Inane Discussions of Person in Storytelling

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I’m describing this blog post as inane because you can discuss technique until you turn orange or blue or green in the face, but it won’t help if you aren’t a little inspired and a lot willing to work and write and draft and rewrite.

But I’m still going to talk about perspective because I’m having a conundrum and maybe Louise will comment and tell me what to do. Or maybe someone will think of an example I can consult.

Here’s part A of the dilemma. First person is intimate but it’s limited. I think it may also be more difficult for readers to relate to — unless the writer makes the narrative voice exceptionally compelling, but first person does provide a very clear dividing line when you are trying to differentiate characters one from another. You might think this is not the best use of perspective (that characters should be easy to differentiate from one another because they are actually different). But take for example a story about twins, told primarily from the perspective of one twin. Maybe it’s about their childhood and their shared experience growing up but also about the particular experience of one of the twins. Both aspects of the story are important — the dual and the singular, but the singular perspective of the protagonist twin is primary while the dual perspective and the experience of the second twin is more or less secondary.

Here’s part B of the dilemma. Think of fantasy and science fiction, or imaginative fiction or magical realism or speculative fiction or literary fiction — whatever you want to call it. From J.R.R. Tolkein to C.S. Lewis. to J.K. Rowling to Madeleine L’Engle to Roald Dahl (to… there are more but I’ll stick to the mainstream), all of these writers wrote their masterpieces in third person. I think. So I’m asking, do you have a counter example? Something that fits the novel/fiction genre, that is enduring in the classic sense or alluring in the grandiose sense and well-written according to the critics, and that is also written in first person? I’m not saying it can’t be done or that it hasn’t been done. But it’s not common. So I wonder a little why not and also if I’m missing something big. Maybe the first person seems more childish -?

Perspective is a tool. We make choices as writers to use certain tactics in the telling because the tactics serve our purpose. I’m trying to make a decision about how to approach a story and the tool seems obvious but when I use it, it sounds wrong. So I know it is wrong, but I have to rethink the approach.

Just thought you all might be super exciting to hear about my boring-est of thought trains.

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6 responses »

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird and Moby Dick are the two counterexamples that jumped to mind immediately. There’s also epistolary stuff, but that’s probably a whole separate category. POV is always tough for me, because it’s hard for me to get into a character’s ~voice, or whatever. But ALL of my writing is in 3rd person, because I think it’s easiest to work with and pull off successfully. I know perfectly well that it’s possible to communicate a story effectively with 1st person, but I don’t think I’m developed enough to pull it off, I guess? That said, I’ve read fabulous work done in 1st person, and even 2nd person (which, what), but it has to be done right. Actually, one of my writerly friends was over today, and she was telling me about a short story she read recently, where an author managed to jump between five people’s POVs without scene breaks or anything, and changed the narrative’s tone for each person sufficiently that it was easy to tell who’s voice you were in at any given time. But, as we were discussing, that’s one of those things where you have to know the rules super well before you can break them. So I tend to just stick to what I’m comfortable with (3rd person), and make it more intimate by changing how close to the character I am (my creative writing teacher used to call it zooming in/out, but I’m sure there is a more technical term haha). Anyway, I doubt this ramble was helpful or anything, but writing meta is one of my favorite topics, so.

    • Prianka — Of course it’s helpful! And I wondered about To Kill a Mockingbird, but couldn’t remember — good call. It’s literally a travesty, but I haven’t actually read Moby Dick. Still, I think I’ll have to consult that because it’s definitely a possible model, given what I know. And yeah, 2nd can be incredibly interesting when done well. There was a piece in the Atlantic awhile ago by Dennis Lehane that did it really well. I like writing in a variety of perspectives, but I think the story sometimes dictates where you begin your approach and I’ve been struggling with it for a piece of my dissertation… so all thoughts are helpful.

      Also, I’m about to repost a comment a friend of mine made on facebook about it for anyone who might be interested in her thoughts. Will be just below this.

  2. From CL: Okay, so. Couple of things. First of all, this post is not boring. Unless the fact that I enjoyed means I’m also boring…oh no…well whatever. I’ll worry about that later. So anyway, the first thing is, a master work written in the first person: Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner. He manages to both stay in the head of the narrator and make you believe the perspectives of the other characters. I don’t know how, but he does. Second, you might want to take a look at The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebasitna Barry. It’s told in close, close, close, close third, maybe the closest I’ve ever seen, and makes you feel both like you’re in Eneas’s head but outside it as well. It’s a master stroke.

  3. I just finished Asylum by Patrick McGrath, which does some very interesting stuff with first person. The narrator is a psychiatrist telling the story of two of his patients and for most of the time you forget he’s telling the story and it reads like third but then he gets involved in the end, in a way which I found pretty horrific. It’s almost a frame narrative but not quite. Clever stuff. Not sure how critically acclaimed it was but the p.o.v. was interesting. Also, Kazuo Ishiguro is very good at first person. I don’t think it’s seen as more childish or anything, in fact, I thought it was more popular now – especially when you have a few different narrators – seems to be a lot of that going around but I might be wrong about this.

    Have you considered a very close third, like the one CL mentioned? That would enable you to differentiate between twins in the way you describe without using first.

    There’s a ‘rule’ about using first – only do it if the character’s got a very distinctive voice. Thing is though, every narrator’s voice should be interesting, even if it’s in third. If you can’t decide which to pick, just try opening in both and choose the one that feels more natural for the story. There’s no right or wrong answer.

    Hope this helps!

    • I’ve definitely considered the close third. I think part of the problem with that is that I’m missing part of the story. And I may have been looking for an excuse by blaming it on a perspective problem.

      In any case, looking forward to looking into the examples. Did you like Asylum? I also think I’m going to read The Left Hand of Darkness, because I picked it up and realized it’s in first… which is interesting and it’s definitely at least semi-famous, especially in the science fiction world. Groundbreaking or whatever.

      So, thank you. When I finally manage to get it off the ground, I’ll let you know which way I go.

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