Friday, January 13, 2017

I Can't Write in Third Person

Several years ago (or maybe several more than that), I saw a quote from a well-known novelist that belittled children's literature: "Anyone can write for children," this well-known novelist said, "because anyone can write in first person." (Full disclosure: the quote went something like that, and before you ask me who said it, I'll tell you that I can't remember.)

My knee-jerk reaction was one of righteous indignation: How dare said well-known novelist insult writing for kids! Kids are the only people worth writing for in the first place! But beneath the controversy, there was something sharp and true that this novelist was saying.

Writing in first person is easier than writing in third.

THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING and DON'T VOTE FOR ME are both written in first person. So is DON'T SOLVE THE PUZZLE and the next manuscript I wrote (which is on submission at the moment). So is Bonnie. So is this. So is almost everything I've written since I first signed with an agent.

I love writing in first person because it makes a novel so accessible. Readers can insert themselves into the story because the pronouns insert them into the story. But what I never considered until recently (read: what I never considered until I went back to writing in third person) is that writing in first person also makes the novel more accessible to the person writing it.

When you're writing in first person, your narrative voice and the main character's voice are, of course, one and the same. Even when you're writing in close third, there's some degree of separation between the main character and the narrator, and that separation has somehow changed the way I write, especially the connective tissue. Once I'm entrenched in a scene, I don't find it (as) difficult to write snappy dialogue, but it's in the connective tissue--the transitions between chapters, between sections, between scenes, and even between moments within the same scene--that your voice really shines through. I think that's the major difference between a good book and a great one. Good books have great scenes, but great books have great transitions that make you want to savor every word.

Because the narrative voice is the ONLY thing that makes connective tissue worth reading, the contrast between writing in first and third becomes sharper. In first person, you can borrow your MC's wit and personality to imbue transitions with more life, but you have more work to do when you're writing in third person. It's almost like you have to cultivate a whole other character, one who's never seen but whose voice is always heard.

I don't have it figured out. I'm working on two manuscripts right now, both of which are in third person, and the going has been slow, awkward, and more than slightly frustrating. But maybe I need to cut myself a little slack. Writing in third person is different than writing in first, and the sooner I figure that out, the sooner I might (finally!) make some progress.


JeffO said...

I will rarely belittle someone's thoughts with the word "stupid," but I will make an exception for the Famous Author--what a stupid thing to say!

First, not all children's books are written in first person. Quite a lot of them aren't, in fact. And second, while "anyone" can write in first person, "anyone" can write in third. Or second. Or omni. "Anyone" can do it, but few can do it well.

I write for adults (one day, maybe adults will read me!). I generally don't set out at the start of a project with the intent to write in one POV or another, I just kind of go with what I "hear" in my head, with what seems right. My WiP is in first. The last two manuscripts were close third. The first was in first. I even did a short story in second (and I really liked how it came out). Interestingly, the one I am not comfortable with is omni. I just never feel like I get the narrative voice right on that one.

Good luck with your 3rd-person WiPs, and definitely give yourself some slack. If you're used to writing (and maybe reading) first person all the time, it will take a little getting used to anything else.

RC Hancock said...

And the worst is when you have to switch between novels that are different POV. I'm forever finding I's and me's in my 3rd person narrative. I guess that's what copy editors are for. ;)

Andrea Rand said...

I write in third person close POV and that has always come more naturally to me than first person POV, I don't really know why. My current WIP has multiple POV, which is going to be very different for me and I hope I can pull it off. As far as writing for children is concerned, I think picture books would be a challenge. Trying to tell a story in so few words would be really hard!

Unknown said...

INTERESTING! As an individual with a paucity of writing skills, thy ruminations and discourse raise not a few contemplations!
Your writing evinces a strong understanding of the internals of the human heart, which may well be why your published works thus far, (more will certainly be to come), capture the dynamics of conflict in the souls so well. The ability to switch views, and to peer through the eyes of others verbally is a strengh. It is also perhaps the engine that drives the excellence of your blog. Hate that word...sounds like the sound you make pulling your boot from a mud puddle.:)
Anywho...always an adventure to peruse your thoughts.
"Girl At The Mirror" indeed. well done thou good and faithful.

A.J. Cattapan said...

For me, I seem to write first person when I write YA (like I did for my debut novel Angelhood), but when I write middle grade, I naturally flip to third person (like I did for my second novel).

YA seems to demand the kind of intimacy that comes with a first-person narrator. Middle grade seems more flexible, but maybe that's just me. :)

Leslie S. Rose said...

I bounce between closed third and first. It's a tricky mind shift and I catch myself drifting. Sending you positive POV vibes.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Just wanted to say thank you for all these thoughtful, helpful comments. I wish I'd had time to respond to them individually, but this winter kind of kicked my butt...