The Big Yellow Book

Seeing the World from Both Oculars-- a Bananaslug's Journal


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Narrative Voice: Eric Flint on the Dangers of First Person
bigbananaslug
bigbananaslug
I've noticed that a lot of the stories that Paula and the editorial
board have been sending me to look at are written in the first person
instead of the more common third person narrative style. The phenomenon
has gotten pronounced enough that I figured I ought to give everyone
some general advice.

The main piece of advice is that it's usually a bad idea to use the
first person. There are a few authors, like Keith Laumer, for whom that
voice came naturally; and a few others, like Robert Heinlein, who could
move back and forth with perfect ease from first to third.

Most authors can't and don't. I'm talking about very well-established
authors, mind you. If you take a quick look at the writings of any of
the following current authors, you will find few instances where they
chose to write in the first person:

David Weber
David Drake
Lois Bujold
Misty Lackey

-or me, for that matter. I've published over twenty novels and only one
of them was written in the first person, with a second switching back
and forth between a first person and a third person viewpoint.

If you look back through the history of SF-or most forms of fiction
except possibly mystery stories-you'll find exactly the same thing.
Tolkien, Clarke, Asimov, Poul Anderson, you name it. Yes, there are
_some_ authors who handle the first person superbly well. But not many.

There's are several reasons for that. Newbies tend to think that first
person is easier to write in, but it actually limits your viewpoint
quite sharply-and very few newbies can handle that limit well. For that
matter, very few authors can, period, newbies or not. The sort of mild
blurring of viewpoint that is not a big problem with third person
narrative sticks out like a sore thumb in first person. It's a very
unforgiving narrative voice.

The second problem is that, in the nature of things, a first person
narrative sticks the _narrator_ directly in the eye of the reader.
Whereas, with the third person, the narrator tends to fade into the
background and is far less obtrusive.

That's fine-IF your narrator is intrinsically a very interesting
narrator. But, being blunt, most aren't. Most are just generic
protagonists, with enough in the way of distinctive traits to make them
stand out but not enough to make their constant narrative ruminations
very interesting. In most stories, with most protagonists, what the
reader is really interested in is what they DO and what they SAY-not
what they think, except from time to time.

And that leads me to the third problem, which is that using a first
person narrative voice almost invariably (especially with inexperienced
authors) leads down a steep and slippery slope called "the clever quips"
and/or "the pointless asides."

Shakespeare could pull off asides to the audience in his sleep. You are
probably not Shakespeare. What usually happens is that the writer gets
wordy and starts peppering his narrative with all sorts of extraneous
material that, even if it's mildly witty or interesting in its own
right, just gets in the way of the STORY.

This is just a piece of advice on my part, that's all. It is in no sense
a "Rule." I have and will buy stories written in the first person, if
they're good enough. But, most times, I think authors are saddling
themselves with an extra burden by choosing that narrative voice.

Here's a general rule of thumb that I recommend everyone use if you're
trying to decide whether to use the first or third person narrative voice.

If you've written the story in the first person, go through it line by
line. If you discover, over and over again, that the story works
perfectly well just by changing "I" to "he" or "she"...

Then rewrite it in the third person. The first person voice is simply
cumbersome and extraneous-and pointless.

I'll end by discussing the one major exception in my own career where I
deliberately chose the first person. That was THE PHILOSOPHICAL
STRANGLER. I chose the first person because in that story, Ignace's
thoughts and ruminations and grouses and commentary _is_ central to the
story. If you were to do a line-by-line dissection of that novel, you'd
see that I _couldn't_ simply swap "he" for "I" and have it work.

But most times, you can-and, that being so, why are you screwing around
with this intrinsically intrusive and risky narrative voice?

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My dear, the length of your posts has prompted me to unfriend you for the moment. Are you familiar with the command? With this, you could give us a few sentences of description of what the post concerned, and allow us to read it at our leisure, without taking over our Friends pages.

Re: Skew topic, a bit

I'm surprised you think this is a long post.

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