Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The All-Seeing "I"

Several magazine articles and web sites I've read recently seem to be encouraging writers not to use first person in their fiction. I've seen various arguments:

- It's too easy (so it brands you as a rookie)
- It's too hard (it forces you to stay in one character's head, preventing you from giving information the character wouldn't know)
- It doesn't allow "psychic distance" in your writing (the reader can't step back from the character's thoughts and emotions)
- Seeing the word "I" in the prose over and over gets wearying

And so on. I'm not sure I understand why such a move is being subtly lobbied for. On the surface, it looks as though They (whoever "They" are) have decided that a sea change in writing is due. At first blush, it -is- odd that all these articles are showing up at the same time. Are editors trying to give us a message? It's possible. It's also possible that these magazines and websites each sees what the other prints, and each has noticed that the use of first person is a "hot topic" -- so everyone is writing about it (making it, of course, a "hot topic").

I have written a number of short stories in both first and third person. I think they both have their uses. In some of my lighter-hearted stories, I like to make use of the Shakespearean* device of the "aside," a comment by one of the actors that is delivered directly to the audience. The side comments delivered this way can be quite funny! Mathew Broderick in "Ferris Bueler's Day Off" uses this device to great effect. It's different from narration. When using this device, the character is actually aware of the reader's presence. Some might argue that this breaks you out of the story. If it's done properly, I disagree. Instead of being pulled out of the story, the character pulls you -into- the story. You are a friend, a confidant, standing beside the character silently, but part of the group and the experiences that are taking place. The aside gives a sort of conspiratorial feel of "being in the club" that I think carries some of the comedy. It's just not the same in third person. In many books we want to -be- the protagonist, and third person can engender that as well as first person. Using this device, however, you instead get the feeling of walking alongside the protagonist as a trusted friend. That can make the characters feel even more real.

Don't throw out the first person viewpoint just yet. Consider the viewpoint that is right for the story you want to do, but don't come to the page with a prejudice against one viewpoint or the other.

*Yes, I know Shakespeare did not originate the aside, but I would argue that it is his plays that made it famous.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about first-person v. third-person narration, too, and wondering if it's a pendulum-swing type thing. Right now I'm reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening and finding it a bit hard to get in to because the third-person perspective seems distancing. On the other hand, I just finished reading (rereading) and loved more the second time (first time I was in high school) was Wuthering Heights, and this time I really enjoyed the shifting first-person perspective. First time through, I think it confused/annoyed me. Somehow, though, I'd thought the first-person perspective was more modern, but Wuthering Heights was written 200 years ago and The Awakening was written 100 years ago, so I don't suppose I should comment on modern literature. (grin) Maybe it's more a comment on lasting preferences? ;-)