The ‘danger’ of writing in first person

Also posted on my author site.

When talking about point of view (POV) and writing in first person, inevitably someone will bring up that it’s OK, as long as ‘it’s done well’ and that ‘it’s not for beginning writers’. Invariably also people can’t quantify what is meant by these statements and the sentiment against writing in first person is merely described as ‘I don’t like it’. Well, that doesn’t help the writer very much, because if it can be ‘done well’, just what constitutes ‘well’ and what ‘not so well’.

After seeing a lot of published and unpublished first person stories, I have some thoughts about this. Feel free to comment.

First person tends to be very voice-y

How I got this injury, Doc? Well you’re not going to believe this but we were in the undercover car park and there was this dude, who, you know, didn’t like me parking in his spot and so he honks at me, and gets out of the car and starts swearing, like, you know, half the words I never heard before. So I got out. He was massive, man, massive, and I was just standing there, trying to back away, except my butt was already against the passenger side of my car and I had nowhere else to go. And then Josh, idiot that he is, decided to wind down the window, and so I fell with my butt through the fucking window and into his coffee.

Obviously this character needs a good kick up the behind. He suffers from over-use of certain words, and he’s hands-up-it-wasn’t-my-fault kind of whiny. Do I really want to spend a whole book with this guy? I fear it will get annoying very quickly.

First person can be very meandery-talky

I grew up in the country where we never had the opportunity to learn music, so when I first saw a French Horn I thought it looked like a demented trumpet. I was twenty-two at the time, and awkward, shy and very much like a country bumpkin. But my best friend played in this orchestra and asked me to join. At the time, I could barely tell one end of the trumpet from another, but he said that didn’t matter. I got lessons. My teacher Sophie was the craziest person I’ve ever met. Apart from the French Horn, she also played the piano and was an accomplished artist. She lived in an old house in the Inner West, shared with four other students. This is how I met Dave…

Yeah, yeah, blah, blah already. This life history continues for two pages into the story and nothing has happened except a meandering recount of some person’s life. I’ve lost interest.

First person can be distant

In the first example, because the story is narrated, rather than presented in real time, the author puts a filtering layer between story and reader, namely the opinions and interjections of the first person narrator. It’s not that you couldn’t do this in third person, but it’s more instinctive to do this in first person.

Basically, if you end up narrating instead of presenting a story in real time, you tend to over-describe and lose tension. Sometimes the gained flavour of the character’s voice is worth it, but I suspect that any character who sounds like a standard teenager or uneducated lout ends up annoying a lot of readers long before the end of the book. In similar fashion, a character who just waffles on about something while the story’s setting is devoid of action or setting in the here and now will bore a lot of readers.

prejudice against first person?

OMG, I thought we’d seen the end of this sort of silliness.

When I first started looking for markets for my work in 2005, it was not uncommon at all to find in the submission guidelines for a magazine or agent the line that works written in first person would not be considered. Thankfully, that prejudice has disappeared, thanks to some excellent books written in first person. Well – almost. Some people still insist that all their submissions have to be in third person (and past tense, too).

Exactly what it is that Haters Of Things hate about first person, I’ve never been able to understand, except perhaps that it’s different, and Haters Of Things hate ‘different’. Literature is made of ‘different’. Sometimes, writers use ‘different’ to prove a point. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But is this a reason to blanket-reject anything that attempts to put a fresh face on narrative voice?

Please, go and pull the other one.

To be contrary, I wrote a flash story in second person future tense, just to prove I could.

Anyway, I’m glad to report that first person is no longer ‘different’, thanks to popular books like Hunger Games, which, incidentally, is written in present tense as well, another form of writing Haters Of Things tend to hate.

Honestly, people, open your mind to new styles when reading.

*No, I’m not a great fan of Tim Winton’s quote-mark-less dialogue either, for the simple reason that it’s hard to figure where the dialogue starts and where it stops, but eventually you get used to it, and then it’s almost like reading a ‘normal’ book, so in the end, my judgement about this could be summed up in ‘I don’t mind’.