Monday, March 31, 2008

Anonymous... answer -- first person--

Anon asks-- Of course, the reader wants to know as soon as possible the name of the character in viewpoint. That's not always an easy task when writing in first person. We can hardly open with "My name is Such and So, and I'm going to tell you a story." Do you have any advice on ways to get the first person character's name in the story asap, without it sounding completely contrived? For the moment, I have another character using the main character's name in dialog, but it's several paragraphs in. Thank you.

Actually, when I was writing the POV book, I studied a lot of first-person openings, and the self-intro ("My name is...") was a real convention. Almost all the books had that in the first page or so. Interesting. The author would use that to establish something about the character and his/her attitude. "Call me Ishmael!" shows a peremptory and perhaps deceptive narrator (not "I am Ishmael," notice). "My name is Joan Smith, and don't worry, I don't expect you to remember that. No one does," indicates a self-deprecating and perhaps self-pitying narrator.

First-person narration is not simply third-person with a change of pronouns, after all. The whole point (I think) of first person is to set up a conversation or at least a monologue of the narrator with the reader-- otherwise, why not just do it in deep-third person? That self-introduction is a great way of having the narrator step out of the frame of the conventional narrative and address the reader directly. "You're probably wondering who I am, and how I got myself in this fix. Well, the first part is easy. I'm John Jones, and I used to sell real estate until the market crashed. As far as the second part, I have no idea how I got into this fix. I just know that it all started when my friend Brian called and wanted me to check out a foreclosure house for him. I took my camcorder to get some video for him, and so I was lucky enough-- ha!-- to videotape his murder."

See how that works? Start with the action (narrator maybe on the run from the murderer AND the police), then stop, have the narrator step out of the frame and introduce himself to the reader. That's what first-person is all about-- the narrator interacting with the reader. Otherwise, save yourself the hassle and write in third-person. :)

As for how to do an opening line of dialogue in first person-- I think in a first-person book it's fine to attribute dialogue this way--
"Here's an opening line of dialogue which Alicia just has to point out often is much clunkier than you hope, but go ahead, as long as you attribute it," I said.

"Here's the opening line of dialogue which Alicia just has to point out often is much clunkier than you hope, but go ahead, as long as you attribute it," Josh said.

I rolled my eyes. Josh was always quoting Alicia. You'd think she was his guru or something.

You don't have to say who "I" is yet. The reader just needs to know who said that opening line, and "the first-person narrator" or "someone talking to the first-person narrator" is plenty good info at this point. You could even, if you want to really be enlightening, add more to the quote tag-- I said, adjusting the focus on my camera.

But just remember... if you have a line of dialogue and then start a new paragraph with a person doing some action, the reader is going to assume the person speaking and the person acting are two different people. That's how we were taught to read-- a shift to a new paragraph means a shift to a new speaker. So much as writers love the bare line of dialogue, just hanging there on the first line looking all elegant and sparse, you have to think about the effect on the reader. The first page should be all about the effect on the reader, because, cough, if the effect isn't what the reader wants, you might lose her right there. "I can't figure out who's saying what, and who's doing what! This is too frustrating for a fun read!"

Tantalizing the reader= good. Frustrating the reader (except in experimental fiction)= bad.


Ian said...

I really struggle with writing in first person. I think it's because I'm afraid to really get inside most of my characters' heads. It's easier to be the omniscient narrator, like I'm directing a movie.


Edittorrent said...

Yes, first person is like being an actor in the movie, really-- you have to BE that person, even if he/she is terrible.

Dave Shaw said...

I like writing first person; the problem is, I don't do it well enough. It's very helpful for getting to know a character, though.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the advice (that example of Ishmael was excellent). You prompted me to look on my shelves for first person novels to see not only how they slipped in the POV character's name, but also to see if I could decide why each of the authors chose first person over third. I found that I haven't done too badly after all; one got the name in on page 4, another on page 5, and a third on page 12. At least I got mine in the 8th paragraph. All the same, you made some valid points and I thank you for your trouble.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, first-person allows you to present not only the character of the narrator (any POV can do that) but also that person's agenda for telling the story.

Most of the examples I found had the self-introduction on the first couple pages, as that sets up the whole conversation dynamic. :)

Edittorrent said...

My beef with first person is that so frequently the manuscripts slip out of straight scene and into a type of narrative summary. Have you noticed that, too?


Edittorrent said...

Yes, I call it "retrospective retelling," and it's a real danger in first-person,because, well, if someone is telling the story, he/she is telling it from the future, presumably. Hence retro.

Brad Meltzer does something clever to force himself to stay in the moment-- first-person present tense.