I try not to use this blog for “craft complaints,” but today I can’t help it.
First-person narrative is kicking my butt.
I hate it. I have hated it since undergrad when I wrote that bad novella and forced it upon three profs at Trinity, all of whom told me that each of my four first-person voices was too similar.
“You need to vary the voices.”
“They can’t all talk like that.”
“Men don’t say the same things women say.”
Until recently, I’d been writing in third person since I was 21. I can’t deal with I’s. I’s are what make people call your story’s narrator “you” when they critique your work.
For instance, before my aunt went out of town on Sunday, I gave her a copy of the story I wrote last week to read while she was away. When she returned last night, she said, “I don’t get it. He raped you?”
This was problematic for a few reasons:
a. There’s no rape in the story.
b. I, Stacia the writer, am not the narrator of that story. A character named Avery is.
I couldn’t even finish discussing the narrative with her, because I was too wigged out by her use of the second-person “you.”
“But you kneed him in the groin for real… after you reflect on your ex-boyfriend’s relationship with Colette?”
a. There is no “for real.” It’s a fictional story.
b. I didn’t do anything, because I’m not the character in this story. It’s Avery.
First-person is tricky. Especially if, as in the case of the story I gave my aunt, a reader knows that a story borrows elements from the writer’s reality. It’s easiest for me to write in first-person when I see a bit (or a great deal) of myself reflected in the personality or experiences of the narrator. But I hate writing in first-person because then people think I’m writing about myself. Then, the character is me, without question, and no one will be convinced otherwise.
I’m paranoid about people speculating what “actually” happened and what “I” made up.
Third-person suits me more because there’s a clearer, firmer demarcation between the characters and the writer. I get to distance myself from the experiences I’m writing about—and more importantly, the reader distances me from the experiences I’m writing about.
I gave this same story to another friend who’s familiar with my older work (all of which had been third-person) and she had a hard time connecting with it, because “it just seemed like you were telling a story aloud, just relaying some events that happened.” Absent, she said, was the flowery language she’d grown to associate with my writing. She also said it felt rushed.
I thought this was an interesting critique. I opened the file and re-read the story. I found some of my typical imagery there, but nothing as meandering and mellifluous as the stuff I usually write.
It dawned on me that first-person was the culprit. Because the I doesn’t linger on small details the way the She does. The I is preoccupied with moving forward in time, as well it should be. Third-person seems designed for observation and musing, whereas the I (and, the second-person You especially) prioritize pacing and action.
I could be wrong, of course. I’ve read first-person stories that didn’t seem too preoccupied with moving the narrator from beginning to end very rapidly. And I’ve read third-person stories that didn’t tarry on the description of setting.
But right now, as I work simultaneously on two shorts—one, another first-person loosely based on my own experience and another, a second-person/first-person with from the perspective of two characters (who already sound far, far too much alike), I feel like i’m in Perspective Purgatory. And it’s brutal.
Anyone have any suggestions for how to effectively wield first-, second-, and third-person voices? Please weigh in below.