate to the book and not be afraid of the voice it wants to come out in. I LIKE first person, but I'm not promissing to write in it forever. Some of the ideas I have just don't "FIT" first person. Some characters I don't want to spend that long in their heads. And for instance, in the shifters, part of the fun -- for me at least -- is the radically different perspectives of Tom and Kyrie and a certain amount of "battle of the sexes" between the two of them. Not to mention how much poison our culture has put in the way of males and females understanding each other. That "games people play" complicated by their animal side really is part of the interest in the series for me. Not that it wouldn't be doable in first person but... Oh, heavens. I'm not THAT good.

Stephen Simmons said...

I knew Citizen of the Galaxy wasn't 1st person. No hu-hu. And actually, she *could* give a panoramic view of the combat, because she's in the Command Center. The problem is, she can't *grasp* the experience panoramically (if that's a word), at the time, because it's too far outside her "norm".

The other problem I'm having at the moment is a short story. The story belongs in third. Absolutely *has* to have the narrator convey knowledge the character doesn't have (like what happens after he gets offed). But I've gotten so tightly inside the lead's head that I keep looking back and finding paragraphs where I wrote him as "I" instead of "Tony" ...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

You can do third "close in". I do that a lot. See Shifters series. Also, to an extent the MBE