The First Person Challenge

I’ve been on a YA kick lately, having knocked out Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver and Simon Holt’s  The Devouring in the last week.  I’ve been listening to Alyson Noel’s Evermore on audiobook over the weekend, and it really brought home to me something that bugs me about some YA.

Of course it seems that the majority of popular YA these days is in first person.  It is supposed to give us an up close and personal view of the hero or heroine’s head, deepen our experience of the story.  But something I’ve noticed in a lot of the YA I’ve read (though not Shiver or The Devouring)–and I include the Twilight books in this category–is that a lot of them take that first person point of view and turn it into a story where the hero/ine is sitting there telling us the story.  The whole story.  In a tell the story rather than show it kind of way.  This is not a good thing.

It particularly heavily highlights the incredible self-involvement that a lot of teen hero/ines display in their stories.  And yeah, maybe that’s fairly true to life, but good fiction is not ENTIRELY always accurate.  Because, damn, that kind of accuracy makes me really dislike the hero/ines for being whiny, angsty, wishy-washy, and boring.  Possibly this is because I’m not a teenager and wasn’t a particularly typical teen when I was that age.  But still.  I think it takes a talented writer to write teens, or any characters really, in first person and still SHOW the story rather than tell it.

Many, many writers begin with first person when they start writing.  Not all, certainly, but a significant portion.  They often think it’s easier.  I know I did.  I switched sometime in high school to third person and I haven’t shifted back.  Part of this is because I’m far more comfortable in third person.  I prefer hitting multiple points of view in my stories, so it’s the natural choice.  The other reason is that I honestly think that writing in first person–doing it WELL so that you DON’T fall into the tell rather than show trap–is far more challenging.  It’s why I’m waiting to start my culinary paranormal series.  That story is absolutely best in first person, and it’ll be seriously pushing my boundaries as a writer.

I gave about two seconds of thought to writing my YA trilogy in first person, doing a sort of chapter by chapter POV switch as was done in Shiver.  But it’s just not me.  And I don’t think I can tell the story the way it needs to be told in first person.  I find myself far too bogged down in all the “I”s and “me”s.  And so, too, do a lot of authors (YA and adult).  And then there are those that do it SO WELL you feel like the characters are your best friend.  Everybody has their strength.

What do you think?  Do you think first or third is harder?

4 thoughts on “The First Person Challenge

  1. Amie Stuart

    Third is and has been harder for me. I cut my teeth on first person, I do it well (not to brag but I do), and I’ve always had a tendency to play with POV– so with this current project I really had to buckle down and force myself to NAIL third person. It made me want to cry!

    BTW Lisa McMann’s series is third present–very weird/kinda hard to get used to but it worked for me!!!

  2. I think it varies from person to person. For myself I prefer to read and write in first for the simple reason that it is more intimate and I feel a deeper connection to the character.

    I’ve written things in third, but for something longer than a short story, it doesn’t work as well for me. I feel disconnected and don’t LIKE my characters as much. It’s the same when I read third. That isn’t to say that I hate every third person book because I don’t. It just means that it has to be done really well and it has to be a great story.

    As an example, I’m reading UGLIES right now. It’s a good story, and I’m enjoying the read. BUT I don’t really care about Tally, or Shay, or David, or any of the characters. Does that diminish my enjoyment of the book? Maybe. If we were really in Tally’s head, I might like her more, but I might (as you pointed out) also end up hating her. Either way though, for me, it would probably be a more extreme feeling.

    In the end, I think it comes down to personal preference.

    On a side note, I used to write third because I thought it was easier. Now I’ve realized that to do it well is really hard. *shrug*

  3. I have always preferred third, but then I write science fiction. I’ve only lately come to first, and it can be good in the right story. But not all stories work in first.

  4. janettedalgliesh

    Perfectly timed post. I’ve just had feedback on an SF novel which went through several POV variations because I just could not decide to begin with. First person worked best for the quest-to-discover-truth-behind-global-conspiracy aspect; but led to far more technical challenges in the show-not-tell, also in the necessary exposition of backstory.

    Being me, I went the challenge route and was far happier with the end result. Publisher? Not so much. So now I’m pondering whether to stick to my guns or do the work of reframing it all. I’m inclined to stick to my guns – but it’s no coincidence that my NaNoWriMo novel is third person subjective, alternating between two main characters. Definitely easier in some ways, if one can avoid gratuitous and uncontrolled head-hopping 😉

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