Writing in the First Person

So far I have seven novels either published or on their way to publication. Four of them were written (mostly) using the first person point of view.

My last glimpse through avian eyes appalled me: I saw birds turn into people and fall out of the sky. And then Morthred’s death swept over me, changing every particle of my body into something else.

For a moment I truly died.
There was darkness, a blackness so blanketing it contained only emptiness. Silence, an external muteness so intense I could hear the internal sounds of my body being ripped apart, particle by particle. Numbness, a lack of stimulation so pervading I felt I had no body. I thought: so this is what it is like to die.
I plunged into the darkness, into the silence, into the numbness, into that total deprivation. When I emerged, I was on the other side of death, in a life about which I understood nothing.
Everything had changed. Everything. All my senses had been altered so much I couldn’t… well, I couldn’t make sense of them.
I was Ruarth Windrider and I was human.

From The Tainted

I think I make a good job of writing in the first person. I even know of one writer who was inspired after reading my work to try the first person narrative, and as a result she has her first historical novel coming out next year, written from a first person point of view.

It’s not easy, and few writers bother to master it, believing the advantages (immediacy and intimacy with the chance for gut-wrenching action or heat-wrenching tragedy at a very personal level) are not worth the pitfalls (a possibly linear story with a difficulty of developing sub-plots, over-emphasis on one character, only seeing the story from one side, only knowing what the “I” character knows at the time, etc).

Some of these problems can be circumvented with a little thought and ingenuity. A good writer can even have the narrator tell the reader things that they, the narrator, don’t know – in The Aware, the sharp reader could work out the profession of main male protagonist from what the narrator says long before the narrator realises exactly what the man does for a living. And she’s in love with the guy! And yet her lack of realisation comes across as a believable failure of her acumen, rather than sheer stupidity. It can be done.

Also in The Isles of Glory, the tale was framed by letters of other characters commenting on the main story teller; in addition, it was done as an oral history recorded by an ethnographer, and the “I” could therefore be changed to another character, at different times. (Think of the Wilkie Collins classic, “The Moonstone”).

In her Assassin trilogy, Robin Hobb had her main character, Fitz, able to see through the eyes of his pet wolf (dog?); at the same time, he had access to the spy network of the castle with its peepholes and listening posts—thus he could observe scenes as a non-participating unseen spy. A handy device when telling a first person story.

I chose first person for Heart of the Mirage because I thought it suited the circumstances of the main character. She is set down in an alien society, and sees everything with the eye of a stranger, just as the reader does. Because part of the time she is in disguise, she can’t ask too many questions. As such, the reader rides the adventure inside her head, wondering what is going on, striving to understand along with her.

I have, however, switched to third person point of view for Books 2, The Shadow of Tyr and Book 3, Song of the Shiver Barrens, because the circumstances change and the story widens.

And I don’t think I shall ever write a book using the first person narrative again. Why not? I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Originally posted in Glenda’s blog on Monday, 30 October 2006 (11 Comments).

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