Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Guest Author Claudia Gray: I Said, He Said: First Vs. Third Person
Today we talk about POV (one of my favorite things) with Claudia Gray, author of the popular Evernight series, (including Stargazer, Hourglass, and Afterlife.) POV is more than just choosing which pronouns to use, and she does a great job at looking at some of the more subtle aspects.
Claudia is a full-time novelist based in Chicago. So far, in life, she's been a disc jockey, a lawyer, a journalist and an extremely bad waitress, just to name a few. She especially likes to spend time traveling, hiking, reading and listening to music. More than anything else, she enjoys writing.
Although She'll blog about major announcements at her site, you can also check her LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to hear more frequent updates about her work, her day and whatever else might be on her mind.
Her new novel, Fateful releases today, so be sure to check it out.
Take it away Claudia...
One of the big questions writers have when starting out is, "Which POV should I write in?" People look at all kinds of criteria trying to make this choice: Is first-person more popular in YA today? Is one "harder" than the other? Is one "better"? Is one of them more accessible to audiences?
Well, I'm going to muddy this somewhat by saying that -- in the broader, general sense -- there is no one right answer that applies to everyone, or to every book. But I want to go through some of the ways either POV can serve a writer and a story. For me, I've written books in first person, past tense (the EVERNIGHT series); first person, present tense (FATEFUL); and third person, past tense (BALTHAZAR). I'm preparing to write another third-person book right now. Each time, I had to make this decision, and I think that the issues I had to look at changed slightly each time.
First of all -- yes, first person is very popular among YA readers right now. If you put the question to teen readers, they'll usually indicate a strong preference for first person. Does that mean you should grab your manuscript written in third person and start editing it now? Absolutely not. Some hugely popular YA books are written in third person and have attracted devoted readers and big movie deals. (Cassie Clare's MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series, anybody?) Other successful series mix first and third person as needed (such as the HOUSE OF NIGHT series). So while any individual reader may tend to prefer one POV to another ... what is always preferred is a great story told in the right POV for that story. If the storytelling is fantastic enough, nobody's going to stop and worry about the pronouns!
So what is worth worrying about?
1) This Affects Your Plotting.
When writing in first person, you have to make sure that all the information is given to your main character -- in the correct order -- at the right time. And if you're working with a complicated plot, that can be tough. If your character gets hurt, for instance, the action almost inevitably ends up slowing down for a period thereafter -- or you have to skip ahead in time, which might or might not work for the story you're trying to tell. In third person, on the other hand, different characters can learn and share information at different times, and when your main character is incapacitated or out of the action for some reason, a secondary viewpoint character can come in and carry the story forward for a while. Third person definitely offers more flexibility in terms of plot structure. That doesn't automatically make it better, though. If your story is naturally focused tightly on your main character, then diverting action away from that person might be a mistake.
(Warning: Many people think the natural happy medium here is to have multiple first-person POVs. But multiple first person POVs require very, very strongly defined voices for each POV character. Some writers pull this off beautifully -- but I've seen other people get lost in a thicket of competing voices that sound too much alike, which tends to confuse readers. If you can write each first person POV in such a way that no character in your book could *possibly* be mistaken for another of your characters, then give this a try. If not? Think long and hard before going down that road.)
In short -- third person gives you plot flexibility. First person gives you plot immediacy. Which one does your plot require? Which one works best with your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
2) This Affects Your Characters' Relationships.
In first person POV, you know very well how your main character feels about everyone else -- but you're going to have to work harder to make it clear how they feel about her (or him). That can make for some wonderful storytelling. You get to pick out the moments/dialogue/actions that absolutely demonstrate to the audience what's going on emotionally, and that may be more powerful than getting in anybody's head. (I'm thinking of a film I watched yesterday in which the young hero is being very mysterious and difficult with the girl who adores him. One night he insists that they must talk and she should meet him outside. Creepy, right? Yes, until she gets to the doorway and complains that she can't go outside in bare feet -- it's cold. He promptly sits down and takes off his own shoes for her to wear. In one simple moment of showing, not telling, we see that this guy isn't creepy at all; he'd give up his own comfort to keep her warm and safe.)
On the other hand, first person POV can make some relationship quandaries more difficult. A misunderstanding that seems maddening and confusing in first person POV might, in third person POV with both viewpoints given, suddenly seem completely understandable and even tragic. Sometimes there's a lot of power in knowing each character's secrets and waiting for the others to find out -- so you can revel in their reactions.
In real life, of course, we are all wandering around in first person POV. That's how we experience our relationships, and that's sometimes how it feels most natural to write and read them. But don't we always wish we had a few moments in third-person POV? That we really could understand what the people around us are feeling, and what's influencing their thoughts? Fiction is one of the few ways we get to make that wish come true, which is why third person POV has emotional rewards too.
3) This Affects Your Relationship With Your Characters.
Many writers fall into the trap of over-identifying with their central characters. Yes, you should care deeply about your MC -- but when that person becomes an extension of you, someone you can't see criticized, you have a problem. That's when your character starts becoming insufferable in the story -- always getting the last word, never being wrong, becoming unrealistically talented and beloved, until every reader is completely turned off. You can have this problem writing in first person or third person POV, definitely. However, my hunch is that it's harder to see it when you're writing in first person. There's never a moment of narrative distance for some other character to observe the MC and, perhaps, take them down a peg from Annoyingly Ideal to Just Human. If you know that you tend to fall into this trap, maybe try pushing yourself to write in third person and see if it helps you get a more realistic, nuanced take on your MC.
However, there's a flip side to this problem. Other writers don't identify enough with their characters. Instead of caring passionately about who they are and what happens to them, these writers end up looking as the characters as no more than marionettes who will obediently trot where they should in the story, doing whatever the plot dictates, and expressing only the feelings that seem typical for the scene. The stories that result are, almost invariably, boring -- because the characters lack life and vitality. If you've felt like you're too remote from a character or a story, try on first person POV for a while. Make yourself walk in that character's shoes and see only what she sees, feel only what she feels.
Hopefully, the above has provided some food for thought. In the end, though -- there's no one right or wrong answer for any given writer. There may not be one right or wrong answer for any given story. If you feel strongly drawn toward one POV or another -- if the story is just coming to you in that form -- then I say, don't fight that. Trust your instincts. And good luck!
Eighteen-year-old maid Tess Davies is determined to escape the wealthy, troubled family she serves. It’s 1912, and Tess has been trapped in the employ of the Lisles for years, amid painful memories and twisted secrets. But now the Lisle family is headed to America, with Tess in tow. Once the ship they’re sailing on—the RMS Titanic—reaches its destination, Tess plans to strike out and create a new life for herself.
Her single-minded focus shatters when she meets Alec, a handsome first-class passenger who captivates her instantly. But Alec has secrets of his own. He’s in a hurry to leave Europe, and whispers aboard the ship say it’s because of the tragic end of his last affair with the French actress who died so gruesomely and so mysteriously. . . .
Soon Tess will learn just how dark Alec’s past truly is. The danger they face is no ordinary enemy: werewolves exist and are stalking him—and now her, too. Her growing love for Alec will put Tess in mortal peril, and fate will do the same before their journey on the Titanic is over.