Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life in the Third Person

It would be accurate to say that I spent most of my childhood in the third person.

Growing up in a household where there was mental illness, violence and uncertainty led, not surprisingly, to fear and distrust. I began to fear my surroundings (and with good cause) but often did not directly interact with them because much of the mistrust, I think, was of my own view of reality.

To escape, I hid under the weeping willow tree and read books. From the time we moved to Albuquerque when I was 10, I lived only blocks from a small branch library. I began by reading the “colored” fairy tale books –The Rose Book of Fairy Tales, The Red Book of Fairy Tales, etc., all the Wizard of Oz books, all the Nancy Drew books, many of the classics – and then devoured every single book, for a child or adult, about American Indians and Egyptology.

To my recollection, every book I read (except Black Beauty and that narrator was a horse, of course) was written in the third person, so I began to think in the third person. Though I kept a sketchy diary (a couple of lines a day, mainly speculating on family situations or that unknown territory of teenage boys), my real writing output was poems and stories.

In many cases, I would view situations around me with some degree of literary dispassion, as the recorder of a scene. It provided safe distance.

Perhaps that’s why I have been so reluctant to focus on personal experience in my own non-fiction writing. Writing my first published novel, Latter-day Cipher, was challenging but at least it was in the familiar native tongue of third person.

But it’s real problem for me in my present WIP, which is a first-person narrative.

Now, since it’s fiction, every reader will pick it up knowing it’s me supposing the first-person view of someone else. And that person is a real historical figure whose unknown history I am, well, supposing. I have to fight the sense that I am being presumptuous or even fraudulent.

And then there are the mechanics of recording someone else’s words. Anne Rice, in Interview with the Vampire, used the device of interview. Others have used the device of a long-lost last manuscript written by the first-person narrator.

Man, this is hard.

Does anyone else struggle with any such issues regarding writing in the first person?


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

The first two books I wrote were first person. Neither book was about me except to the degree that all writers rely on insights from life for their characters. It seemed so natural, looking through their eyes at their unique situations, even though it was a bit limiting. But for my most recent book, I chose third person and I wonder now if it is because I used some personal experiences and I didn't want to seem self-absorbed or be so transparent. Good insight, Latayne!

Carla Gade said...

Oh, yes. My experience growing up also kept me at a distance. I have trouble reading first person stories and with your insight I think I am understanding why. It feels intrusive. Third person provides a safe distance, while deep POV provides more depth. This is how I like to write. I do have a few stories that I have started that seem to be calling for first person, but I keep wondering if I can get away with third person. I think the story must dictate the voice, however. Am I wrong?

Southern-fried Fiction said...

I'm just the opposite. Although I write in third person, I enjoy 1st person books. As long as they are well written. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

I LOVE first person.

I think it is, in part, a personality thing. I've always been drawn to the inner workings of the human mind. I recall the first psychology class I ever took, a survey course in high school. I had a feeling like, "Finally! They're teaching me something I want to learn."

I love books written in first person. I read lots of third person, but if a book is in first person, it's going to draw me in faster.

Talking to the Dead is in first person, and yes, people ask me how much of the story is my own (meaning my experience imposed on the fiction).

Carla certainly has a good point when she says story dictates POV to some degree. This is where the author's skill comes into play as well. It may be that a story needs to be told from a different than usual POV, but if the writer lacks the skill to make the switch, the project will take longer while the writer develops her abilities. But it is a skill worth developing - one that will serve the author well over the years.

I'm in the midst of developing a book idea (Lord willing, it will be my fourth novel - I'm currently writing #2 and I've already developed the proposal for #3, so we'll see how they fly), that I am very tempted to say should be told in third person (which will be the first book from me written that way). I'm toying with the idea, weighting out my storytelling options. My instincts want it to be first person - my personal comfort zone - but I have to listen to the story and decide from there.

Happily, if this turns out to be a third person project, I have time to hone my skills to make the switch before I begin the novel.

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie, you've hit on something when you talk to personality. As the baby of the family, a born entertainer (read that: ham), I love to play the parts of my narrators. Hence, I write in first person. I sit down to the computer, put on a mask, and get to be a 72-year-old woman who isn't afraid of snakes (NOT me!) or a 16-year-old girl who's trying to juggle relationships while maintaining her tiny family. And I'm very far from being sixteen. But I love the playacting.

Curtain up!

Lights on!


Connie Brzowski said...

Am I the only one to spent childhood in second person? "You waltz across the room, fling open the door... then you stare deeply into the eyes of...

Your Darkest Nightmare!"

(If I need medication, please email privately :) )

Steve G said...

I am a twin... so I lived life with two views at once; and if anyone picked on one of us, they always had to deal with both of us. I think there was a bit of vicariousness going on too, as he was more "out there" than I was.

I know there is a book in there somewhere! I have to read Buber's I Thou again, but I am a first person kind of guy. I like to enter into stories like Patti. It can make it frustrating when the character doesn't act like I think they should (according to me), but when Hank prays, I want to also.

Nicole said...

I used to not like first person stories--really not like. But now there are so many of them if I didn't like them, I wouldn't be reading much. And now it depends on the voice of the author. After six novels, one that starts with omnisicient, the other third person, I wrote a predominant first person story from a male protag's POV. Then it was difficult to get back to third person for the next efforts.

I play all the parts in my head, second person is cool, Connie, and I actually love how Travis Thrasher thrashes :) POV rules in some of his books. I've done it all just like Patti being a kindred drama queen.

Specifically, Latayne, I think a writer can get inside or outside the skin of the first person protag or narrator just like with the other POVs. A lot depends on how "detached" your protag is--is he recalling the past or experiencing the present. So many variables. Like male or female. Gotta make that male voice real if you're a female author.

(And it hurts to hear of your childhood pain. I'm so sorry for what you endured.)

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

So far, all the stories I've written have been in first person. That's just how I've seen them, I guess. I sat down, starting writing, and it just came out. When I tried changing it over, it just didn't work. I read books that are either first or third and don't really have a preference. I just want a good story and don't really care how it's told.

Latayne C Scott said...

Hey, I've been tied up all day and unable to check on these comments until now. I leave you guys unsupervised and there you go, making insightful and helpful comments like you didn't even need me around.

(She sniffs, sobered at the thought that perhaps she's not as indispensable as she once believed, and comforts herself with the notion that perhaps it is her noble role in life to be be the too-soon subsumed spark that starts the roaring fire . . .)

Lori Benton said...

I enjoy well-written books in first person, but I'd never attempted to write one until I started my previous WIP. I wrote the male protag's scenes in third person, and naturally attempted the female protag's in third person too. But she was having none of it. I struggled to find her voice until finally she broke through to me, speaking directly to me in first person. I stopped fighting her, and ended up with a novel told in first and third.

Kathleen Popa said...

I don't know if it's really true that it takes a rough childhood to make a great writer, but Latayne, you're proof that it sure doesn't hurt. Even when you joke, it's literature.

It's never occurred to me to dislike books written in first person. There's an antique book that once sat on my grandmother's shelf - and now sits on mine - titled, The Forsaken Inn by Anna Katherine Green, copyright 1909. I read it when I was about eleven. It may have been my first experience with a first person narrator, and it was delicious.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a writer but have read some historical fiction written in the first person and I always took it as such. It was the author's idea of what the person might have thought or said. It was always fun getting into the person's head, even if it was just "pretend." You're not claiming to actually know what your character was thinking. You're pretending and your readers can pretend right along with you! So go for it!

Unknown said...

Your comments have been incredibly helpful to me. Not just the ones that were personally supportive, but the suggestions and insights were so perceptive. I have gone over and over them. I am looking at my own WIP with new eyes.

This is a great example of iron sharpening iron -- and what we all earnestly hoped for when our brilliant agents put us all together.