Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SOME THOUGHTS ON THIRD PERSON VS FIRST PERSON NOVEL NARRATIVES


 
Hi folks,

A source of discussion that always comes up at the beginning of my classes is whether the writer should use first- or third-person. The short answer I usually give, is: “Whatever the material calls for.”

Since that doesn’t adequately address the question, I go on to amplify the answer, and that’s what I’ll do here as well.

First, I ask the student who wants to employ first-person why they chose that stance. Almost without exception, they’ll state, “Well, it’s just more intimate. Third person is too formal for the character I want to create for the story.”

That’s when I proceed to knock a couple of holes in that theory.

Before I do that, here are a few things I’ve observed. More beginning writers than established writers tend to write in first-person. Far more people who’ve been published are aware that third person is considered the “professional” pov and that first-person is often considered the “amateur” pov.

Now, before everybody starts yelling at me that there are tons of excellent books out there written in first-person, let me assure you I’m well aware of that. If I may, I’d like to refer you back to my short answer: “Whatever the material calls for.” There are often times when the material calls for first person. However… not as often as is sometimes realized.

Let me explain.

The chief reason many agents and editors prefer third person and call it the “professional” pov, is that the overwhelming percentage of successful books and bestsellers are written in third person. This isn’t an accident. There are reasons this is the case. Actually, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts that arrive in a publisher’s or agent’s office are written in first-person. If that’s so (and it is), then why would more third-person efforts become published? Well, because many more manuscripts are submitted by beginners than by pros. By the time one goes from the beginner’s group to the published group, the numbers in the second group have dramatically diminished. That means the second group is going to be predominantly writing in third person. Fewer people by far in that group, but a much higher percentage of publishable manuscripts. Most in third person… Again, please notice I didn't say all; I said most.

This simply goes back to my observation above that more beginning writers employ first-person than do seasoned pros. Editors and agents have also noted this fact. Overwhelmingly so do beginners prefer to write in first- rather than third-person. That means that when a gatekeeper encounters a first-person manuscript, it goes without saying that a little red light goes on (from his/her past experiences) that chances are pretty good this mss came from a… less seasoned writer. And, it’s just a fact of life and the business of writing that the newer the writer, the less likely the mss will be of publishable quality.

Does that mean when your first-person opus lands on an editor’s or agent’s desk it is doomed from the start? Of course not. But, a writer should be aware that there’s a bit of a bias already in place against first-person. If it’s a book that should have been written in first rather than third, and it’s written well and is of publishable quality, no problem. Any good editor or agent will be able to tell within a couple of pages if it’s written well or not, no matter what pov stance the author has elected.

And, why do agents and editors feel this way about first-person? This gets to the heart of the matter. The reason many hold first-person in a negative light is that anyone who’s read many manuscripts knows that a great many first-person novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies, usually espousing some recently-learned political or social philosophy, or, if not that, their imitation of some current (or just-over) line of bestsellers. At present, vampire or zombie opuses, or invincible characters who look suspiciously like Jack Reacher but have different names and perhaps a different hair style.

Another reason many choose a first-person narrator is that it seems easier to newer writers. Many (many!) first novels are written with characters saying and thinking things the writer him- or herself thinks in their own minds. Novels that are fiction in name only; primarily many are just vehicles to assign the writer’s own thoughts to in a loosely-derivative plot.

Those are all secondary reasons why some writers choose first-person. Overwhelmingly, however, the biggest single reason lots of writers choose first is that they feel it’s a more intimate pov. It seems to make sense. After all, if one is writing “I” from their character’s pov, one can’t get much closer to the character, can they?

You saw this coming, didn’t you!

Of course there’s a way to achieve the same intimacy with third person as there is with first. And, it’s easy.

Simply by employing a close third person, not a formal third. A narrative that uses a close third achieves exactly the same intimacy with the reader as a first person does. The good news is that by using a close third person you get all the positives and none of the negatives of third person. The chief argument against third person usually seems to be that it isn't as intimate as first-person. Well... this just resolves that argument.

The bad news is… well, there isn’t any bad news. It’s a win-win situation.

And, how does one achieve this magical close third that feels like first person with none of the baggage of first? Again, it’s easy. You simply substitute personal pronouns for the character’s name. That’s it. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, let’s take a look. Examples are the best way to prove a point.

I’ll give you a section of narrative in which a formal third is used. Then, I’ll give the same passage in first person. And, finally, I’ll follow that with the same narrative, only this time with personal pronouns in a close third person. I feel confident that as soon as you read them you’ll see and feel the difference.
***

From my short story, “My Idea of a Nice Thing” first published in Breeze and included in my short story collection, “Monday’s Meal.” (The two people are at an A.A. meeting and it’s about a third through the story. Raye is the protagonist.)

First, the passage in a formal third person:

            “My idea of a nice thing,” he said, “would be a world where you could get drunk and it wouldn’t harm you, physically, anyway.”
            Raye turned and offered her hand. “My name is Raye.”
            “Hi, Raye. Emory. Like the board.”
            Raye didn’t quite get it at first and then she did and smiled.
            “I liked what you said that time, about sorting yourself out,” Emory said.
            Again, Raye didn’t get it at first, and then she realized he must have been at the meeting she’d first gotten up and spoken at.
            “Well, yeah,” Raye said, “It’s kind of like that, but boy did I get in trouble saying that!”
            “From Jim, right?” ‘You shouldn’t talk about the joys of drink at a meeting or a place where that’s all the people think about?’ That Jim?” He grinned, and Raye saw he had great teeth, even and white, and what was nice was the way he smiled. Like he was unaware of how great his teeth really were, that he was smiling just because he was happy or had thought of something funny. “There’s been talk of replacing ol’ Jim. He gets his meetings mixed up, thinks this is Parents Without Partners.”
            There must have been something in Raye’s face that made him realize he’d said the wrong thing.
            “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Go get a drink.”
            They use the same pickup lines here that they do in bars, Raye thought.
            “I don’t mean a drink with liquor in it,” he said. “I mean a Coke or something, but in a bar. This place feels like a hospital. It’s depressing.”
            “This is a hospital… Emory,” Raye added his name haltingly, knowing that once she’d said it she was going to leave with him.

That’s a formal third. Now, read the same passage as first person.

            “My idea of a nice thing,” he said, “would be a world where you could get drunk and it wouldn’t harm you, physically, anyway.”
            “Raye,” I said, turning and offering my hand. “My name is Raye.”
            “Hi, Raye. Emory. Like the board.”
            I didn’t quite get it at first and then I did and smiled.
            “I liked what you said that time, about sorting yourself out,” Emory said.
            Again, I didn’t get it at first, and then I realized he must have been at the meeting I’d first gotten up and spoken at.
            “Well, yeah,” I said, “It’s kind of like that, but boy did I get in trouble saying that!”
            “From Jim, right?” ‘You shouldn’t talk about the joys of drink at a meeting or a place where that’s all the people think about?’ That Jim?” He grinned, and I saw he had great teeth, even and white, and what was nice was the way he smiled. Like he was unaware of how great his teeth really were, that he was smiling just because he was happy or had thought of something funny. “There’s been talk of replacing ol’ Jim. He gets his meetings mixed up, thinks this is Parents Without Partners.”
            There must have been something in my face that made him realize he’d said the wrong thing.
            “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Go get a drink.”
            They use the same pickup lines here that they do in bars, I thought.
            “I don’t mean a drink with liquor in it,” he said. “I mean a Coke or something, but in a bar. This place feels like a hospital. It’s depressing.”
            “This is a hospital… Emory,” I added his name haltingly, knowing that once I’d said it I was going to leave with him.

And, finally, the same passage as a close third. See if you don’t agree it feels exactly like first person.

            “My idea of a nice thing,” he said, “would be a world where you could get drunk and it wouldn’t harm you, physically, anyway.”
            “Raye,” she said, turning and offering her hand. “My name is Raye.”
            “Hi, Raye. Emory. Like the board.”
            She didn’t quite get it and first and then she did and smiled.
            “I liked what you said that time, about sorting yourself out,” Emory said.
            Again, she didn’t get it at first, and then she realized he must have been at the meeting she’d first gotten up and spoken at.
            “Well, yeah,” she said, “It’s kind of like that, but boy did I get in trouble saying that!”
            “From Jim, right?” ‘You shouldn’t talk about the joys of drink at a meeting or a place where that’s all the people think about?’ That Jim?” He grinned, and she saw he had great teeth, even and white, and what was nice was the way he smiled. Like he was unaware of how great his teeth really were, that he was smiling just because he was happy or had thought of something funny. “There’s been talk of replacing ol’ Jim. He gets his meetings mixed up, thinks this is Parents Without Partners.”
            There must have been something in her face that made him realize he’d said the wrong thing.
            “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Go get a drink.”
            They use the same pickup lines here that they do in bars, she thought.
            “I don’t mean a drink with liquor in it,” he said. “I mean a Coke or something, but in a bar. This place feels like a hospital. It’s depressing.”
            “This is a hospital… Emory,” she added his name haltingly, knowing that once she’d said it she was going to leave with him.

***

See how by simply replacing the pov character’s name with personal pronouns instantly transforms it into a read that feels exactly like first person. The same level of intimacy? Kinda neat, isn’t it!

How do you know when the “material calls for first or third person?” There’s a handy-dandy litmus test. If you can substitute personal pronouns for all the “I’s” in the narrative and it doesn’t affect the story… then it should be in third. If it does affect the story and in a negative way, then it should be in first. Most of the time I think you’ll find that it works better in third person. A close third person.

Personally, I sometimes write in first person. Mostly for short stories. For novels, occasionally I’ll use first person, but mostly I opt for third. A close third.

Try it yourself. Take a passage written in a formal third (where the pov character’s name is used often) and rewrite it, taking out all the instances where the name is used and substitute personal pronouns for the pov character’s name. (This is once the character’s name is on the page and the reader knows who the “he” or “she” is.) Then, recast it in first person and compare the close third version with the first person version and see if you don’t agree they feel pretty much the same.

Or, take a previously-written passage in first person and substitute personal pronouns for the I’s. If you don’t feel any or very much difference, guess what? It might be a better pov to use.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,
Les


Lagniappe

This has been a great week for good news! My agent, Chip MacGregor has just sold two novels to Stonehouse Publishing. He's working on the mass market rights with Pocket Books and will be trying to sell foreign rights at the upcoming BEA.
And, I'm sailing along with the first rewrite of my noir novel, The Rapist, which Bare Knuckle Press has taken. My editor, Eddie Vega, sent me some additional notes which I'll share. Eddie writes:

For now, work off the global changes I suggested. When you submit the revised mss, I will go over every inch and send it back to you with MS backtrack comments, so you can see the edits, which you can adopt or reject.

 As we discussed, the weakest writing occurs in the early sections. 1. You need to decide which parts are essential to the novel and which were you just cracking your knuckles getting ready to write. Leave the first kind and chuck the second kind.

On rewrite, when you see sections that are important to the plot or that has background information that you think essential, but where the writing is vague, you may want to add to some details to ground it, but be careful that you don't dramatize or super detail everything. Everything is not the same. Some things deserve more attention than others. Be careful of the "Show, Don't Tell" rule that they throw around in writing workshops. Show what matters, tell the rest. In this way, you will be following Van Gogh's Rule of Composition: Magnify the essential, ignore the obvious." That's how to fix the early parts.

Ask yourself of every page, what in here is essential to my story. If there is something there to which the answer is yes, dramatize it. That's the draft I want to see.

Best,
Eddie

I'll keep including in these posts our editor-writer journey. It's exciting on this end!

22 comments:

Raquel Byrnes said...

Interesting take on the subject. I've written in both, but got published in 1st...then again, its romance so the genre is a bit different.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Tiffany said...

Two authors I've recently gotten into are N.K. Jemison and Nnedi Okorafor. Both their novels are written in first person. It was a little jarring at first because the books were fantasy (Jemison) and sci-fi (Okorafor, which is really very unheard of for me. Despite my initial misgivings, the books were very well written. And Jemison is a new author, so you know her stuff had to be great.

As for me personally, I had no idea there was a such thing as a close third. O_o I ended up doing that because it's what felt right. I tend to shy away from first person because I like to tell the story from multiple characters' point of view. That's a little difficult for me to do writing in first person.

Has anyone gotten published using second person recently? Lol.

Donna Hole said...

I rarely write in anything but close 3rd. Does that make me a pro (LOL). I find it much more intimate that first. Usually, first comes off to mechanical in action, and too indepth for narrative.

but it can be done well; I've read a few books I liked in 1st pov.

I did enjoy the POV writing lesson. The changes were so subtle, yet did add emotion and tension to the scene.

So cool that you post some of your editor-author communications. Nice to see that even a veteran author like yourself still needs a second pair of eyes sometimes.

......dhole

Sally Clements said...

Great post, Les. I'm battling with thinking about a rewrite of a crime novel at the moment, which is written in third. The problem I have with it, is that there are too many pov characters, which is necessary to reveal parts of the story where the mc isn't present. I've been reading Donna Leon, who seems to use a narrative third for these elements, and a close third for the mc - so the reader sees the thoughts of the mc, and the actions only of other characters, and I've been thinking this would be the way to go, but because I haven't written in this way before, I'm sort of intimidated. At the moment, each pov character 'owns' their own scene, and their thoughts etc take presidence, but it feels too scattered, as if the story hasn't got a driving force - we talked about this before with my 'how many protagonists can you have' discussion. In your opinion, can this narrative third and close third approach work - or should I rewrite giving the mc the driving force, and make everything that other characters learn be revealed to the mc?
(If you know what I mean, its difficult to articulate this stuff!)

Paul D. Brazill said...

Smashing post. Good to compare the different styles.

I'm a big fan of Scottish crime writer Tony Black. His first four books were about a boozy PI and written in the first person. The style suited the PI's delirious, free-wheeling life.

Tony's latest book is a police procedural written in the third person and it gives the book a more measured tone which, I think, those types of books need.

JB Toner (euclid) said...

This post arrived just in time. I have been struggling with these ideas over the past month or so.

Nice to see it all put into words!

dawnall said...

I avoid first person like the proctologist. Unfortunately, my YA protagonist insisted. When I tried that novel in close third, my writer's group hated it. It didn't work. Sigh.

Congrats on the good news. I'm celebrating with you!

Les Edgerton said...

Raquel--I agree that some genres and categories have different requirements. Meant this mostly for mainstream fiction.

Tiffany, the last successful second person novel I'm aware of was "Bright Lights, Big City." Seeing "you" all the time just gets tiresome quickly, which is why few novels work. Short stories are better suited for this because... they're short...

Donna, thanks. I agree that some first-person novels work well--if the material calls for first, fine. But, sometimes writers choose first for the wrong reasons. And, as far as being a "veteran writer" with each book I feel like a rank amateur!

Sally, a great book which I think might answer your questions is Tim Sandlin's new novel, "Lydia." He uses multiple povs and all but one are written in a close third, while he reserves first person for his protagonist. It's a master class on first and third person and how to make each work, even within the same work. Check it out.

Paul D. Brazill commented on my blog! I'm tres excited! For those of you who might not know Paul's work (get his stuff immediately!) he's considered one of the great noir writers in the world--one of the titles bestowed on him is the "Bukowski of noir." I'm just knocked over that he showed up to comment on my lil' blog! Thanks for the kind words, Paul. I'm going out right now to get a Tony Black book!

JB, I'm really glad it helps! Keep us informed as to if and how it helped your work, okay?

Dawnall, your sentence made me sit up immediately. Just got a letter from my proctologist that I needed to schedule my next colonoscopy (third). If I could only avoid him like I can first person...

You guys rock! And Paul D. Brazill showed up! That's like having Norman Mailer show up... (Hope I've embarrassed you, Paul...:) Seriously, folks, get your hands on his stories--they're amazingly brilliant.

Sarah said...

Hi Les,
This is eye-opening for me. I've always felt that I couldn't write in any other way but first person. After reading your examples, I wonder if you could call To Kill A Mockingbird a close third person novel? Harper Lee tells us the story through Scout, but as a woman. Would this be correct? I’ve always felt that third person was cold, but now I realize that it appears to be even more intimate. Thanks, dear friend.
Sarah

Les Edgerton said...

Sarah, glad it helped! I'm sorry but it's been so many years since I read Mockingbird that I can't remember if it was first or third. Whatever it was written in, I'd say it worked, right!

Hey, it's about time you and me and Kevin and the rest got together to knock back some brews and talked writing, right? Next time, invite Sarah, okay? She's cool.

Les Edgerton said...

Sarah, I meant "Sara", Kevin's friend!

Julie Musil said...

Les, it's fascinating to read about your editing journey. Thanks for sharing.

As for pov, I wrote my first two "starter novels" in first. My third was in close 3rd, and I loved that style.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Julie. Your progression sounds familiar... :)

Been there, done that myself!

Sally Clements said...

Thanks for the pointer and book suggestion, Les...
now off for a trip to the 'virtual bookshop!'
(boy, its really buzzin on your blog today)

Les Edgerton said...

Sally, don't know if you've read Sandlin, but he's a brilliant satirist and his novels are just intelligently funny to the nth degree. I think you're going to love this novel.

Sally Clements said...

I haven't read any, Les, but I had a look at his blog and discovered I missed a chance of downloading one of his FREE to my kindle by a couple of weeks (darn it!) Anyway, I'll check him out. Wish I had your editor to slash and burn my wip and point me in the right direction!!

The Teddy Bear Family said...

My protagonist and I duked this out not too long ago. He wanted first person, but he isn't as observant as a close third person is. He's slowly agreeing with me, with a good understanding he gets to win an argument in the future. lol

Les Edgerton said...

Teddy Bear--I love it when a protagonist becomes as real to the creator as yours has! Now that you've whipped him, be gracious and take him out and buy him a cup of joe or a beer, whichever he prefers. He'll be so grateful he'll be your servant for life!

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

Sorry - I deleted my comment. I was just saying...I think I should be the only Sarah in this group! You'll have to buy me a beer to make me feel better about it. Peace, brother.

Brian Elsasser said...

Hunter Thompson was skillful in his use of first person pov. It was a neat trick, because that way he implicated the reader (no matter how straight-laced) in whatever shenanigans his first person character was up to. And that was a character Thompson wrote about, methinks, which got a little way away from him in his later writing. On the whole, you're right though, Les. "Close" Third person is probably best, as far as drawing the reader, involving and motivating them to read on to the end. Though I dare say...HST was no amateur :)

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Brian and thanks for the comment. I agree pretty much with everything you said. There are all kinds of great books out there written from first person--many times the material calls for that pov over all others. Just intended to point out that there are drawbacks to first and that sometimes writers choose first for the wrong reason--that they feel it's more "intimate" and that a close third is just as intimate if used properly. My next two novels are written in both--first and third. Good points.