Nov

17

2010

Point of View: 4

Filed under: writing | Tags:

Well, apparently tomorrow I see a hand specialist. It’s the fastest referral I’ve ever had—exactly one week. I’ve been trying hard to get my hand to twitch, so s/he will have something to look at, but it stopped immediately after I saw the GP, and it’s staying resolutely normal. Anyway, I figured I should do my next blog post and answer some more questions, in case the specialist forbids me from typing ever again.

Johanna asked (via email, and edited to remove spoilers for Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom):

I wondered, can’t 3rd person have the same effect as 1st if you only show that character’s POV and if you go deeply into their thoughts/feelings? In the M&B books which don’t show the hero’s POV (I know there aren’t many, but some exist), we follow the heroine’s journey through her eyes and mind, but it’s all told in 3rd person. It could just as easily be 1st – aren’t the two are interchangeable in these situations? Doesn’t it just become an author’s preference for 1st/3rd person, with the same story being told whatever their choice?

Eg, in Nina Jones (which I seem to remember was 1st person present tense), you showed the heroine moving from loving X to loving Y. Very crudely put: “I love him” develops in the book to “”I realise now I don’t love X. I love Y.”
Wouldn’t it have the same effect in 3rd person?: “She loved him” —> “She realised then that she didn’t love X. She loved Y.”

This is a really, really good question and I’ve been struggling with it since you asked it, Jo. I agree, that deep third-person POV, centring on only one character, can be nearly as intimate as first-person. I’ve read so many books that use that technique, and I’ve loved them. I think the thing is, for me, that first-person is even more intimate. You have to use the character’s voice. You have to include only what the character thinks and feels and knows—absolutely nothing else. (Especially in first-person present, which is even more intimate and immediate.) You cannot have any authorial voice at all, except very subtly, for example through the use of dramatic irony, or in things such as chapter headings.

Third person, even very deep third person, is still just that one degree of separation from the character. You can still, if you want, zoom out slightly to include things like descriptions of appearance, or more objective backstory. With first person, you’re there, right in your narrator’s head.

Also, I really enjoy the notion of an untrustworthy narrative character, and I think you don’t get that with third person. If you’re talking about “she”, there’s an objectivity implied there, that the focus character is more or less accurate in what she perceives, or at least she’s not trying to deceive the reader, because how could she? She’s not telling the story. The author is. A first person narrator, on the other hand—she can tell you whatever she likes. She can tell you lies. Even if she’s not out to deceive you, she can still only perceive half the story, and give you a warped view.

So, for example, in Nina Jones, Nina’s portrayal of X, her first love, is seriously skewed, but she doesn’t know it. I really wanted the reader to perceive him just as she did, as perfect…even though he wasn’t. Likewise, when she does meet her true love, I wanted the reader to doubt him, just as she did.

There are all kinds of untrustworthy narrators in fiction, and as far as I can remember, they’ve always been first person. I’m thinking Notes on a Scandal, or Wuthering Heights, or Rachel’s Holiday, or even that Agatha Christie first-person novel where the narrator is the murderer…

You can tell that the whole idea gets me all excited.

Anyway, I think it’s a matter of degree, rather than something enormous. Kate’s comments to these posts have been really good—she’s said that some characters just choose first person. And that sometimes, with some characters, first person feels way too intimate. You can get very, very intimate with your characters using third person, and you can know them extremely well, and indeed write in their voice the entire time. But there’s that little bit more in first person, which has more restrictions and conversely more possibilities.

What do you think?


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  1. If the hand specialist forbids yoiu from typing ever again I’ll sit on him until he changes his mind.

    Another fabulous post! Lots of luck for tomorrow x

    Reply

    • Lacey, I’ll keep you on call in case I need someone to be sat on. 😉

      Thanks dear.

      Reply

  2. Good luck with the hand. Meanwhile thanks for that post. I think that’s one of the clearest expositions of the subjuect that I’ve seen. The point about truth is brilliant – first person can lie. To put it another way first person tells it how they see it, whereas third person tells it how the author thinks they see it. Even if the author does their very best to keep out of sight, that difference is still there, not that any of it is really really true – it is fiction after all.

    Reply

    • Yes, well, that’s the rub, really, Rod (wow what a great phrase there): fiction is fiction, it’s all lies, so the distinction about a first-person narrator being able to lie is a bit of a false one. But the unreliable narrator has traditionally been first person.

      I’ve just read a brilliant first-person narrative which exploits this idea of unreliable narrators—The Girls by Lori Lansens, about a pair of conjoined twins. It’s excellent.

      Reply

  3. I think you’ve nailed it with the lying – that is the one thing that is a lot harder to do in third (though denial is another thing completely!!!). For me the main problem with first person is that it’s actually very hard to use well because it’s so easy for an author to get lost in the intimate nature and they end up going off on crazy tangents (not to mention the whole telling not showing).

    Hope it goes well with the specialist!

    Reply

    • Yes, I totally agree, Amanda. In first person, the temptation is REALLY STRONG to tell more than you show, to go off on a tangent, to ramble on because the narrative voice just takes you there. You have to keep a rein on it as much as possible. It can be hard!

      Reply

  4. Thanks for clearing that up, Julie – it all makes sense now!
    Really enjoying these posts. Hope your hands keep on cooperating.

    Reply

    • You’re very welcome, Jo. Thank you very much for the question, it made me think (and still is).

      Reply

  5. That’s a really good point about the lying. There’s an Anna Maxted book (Running in Heels, I think) where the heroine is lying to herself all the way through about her own health. In the 1st person narrative, all you hear is how the ballet dancers she works with are starving themselves into osteoporosis, but it’s not until her best friend sits her down and forces her to talk about her weight that the heroine admits to the reader she’s becoming anorexic. It’s really well done.

    One of the things I struggle with when I’m writing 1st person is how the character physically sees herself, compared to how others do. I have a book where my heroine would consider herself reasonably attractive, but to the hero she’s the most beautiful creature ever. It’s literally in the eye of the beholder. From her POV, she reckons he thinks she’s kinda cute, but from his POV she’s much lovelier than that. In 1st person this is harder to convey: she’s the beholder of her own beauty (or lack thereof). Do I fall into the trap of the heroine being the only person not to notice she’s a dazzling beauty? Will it come across as false humility? A lot of it is, of course, to do with her own self-confidence, and that’s a whole other issue to deal with.

    Reply

    • Ooh Kate, that Maxted book sounds great. I’ll have to look out for that.

      The problem of showing the narrator’s appearance in first person is a perennial one. But really, appearance is so subjective anyway. I reckon you can easily show the hero’s attraction to her, how beautiful he thinks she is, through what he says and does. And if a hero really demonstrates that he thinks a heroine is gorgeous, it always makes me sigh in happiness. My mate Kathy Love does this really well in a lot of her books, where the heroine has a low opinion of her appeal, and the hero’s reaction to her makes her gain self-confidence.

      (In Nina Jones, I reckoned Nina was really, really attractive. And she knew she was all right, but she thought it was all down to how hard she worked on her appearance. Whereas really, she was just stunning to look at. And I hope I got that across by the way the hero reacts to her, even when he’s trying to avoid her!)

      Reply

  6. If you aren’t already sleeping in wrist braces, you probably need to start. It will really help that repetitive motion injury you’ve got going on. And don’t worry about the twitching. If they do what I think they’re going to do, they’ll make it twitch plenty.

    As for the writing part, the first thing that popped into my head was Harry Potter, probably because I’m gearing up for the new movie (as soon as finals are…finalized). By writing the books in 3rd person, we got to see Harry not only as he saw himself, but also as everyone else saw him: Harry as a geeky kid; Harry as the boy who lived; Harry as the fourth champion; Harry as an angry teen… I don’t think Harry would have been relatable or likable if we’d gotten to know him on a first-person basis. For one thing, every book after Goblet of Fire would’ve been written entirely IN ALL CAPS!!!!!! THAT WOULD HAVE GOTTEN TIRING!!!!

    Reply

  7. I’m going to ask about wrist braces when I start physio, Ehle. I’m not sure now that it’s RSI, or at least not all RSI. Thanks for the tip. Have you suffered with this too?

    I think that’s a really good point about Harry Potter. There are some books that just can’t be told in first person, because we do need that distance. And LOL about the ALL CAPS!!!! How true.

    Reply

  8. Just catching up with all these replies and at the same time re reading Victoria Hislop’s the Island, because our local rearing group is doing it. She seems to use a sort of third person intimate POV but she switches POV between characters inside the same paragraph.
    When I had tutorials about writing it was implied that this was a major crime. Is it? What do you think?

    Reply

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