First person writing has a long and illustrious history – from older classics like Dickens’s Great Expectations or R.L.Stevenson’s Treasure Island, to more modern classics such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac’s On the Road, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to modern prize winners like Pierre’s Vernon God Little and, if I remember rightly, Martel’s Life of Pi. These are books that jumped into my mind as I am writing this – I hope I have remembered their first person PoV correctly! (If not, tell me.)
So it has come as quite a shock to me to realise – relatively recently – that there are a stack of people out there who simply won’t pick up a book written in the first person, on the apparent assumption that they won’t like it. Not just a few, but a surprisingly large percentage.
Now I can understand John Doe saying, “I don’t read chick-lit” or his wife Jane saying, “I don’t read Westerns”, on the grounds that there is a very good chance that they won’t like that particular genre. We all have our preferences. But the books within each of these genres have a lot in common within one another, and it is probably this commonality that John and Jane don’t like. John doesn’t like kiss and tell, Jane loathes horses and ranches.
But to say you won’t read something written in the first person kinda sounds to me like saying, “I don’t read books with red covers”. First person stories have only ONE thing in common – the first person viewpoint. To say you won’t like it, is to banish a slew of stories on every conceivable subject matter and theme, set anywhere on, or off, earth, many of them brilliantly written, and certainly not necessarily particularly simplistic or even linear. You can still have sub plots!
Would John and Jane also say they don’t like it when their friends tell them stories of what happened when they broke a leg mountain climbing and were then attacked by a bear / had a flaming row with their girlfriend only to be arrested for disturbing the peace / made a fortune on the stock exchange? All first person stories. We listen to first person stories all the time.
The reasons people give for not liking the first person written narration are often odd.
Take the “too linear” excuse. Yes, I agree, it can be linear, although there are ways of minimising this (see yesterday’s post). And if you look at many novels, you will find that they are often related from one point of view, the main third person character. Absolutely linear even though they use third person. A good example of this is (once again if I remember correctly) Challion’s Curse by Lois McMaster Bujold. As I recall, it didn’t waiver from the PoV of the main protagonist. A very popular book – and it could easily have been written in the first person. Wouldn’t have made a whit of difference to the story. And that doesn’t automatically make it a bad book.
So I don’t really understand the viewpoint of John and Jane. Not understanding is not why I am rethinking using the first person, though.
I am rethinking because, as a non-bestselling author, I cannot afford to have potential buyers browsing in a bookshop put the book down the moment they pick it up, on grounds that have nothing to do with quality of writing, or subject matter, or theme, or genre. I need readers, and it is just plain silly to put so many people off reading my work on the grounds of my choice of narrator. I don’t want to limit my reading public.
So, at least until I make it ‘big’ (when or if?), I am not going to write another book in the first person. Call me silly, if you like, but I’ve caved in to the exigency of earning a living from writing.
I think there’s a link between POV and scale. A tight first person POV seems to work best with a small scale story involving only a few characters and scenes. As the scale enlarges and the cast of characters increases, I imagine it would become more difficult to use the first person perspective.
Since I personally enjoy large-scale stories which deal with broad-brush themes rather than micro-scale stories, I tended to avoid first person stories.
However, reading ‘Isles of Glory’ and Robin Hobb’s work convinced me that things are more complicated than I thought. I discovered that the very best writers could make a limitation of perspective work for them, bringing both immediacy and a sense of scale to their work. I’m not game to have a go yet …
Oddly enough, my very favourite book, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, is a first person book. I’m not rational.
Glenda, keep using the POV that will work best for your story and characters.
People are weird. Most third-person books I read use very limited, focused third-person POVs, as you describe Glenda…what’s the difference?! Especially when the author writes third using the voice of the main character — um, just use first. It’s cleaner that way.
What I find most odd are books that bounce between first & third person POVs for different parts. I’m fine with different parts being different first person, OR different third person, viewpoints. But take Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series…first person for Takeo’s parts, but third person for Kaede’s. (I hate Kaede anyway, but that’s a different problem.) Hearn should’ve just used first for both.
Anyway, the only two things I really hate are 1. present tense, and 2. nonstandard dialog formatting (e.g., em dashes instead of quotation marks). Charlie Huston broke both of these rules and I haven’t cracked the binding on his book yet….
Okay, I’m rambling. To sum up: People are nuts. 😉
Um, p.s. forgot to say, thanks for explaining your decision, Glenda. It’s unfortunate, but I can understand your logic.
I also don’t see why people won’t read first person POV. I’ll read anything that sounds interesting.
(side note – just had a knock at the door, went to answer and freaked out at the pale, fanged face staring up at me… I forgot it was Halloween! My heart is racing…)
I can understand your reasoning, Glenda. You have to do what you feel is best not only for your story, but for your career. You know that your devoted readers love your first person POVs, but it does seem that third person is more popular (if you ignore the absolute glut of first person POV ‘paranormal romance’ novels swamping the market).
I have no doubt that third person won’t alter your story telling prowess at all.
Numbers, Glenda. And sources. You may well be right, but I’d like to know where you got your data from. And whether the number of people who won’t read a first person narrative is greater or smaller than the number of people who won’t even look inside a book if it has My Little Sea Pony on the cover.
Or to put it another way, if a publisher’s PR people say “you must change how you write or you won’t sell”, they may just be making it up.
I think I agree with Russell’s last point, in that some stories will just work better if told from first person rather than third person POV (and vice versa). So never say never, Glenda, that’s just tempting the gods. :oD
Then again, I don’t have a commercial mind.
No, no Cheryl – No publisher’s involvment here. Just my own observation. The topic has come up a couple of times on several different sff genre forums and it has been quite, quite astonishing how many readers say they aren’t interested in even trying first person narrative. And these are people who read widely. After that I started asking around.
Just look at the answers on the previous post – Eyeris and Karen, both people who read widely in the genre, don’t like it. Even Russell is dubious.
The cover thing is interesting. That topic has also come up a lot. The answer tends to be that a good cover can sell a book. A bad cover, though, is more neutral. People say that they are so inured to bad covers that they take more notice of the blurb than the cover pix. The strange thing is that the publisher was so gung ho about those covers. You would think they – if anyone – would have an idea of what sells and, seeing they had no budget whatsoever for marketing the book, that they would take special care to give it a cover that would sell it.
Anyway, if that was what they thought, they were wrong. I suspect it did sell Book 1 – to the wrong people, who were expecting something else entirely, and were therefore disappointed.
I’d never make major writing decisions based on a discussions on a message board. If I did, I’d write stand alone, third person books with no prologues or epilogues.
Firstly, message boards aren’t a large or typical sample of the general reading community. The sorts of people who read mbs are only a fraction of the reading public. Secondly, only people with strong views tend to respond to discussions like these, and people with strong views are often in the minority.
People who are well read can be as varied in their opinions as those who aren’t. I wouldn’t take that as an indication of the tastes of the general population either.
And being well read doesn’t mean someone is a good reader, either. I once laughed my way through a well-read magazine editor’s article on first/third person in which he explained that he couldn’t read a first person female character because he was male, and he couldn’t put himself in the head of a female.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the editor’s problem. Most people wouldn’t have any trouble at all.
Write to your strengths, and be wary of basing your decisions on too small a range of people.
I find objections to 1st Person weird. What I do dislike is when it’s used for a number of different characters and the character “speaking” swaps around quickly. Some writers even make it difficult to work out who is actually speaking, but of course this also happens with 3rd Person writing.
Regarding the latter, I hate our convention of having every line of a speech begin with quote marks. Especially when there is more than 2 people speaking, it can be very difficult to know who is who.
I’ll take this opportunity to say how much I enjoyed “Isles of Glory” and look forward to reading more of your books.
Thank you, Rob!
Trudi, I take your point of course. But as I said, the reaction on message boards and forums was just the catalyst for me to start asking around. And I found the same reaction outside of the cyber world.
But as Hrugaar says, never say never…
I would never put a book back on the shelf based on the perspective used, but I must say I have some issues with Ist person narrative. The reptition of “I” is very irritating. It seems to distance the reader from the characters, and makes the story seem really flat somehow.
Then again, 1st person can be used very effectively (Robin Hobb used it very well I found, and Assassin’s Apprentice is a favourite of mine), but that is the thing – it must be used well.
hmm.. interesting. What do your agent and publisher say about this?
admittedly I usually prefer reading 3rd to 1st person, but I’d never let that get in the way of reading a book that interested me.
lol @ trudi’s editor story. Tbh, this is why my protagonist is always male =/ don’t want men to pick up a book and think “girl main character? no way”.
maybe you’ll get really popular in third and people will go back to read your first person books because they’re by the same author and think “wow, I could get into this 1st person thing…” 😉
bdw rob, if you get confused in dialogue it’s because it’s been badly written 99% of the time
I remember an Agatha Christi book in which the person telling the story was the murderer. It isn’t something that everyone can or should do, but she pulled it off nicely. I have read many books with a first person POV and I don’t see it as a problem. The first person POV brings the reader much closer to the story because it is as if he is listening to someone who experienced it relate the story to him. It is limiting because no one character can see everything or understand all of the events. There is always a trade off. Most blogs are written from a first person POV and people seem to read those fine, so I wouldn’t worry about people who are afraid of reading fiction with a first person POV. If anything, it shows a lack of intelligence on the part of these people and they may not read that much anyway.
Grapes of Wrath?