First Person and Sticky Points of View

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tiefast-767993In a seminar I had with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on fiction, he expressed a point of view. That’s as in Point Of View (POV) and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I include second person in that list of POVs, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members recently wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most debut novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Keep in mind that some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story — unless they can reflect on themselves in an observer’s manner. The novel The Various Flavors of Coffee (superb book) does this reflection well. The device used is the narrator telling his story from well into the future, prior to the book’s main action. It’s deft and worth a read.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations, genuine surprises, about the narrator in a first person story. As in  The Various Flavors of Coffee, your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. However, there’s a moment in the story where the character says the equivalent of “what I was about to do was a series of blunders.” Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person aspects:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, however, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel about a club pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed” narration
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

Using Tense, Choosing Person

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First person and third person. Present tense and past tense. They can be combined in four different ways in your writing. Hear how they work together and empower your prose in this 2-minute Write Skills video. We talk about writing fundamentals like this as part of our Tuesday night Creation Groups, held here in Austin 7-9 PM. I hope I’ll see you at the Workshop’s table soon. We’re growing stories every day.

Sol Stein on humanity and authority

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My good friend and fellow novelist Larisa Zlatic sent me an excerpt from a good writing book by Sol Stein. Her excerpts from Stein on Writing include these:

The first step in revision is to make a judgment about your main characters. Character problems must be dealt with before beginning a general revision. This method of revision makes certain that you have humanized your characters.

Do you think about them in situations that are not in your book? If so, good. It means your characters are alive in your mind and should come alive in the minds of the readers. If you can’t think of an important character in situations away from the story that character may need more work. Ask these questions:

• What is about your character that you like especially? Is it also your own trait? If yes, it is a symptom of the autobiography trap, creating a character that is too like yourself. Resolution: give a character a trait (positive or negative) that you absolutely don’t have.

• If you’re going on a vacation how would you feel if your character were going along? Would you look forward to that? You may need to add some sparkle to your character, some interesting eccentricity, personality characteristic that will make his company more enjoyable.

I have Stein’s How to Grow a Novel on my bookshelf, and Chapter Eight offers on advanced point of view. He summarizes the explanation of how to distinguish first from third from omniscient, then he says, “I can’t recall a manuscript that didn’t have a couple of glitches in the handling of point of view. Sometimes dozens. The need to be caught in revision. The novelist’s authority depends on it.”

Authority in writing transmits the “dream state” to the readers, the means to lock them into the world you’ve created. And believe me, I’m working on maintaining authority in Viral Times right now.

The trials of testifying in first person

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tiefast-767993Awhile back I took a seminar with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on writing fiction. One rich portion of his instruction: Point Of View and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I’d include second person in that list, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most first novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations about the narrator appear in a first person story. One trick to employ is to let your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person gotchas:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed”
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

Oh, that 2004 book’s title above about tie-fast roping says a lot about Flynn’s level of Texana savvy. Texas used to be tie-fast country, until competitive roping came along. The other brand of ropers are called dally-ropers, who loop their ropes to their saddle horns. He told that story in third person, since he’s never been a roper. He leaves the first person to character voices.

Avoiding mistakes with psychics

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Last night in our workshop we spoke about psychic distance while we talked about a first draft. The term means “the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story,” according to John Gardner’s essential craft book The Art of Fiction.

(The subtitle of the book is “Notes on craft for young writers,” but Gardner is not talking about age. He’s talking about experience, how much you’ve practiced. It reminds me of the Thomas Jefferson quote about his horticultural skills, “Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

He gives an example of five levels of distance, from the greatest to a non-existent level inside a character’s shoes:

1. It was the winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never cared much for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God how he hated those damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

Gardner warns that “careless shifts in psychic distance can be distracting.” It’s as if the camera is dollying in, he explains. You would find a movie scene where the same character is framed further back, then in close up, then at a medium distance, plenty jarring. It’s the same way with writing. “The point is that psychic distance, whether or not it is used conventionally, must be controlled,” he says.

Then Gardner shows an example of writing that would drive the reader away, because of its jarring psychic shifts, all within one paragraph (levels for each in parenthesis).

“Mary Borden hated woodpeckers. (3) Lord, she thought, they’ll drive me crazy! (4) The young woman had never known any personally, (2) but Mary knew what she liked. (3)”

Become aware of your own voice’s natural psychic distance, through exercises and rewriting — and you can learn to be aware of how slowly to dolly in and out of the scenes that you film for your stories.