Monday, February 11, 2013

First Person vs. Third Person

The last novel I read before I began writing about ten years ago was Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. That book was written in first person point of view (POV). I enjoyed the approach and tried to emulate it. I have now completed nine novels. All were originally written in first person POV, the last being The Training Bra. I sent the third edit pass for The Training Bra back to the editor last week. Editing was a slow and painful process, and I learned three important lessons relative to first person POV.

a. When the story includes many characters, and all are in first person POV, it is difficult to communicate to the reader who is narrating at any given time. As I look back over the novels I’ve produced in the past, I can see why this wasn’t a problem sooner. My earlier novels had fewer characters and less complex plots. In the case of Odd Thomas, the entire novel was told from one character’s perspective, so there was no confusion. To avoid “head hopping” in my prior novels, I used separate chapters when the POV changed. That approach became harder as the number of characters and plot complexity increased.

b. When more than one character is involved in a significant event, and both give their perspective on what happened, the POV problem gets worse. If Character A has just completed his view of events in one chapter, and Character B then tells another version of the same events in the next, there is inherent confusion for the reader. When the reader finishes reading about the event from Character A’s POV, he/she believes the event has passed, and reading about it again in the next chapter causes a bump in the flow of the plot. One way to overcome this is to change from present tense for Character A to past tense for Character B. I eventually managed to accommodate both characters in that situation without destroying the story, but it was tricky.

c. A third problem with first person POV, but not as important as the two above, is that “show vs. tell” can be more difficult in first person. The reason for this is that only the character who is currently in charge of the POV has known feelings and thoughts. If the POV is being told from Character A’s perspective, then that character can’t know how any other character is feeling … or what any other character is thinking. Character A can only know about himself, and can only guess about what other characters are thinking and feeling from observed actions.

Fortunately for me, I had an outstanding editor … even more, she was patient. She helped me muddle through the problems of first person POV because she believed in the story. Without her insight, a really good story could have been bogged down with technical issues.

I have read that new authors frequently begin writing from first person POV, and subsequently switch to third person limited. Now I understand the reasons. Because of the issues listed above, I began writing the follow-on novel, The Trophy Wife, in third person limited POV. I have reached 65,000 words in that WIP, and find the pitfalls listed above are not a problem. The writing is easier when the entire story is told from an impartial limited perspective that watches all events unfold—a POV that knows the thoughts and motives of all the characters as needed. I doubt that I will ever return to first person POV, but it’s like saying good-bye to an old friend.

So, as a farewell shot, here’s one of the last examples of first person POV you will see from me. I call the excerpt “To Kill Or Not To Kill, That Is The Question.” The Excerpt is taken from my soon-to-be-released novel The Training Bra, the third novel in the Miss Havana series. Lilith is the Princess of Darkness, the daughter of Miss Havana and Lucifer. She is the absolute ruler of the underworld and reigns from the Throne of Judgment in hell. She has called Lucifer and two of his co-conspirators (Alice and Otto) before her to entertain her gallery of demons and shadow creatures as part of the Solstice celebration. For this day only, Miss Havana has been invited to sit in a straight-backed chair at the base of the throne, not knowing she will be part of the entertainment.


Lilith leans forward, places her elbows on her knees and rests her chin on her hands. “Well, well, well. What an interesting little party we have here. What do you think, Mother, aren’t they just adorable?”

The gallery hoots and screams while throwing feces and vomit—the same kind of reaction you get when you piss off the monkeys at the zoo.

Lilith raises her arms to the gallery, taking in their accolades. This is the first time she’s had both Miss Havana and me in her sights for a long, long time. What better way to celebrate the Solstice than to humiliate the two of us together.

My daughter has a mean streak as broad as Alice’s ass, and she loves a good fight. She glances at me, and then to Miss Havana … and seems especially fascinated with our collars. Her glare falls on me, and then she passes her hand toward the collar on my ex’s neck. “Why don’t you try it out, Father? It’s quite gratifying.”

I crawl to my knees and then stand erect, facing my ex. Miss Havana also stands, genuflects toward Lilith, crouches like a cage fighter and then begins sweeping from side-to-side as she comes at me, looking for weakness. I see vengeance in her eyes. Like an approaching storm, she’s ready to destroy anything in her path. This could be bad; she knows I’ll go for her collar and she’ll fight to the death to prevent it. The bitch will do anything to keep me from feeling good at her expense.

When she’s near enough to spit on me, she relaxes her fighting stance and extends her arms as though she’s going to give me a welcoming hug. What an idiot, like I’m going to fall for that. Before she can reach the button on the back of my collar, I grab the hair on the top of her head, pull her face into my sweaty hot chest and drop to the floor with her atop me. It seemed like a good plan at the time—just pull her head down and jam my finger on the button on the back of her collar—but the wiry bitch bites a chunk out of my chest, screams my name in unflattering ways and thrashes like she on PCP before kneeing my groin and bringing her head up hard under my chin.

Shit. I see stars. The bitch never had this much energy or enthusiasm when I bedded her. We roll around in the slime and, as I fight to prevent her from getting another good bite, her arm slithers unnoticed up over my shoulder like a silent rattlesnake and her bony finger presses my button instead.

My body goes rigid as a bank of capacitors the size of Central Park discharges in that scrawny little band. I bounce and vibrate atop the slime with little flashes of lightning darting out from my knees and elbows into the surrounding rock. The gallery celebrates big time with high-fives and caterwauls as my body slams again and again against the cavern floor, sloshing the oozing muck with such gusto that I actually create a froth outline around me like an aura of pain.

I had no idea I knew so many unnatural moves. Between my twitching eye lids, I notice Miss Havana is mocking me by trying to emulate some of my more unusual gyrations. What a heartless bitch.

The gallery goes wild as she stands and raises her hands to one and all, and only then do I catch a glimpse of Lilith’s hand as it flashes down toward her pocket. Oh, fudge, I fear she won’t find my controller there—the jig is up.

Before I can contemplate all the negative ramifications of the missing controller, Miss Havana goes momentarily rigid, and then begins spastic shaking before she catapults to the ground. I hear the familiar buzz of electricity from beneath her collar just before her knee jams into my crotch again, this time driven by 100,000 volts. I grab my boys and double up in pain while her body flops around like a dying fish. This is so unfair. She’s the one being shocked, but my testicles pay the price. We writhe together on the cavern floor.

By the time her final unnatural jerk causes her right leg to kick my left shin, the gallery’s screeching has reached a new high. This is a Solstice celebration they will never forget. I remind myself of two things. First, that Mr. Lucky just ran out of luck. That bastard lied to me—he only got one controller, not two. Second, that I’m here to please and, despite the personal risk to myself for doing so, I wobble to a semi-standing position and take a bow.

The gallery explodes in yowls, belches, curses, and all manner of noises that would never be heard above, and they show their appreciation with a rain of garbage the likes of which I have never seen. I feel like I’ve got my mojo back. As I make my slow turn, trying hard to stand straighter, I see what they are really cheering. It isn’t me.

My fucking daughter is holding up Miss Havana’s controller, like Nero might hold up a scepter to the cheering crowd before letting the lions loose on the Christians. To kill or not to kill, that is the question.
To my everlasting surprise, Lilith lowers her arms even though the entire cavern is chanting, “Again. Again. Again.”

I’m torn. Lilith has Miss Havana’s controller. Should I be chanting too? Those bastard demons. I’ll reward them later for this.

Lilith lets the audience bloodlust run its course and, when there is a modicum of quiet, announces, “Ah, my children, I am so pleased to be able to tickle your fancy. Your enjoyment of my parent’s pain makes my day. But let’s not eat all the ice cream at one sitting. How about I let them spend the night together before we play this game again tomorrow?”

Another eruption follows, even louder than the first. Lilith raises her arms, accepting their adoration, and adds, “Then let it be so. Happy Solstice to all creatures great and small!”


The Training Bra should be available for purchase in a couple of months. The novel will make you cry laughing. Like The Substitute, the first novel in the Miss Havana series, The Training Bra does not have a social message. It is written for humor alone, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Thank you for reading,

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

Great post, James - although I've never tried first person POV, I love stories like this. Odd Thomas is one of my all time fav. Another great first person narrative is Blood Secrets.

jean hart stewart said...

I admire you for tackling firt person POV. Scares me to death. Intriquing excerpt.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

The last time I wrote in first person was back when I took creative writing classes. They insisted on first person to keep us in POV. I have never used it since because I feel it gives a narrow perspective on a story. Even changing the character speaking from first person perspective separated by chapters is jarring and confusing to me as a reader.
I seldom read stories written in first person, but when the author uses expertise with the POV, I can enjoy it. Still, not my favorite.
I like it much better when I can get a POV from different characters, but I want them separated for clarity...I hate head hopping.
I doubt that I will will ever write in first person. It's just too limiting.
Great subject on your blog today, James.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Tina. Yes, I started with first person and stayed with it through nine novels -- all because of "Odd Thomas." The problems with it grew the more complex my plots got, especially when dealing with multiple views of the same event. I think I will try third person for awhile. It seems much easier to mix characters in the same chapter, and still give good insight into their motives.
As always, thanks for reading!

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Jean. First person seemed natural in the beginning. It seemed relatively easy to become the character while writing; however, sometimes the author knows too much -- more than the character should know. In those cases, it's easy to slip up. Head hopping is also a problem. I re-read the first 65,000 words of "The Trophy Wife" yesterday evening and this morning. I think the humor is still in there, even though I've written in third person limited. I just hope my editor doesn't kill me (like she did with my final first person novel). We worked it all out, but it was hard.
Thank you for stopping by.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Sarah. Great comments. Indeed, first person is tough ... and gets tougher with more complex plots. I think I managed to keep characters separate and clear for quite some time, but "The Training Bra" was the last straw. Very complex plot and loaded with humor. I just thought I could do better if I tried another approach. So I am. BTW, first was not all that limiting in most cases because the dialog still takes place between lots of characters. The only limiting factor is that only one can tell the reader how he/she feels about things. Even then, the character with the POV can observe the actions of others, even it he/she can't know for sure what they are thinking. What happens is that the "show vs. tell" problem rears up, and you have to fight all the time to NOT just say what's happening. Everything must be inferred from what the POV character sees. Very hard, but still doable. Didn't Hemingway once write an entire story from the POV of a fly on a train depot wall? Anyway, I decided I just needed to change to something more flexible because "The Trophy Wife" will be my most complex. What people don't realize is that the comedies have a "hidden story" in them, kind of like "Animal Farm," and that is true in spades for "The Trophy Wife." I'm betting the underlying story will not be spotted by most. First person, in the case where the hidden story becomes the real story, is really hard. I just had to switch.
Thanks for stopping by! Always good to hear from you.

KC Sprayberry said...

I do use 1st person POV, for single viewpoint YA novels, and it seems to work for me. However, in romance and westerns, I use 3rd person, but that's because of how the story works. Why the change to 1st in YA? At the time I started, 1st person was considered current, more in the moment. Add to that present tense, and if plotted properly, you have a a winner. This POV is probably the hardest to work with, and I would never attempt it with a multiple viewpoint story. That being said, I have several YA projects nearly finished that use this POV, and I'm not planning to change any time soon.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi KC:

I get it. I probably got into first with YA as well. I have two YA out there, "Kill Zone" (a little heavy on science and concept, but certainly understandable by an older YA) and my all time favorite novel (of mine), "Aftermath Horizon." I wrote them both in first person, but later converted "Kill Zone" to third. That book was my first novel written ... and my last novel published, so I've been fighting this conversion for some time. Now that I've been through the wringer a couple of times with a really outstanding editor, however, I suspect I'll stay with third. I can say without question that the third POV is working out well for "The Trophy Wife," the first novel I've tried where I started and will finish with third.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences as well. I appreciate it.


Penny's Tales said...

Really good post James. First let me say I hate ALL rules on POV and Head Hopping. I think it should all be aloud LOL I write in 3rd person always and here's the reason. I sent a story in one time and got a rejection back because I used the work "I" too many times. Lots more prefixes in third...HEHEHE


James L. Hatch said...

You are right, Penny. I've heard that as well. The "I" word can get repetitious. Another good reason to use third.

Thanks for stopping by,

G. B. Miller said...

I did my first novel in the usual 3rd P.O.V. because it was something that I felt most comfortable in at the time.

But, as I'm want to do from time to time, I like to challenge myself, and one way to challenge myself is to write in the 1st P.O.V./present tense.

I first started experimenting with it in a strictly slush novel in the crime genre (I say slush because it contains a very disturbing plot line that will never see the light of day).

Once I got somewhat comfortable in writing 1st P.O.V./present tense, I took out a novella that I wanted to query this year and rewrote the entire think in 1st P.O.V./present tense.

To sum it up, I find that it's more comfortable to write novels in the standard 3rd person and novellas in the 1st person/present tense.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi, G.B.

You are right, first person POV present tense takes a bit of practice. If I ever do a short story or novella, I might consider it again. I can see where it might work for such a presentation. It also works for novels, but it can get awkward with increasing complexity--not impossible, but awkward.

Thank you for stopping by. BTW, I still love your book cover. It's just beautiful.