Sunday, April 20, 2008

Is First Person the Kiss of Death?

In all of the stories I have written over the years, from short stories to partial novels to the novel I just finished, I have only written one in first person. It was a short short written from the point of view of a little girl when her sister dies. I liked it because the voice was so clear, all innocence and self-centered in a childish kind of way. That particular story would not have been a story at all in third person.

But over all I am a third-person writer. I like the ability to narrate in language my characters might not use; to see things from several perspectives; to know things they don't, which allows the reader to know things the characters don't. There is more flexibility, but also more tendency to drift off topic, or to get bogged down in detail and lose the action. It's harder to establish a voice, I think, but easier - almost lazier - in so many other ways.

That's what I thought until I read this post by Elizabeth Jote, an agent with Objective Entertainment. From what she writes, it sounds almost impossible to publish a first novel with a first person narrative. She sees first-person as self-serving and lazy. An easy way for a writer to get around investing in good narrative and fully developing other characters.

I wouldn't have given this article more than a cursory glimpse a month ago. After all, I could pat myself on the back and say, "See, I'm not lazy after all!"

Except my new book is in first person.

I thought long and hard about this before I started it. It's an uncomfortable realm for me. What tipped me over the edge was that this main character of mine, the narrator, is very unlike me. I'm not writing from her point of view because it's easy, or using her as a veiled form of myself. It's sometimes a struggle to write the way she thinks and not the way I think. I am limited by her vocabulary (she is not a high school graduate or a reader) and by her cultural upbringing (rural Texas). And she is not one to sit around musing about the beauty of the sunsets or the worn path in the dance floor at the local two-step place. So I am losing a bit of the beauty of language and setting, which is one of my strong suits. On the upside, I have a great voice, and the story moves more quickly.

I looked around before I started writing my own work at other first-person books. Jodi Picoult often writes in first person, often in multiple first persons. I recently read Patricia Wood's Lottery, which would be a completely different (and lesser) book if not for the point of view of her protagonist. One of my favorite books, one of the most beautifully written books I've read in recent years, is Blue Water, by A. Manette Ansay and is written in first person, as are all of Emily Giffin's novels.

I think some books need to be written in first person. And from the list of first novels by the authors above, obviously some agents agree. What do you think? Is writing in first person handicapping myself? Do you write in first person? How do you decide?


  1. First of all, I love everything about Friday's photo!

    As for today... I love writing in first person. I sort of imagine that it must be a little like acting. I have to get inside this (imaginary) person's head and think like her (or him). My current project is told by four different people, so I had to switch to a different voice for each chapter. Hard, but so much fun! I get to be someone else while I'm writing!

    Do you feel that way about writing your Texan lady?

    I agree about LOTTERY; that book is just incredible, and one of the amazing things is the voice! It was perfect. I totally believed that I was allowed in on Perry's thoughts.

    For my next book I have to challenge myself to write part of it in 3rd person. Just to see if I can still do it...cuz I might have gotten lazy... haha!

  2. I agree with you. The more I think about Jote's post, the more I tend to think it refers to writers who don't really have a story or well developed characters... authors who see their characters as extensions of themselves.

    I feel the same way as you about Babs, my Texan gal. It is like acting... trying to be somebody else for the time I am writing. And that is a lot of fun, even though it's hard.

    When I wrote my first book, which is in third person, it felt like I was the one narrating this story about other people. It's much harder, I think, to capture the voice of a third-person narrator who isn't part of the story.

    I don't know if I could write a book in several different voices though. I may not be that multi-dimensional! It's hard enough being me and my one character! Kudos to you for pulling it off!

  3. ha, me and my other ten personalities!

  4. Hey Heidi, I have actually been thinking about this. My next book (after I finish my darling this month) wants to be first person. But I sure never have written anything like that. So I have to research. :)

    Thanks for the links. I adored, adored, adored Lottery. It deserves the Orange prize mucho.

    I think it really all comes down to what the character wants. After all, as my husband said, "if they didn't want to tell their story they wouldn't talk to you." Eh. The new one talks in first person but I don't know how to do it. I know I said that, but I"ll worry about it later.

    Great post!