Monday, February 24, 2014

Third vs. First: Perspective and Intimacy

Probably one of the most divisive questions you can ask writers is whether they prefer to write in third or first. It's like choosing a starter pokemon.

art by: jonathanjo (deviantart)
In the pokeball on the right is third person. On the left is first person. Choose.

At the start of a new manuscript, this is always rough. What's going to tell the story best? Does a lot happen outside the knowledge of the main character? Do I need to be in her thoughts to make sure my readers feel a connection with her, or will they be cool if I'm just kinda floating behind her head all the time, or flitting to other narrators?

With first person, it's easier to be more intimate with your narrator. I mean, how can you not? You're literally riding around with them in their head. With third, you have more distance. Even in third limited, your narrator can take a deep breath and observe things more detachedly. Both intimacy and distance are double-edged swords, though. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your starter pokemon perspective is helps you avoid overwhelming your reader with personal details or pushing them away with an inhuman protagonist.

For an easy example, Twilight absolutely wouldn't work the same as a third person book. Think about it. A lot of the big conflicts, a lot of the juiciness of that series (whether you like it or not) comes from being right there in Bella's head as she meets Edward and angsts over their doomed romance. Try it in third person. What do you have? Moody teenager goes to school, sits in her room, at night there are weird noises, she gets dumped and then sits around some more, make-outs, etc.

Could it be pulled off? Sure. But it would be a very different Twilight. It wouldn't have the same immediacy or let readers slip into Bella's head as easily, which is a major attraction to the original. It might actually be a fun exercise, trying to rewrite it as literary fiction in third person.

Same goes for third. Say your narrator's mourning the loss of someone close to him when you open your story. You absolutely cannot expect your reader to try to connect with the depth of his sadness on page one; it's just not realistic. (This is why a lot of first-chapter deaths or funerals fail to connect with readers-- we need more of an emotional connection to a character before we can feel as sad as they do when someone they love dies.)

This is where distance comes in handy. I can open on a guy who is absolutely heartbroken and not let you know it if I'm in third. Maybe my protag is cagey and doesn't like talking about his feelings in his interiority, maybe instead he's going to show you that something is majorly wrong in his life by the way that he sneaks through his house, steals his dad's car keys, and goes out on walks late at night in winter in only a t-shirt.

Can you do this in first? Sure. It's just going to be trickier, because you start out with that close degree of intimacy, and pulling away is something that your reader will notice. Of course, you can also just choose to have your narrator not pursue thinking distressing things when they came up until we as readers are ready to deal with that with her (one of my CPs did this, and it turned out awesome).

Intimacy is great because it connects us right away with your character. "Forks was literally my personal hell on earth." Say what you will about Bella Swan, but right here, boom, connection. Who among us have not felt like the place we were living in sucked?

The downside to intimacy is that it makes it too easy to TMI. It's really easy to re-interpret events that just happened in your narrator-character's thoughts, and that's exhausting to read. This took me ages to figure out on my first first-person manuscript. I would literally be like "why am I so exhausted reading this wow gosh I must be working hard" without even realizing that it took me half a century to move from one chunk of action to the next.

To help fix it, add some distance. Consider letting your reader work out more in their head. Keep in mind that you don't need to give us every single thought that runs through your protagonist's head--often, we can work out what their feelings are from how they react to things. Your reader is smart. Cut the interiority down to the bare basics. Look at what makes ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD's Cas such a compelling narrator-- he keeps us enough in the action that we're not suffocated, and his sparse, tell-it-like-it-is moments just reel us in.

Distance is great because we have room to observe without getting caught up in anyone's head. There's more mystery. We know some of what the character is thinking, but at no point are they an open book. There's always more for us to find out about them.

The downside to distance is that sense of removal. Why should I bother caring about your character if I can't forge a connection with them right away? This happens a lot in fantasy books, though it's by no means limited to that genre-- a lot of times, third person books open on setting up a scene or something not at all related to the main character. Here, your handicap is that you're constantly farther away from your audience-- from the first paragraph, the onus is on you to bridge the gap throughout the book.

To help fix it, add some intimacy. These things work in balance, much like starter pokemon. Have your protagonist get into all sorts of scrapes, throw in some lines of interiority as needed, and be leery of purple prose or over-describing things for the sake of description. Kami in UNSPOKEN is a great third person narrator-- even though we're not in her head all the time, it's okay because she's hilarious, doesn't linger, and constantly is getting into trouble. You don't feel like you're held at a distance, you feel like you're watching your best friend crash majestically through all her problems.

And that's all I've got! Your turn: what POV is your favorite to write in and why?

(P.S. Get pumped for Heather's cover reveal tomorrow!)

When Alex Yuschik isn't writing her next YA novel, she's working on someone else's as an intern at Entangled Publishing. She writes about lock picks, ghosts, the abandoned places in cities, and how not to strike bargains with stars. Between sneaking in time to game and rocking out to indie music, Alex spends the rest of her free time working towards her PhD in mathematics. You know, as one does.

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2 secret replies:

  1. Yes yes all of this! I will also add that third person can be really helpful for historical fiction (helloooo lads!). I couldn't tackle this WIP in first because I knew that a first-person voice in an Elizabethan setting wouldn't sound "true" to the time period, and that would take the reader (and me) out of the fictive dream of the story. Third person lets me give the prose a historical ~flavor~ without feeling bound to be all "dost thou want to imbibe some beeres"

  2. I wrote in 3rd for years. I finally started experimenting with 1st last year (at the insistence of a character) and I actually really like it. I haven't finished anything in 1st yet, but I didn't run into any of the troubles I thought I'd have with being bored with just one MC or getting sick of being in their head all the time. I just told the story, only in 1st, and it's working out pretty great. I think you can achieve that same kind of intimacy in 3rd (like you can achieve the same kind of distance in 1st), we just have to approach it a different way.