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.
4 responses to “A Word Against Narrative Voices.”
You already know I really loved the voice in your story. It had an immediacy which I haven’t seen in your third person work–which is exactly the appeal of first person narrative. It’s intimate. If your aunt kept saying “you”, perhaps you should take it as a high compliment. You made your narrator believable.
I write very auto first person, and have found no matter how much I make a character like myself, she always deviates and becomes the darned character she’s supposed to be. Which is good. So yes, she’s Avery. You’re right about that, but you want her breathing, moving, and living on the page so realistically we’re convinced she’s you, or even us.
First person may not be the preferred POV for many, it’s a delight for others, myself included. Readers and fellow writers like what they like. You really, truly, can’t win them all. Don’t bother. That this POV challenges you is a good thing. Who wants to always write the same way? Safety, even what we like and feel comfy with, is overrated.
Sometimes, a change in style works. Other times, it doesn’t, but we have to keep reaching, eh? The risk are teachers. You’ll find your way when you listen to their lessons.
I think you’re doing great.
Wow, this piece is so timely for me. You see, although I’m a literature major, I am also a creative writer, so occassionally I take writing courses to benefit what I do. This semester, my last, I’m taking Advanced Composition. And while the basis of the class is “Rhetorical Grammar,” my professor gives creative writing assignments. We’ve been experimenting with P.O.V. and, I’ve actually found (much to my surprise)that writing in second person feels easier than writing in first. First always makes me feel like I have to reveal something about myself that I’d rather not. Even if it’s not about me; people always think that it is. Our first big assignment is a first person narrative. I agreed to it, but asked if it had to be true. He said that if it’s convincing then no, so that takes some of the pressure off….WHEW!
mair – thanks for the encouragement! it’s all hit-or-miss/trial-and-error with voice and perspective. i do think there’s something to be said for a having a go-to perspective that helps you access a story, but i agree that risk-taking is a large part of effective, compelling writing. so your go-to perspective certainly isn’t the only perspective you should use every time.
persistence – i’ve never completed a story i started in second-voice. it’s a dream of mine. lol i’m glad you find that your class is challenging your sense of p.o.v. as maddening as it is, p.o.v. is one of the most interesting things to contemplate during the writing process.
Yes, I’d never thought about it much in my own writing. I think I just naturally drift into third person; I always see the story happening to someone else. Maybe it stems from a need to control things…hmmm. But now when I write, I will forever be conscious of it.