Monday, June 4, 2007

(Who's) ON FIRST

"I am born."

"I had a farm in Africa"

"I have never begun a novel with more misgiving."

Back in the day, novels written in the first person got some respect. When did that change?

I don't know if it's a mystery thing or a "literary" thing, but it seems that writing in third person (or some other variation or combination) gets all the reviews while first person novels are somehow seen as lightweight, anyone-can-bang-them-out yarns. When I started Pushing up Daisies, I wrote in the third person - then when it seemed I would be writing a series I switched to first to put my protagonist right in the action. I had fun writing lines like "I whacked him in the head with the weed whacker", or my foot connected with his nose..."
What do you all think?


Books written in the first person seem to be perceived as "small" which bugs me because I love writing in the first person. I also prefer reading first person books and I find I like movies and tv shows where there is a first person voice over (which oddly enough seems to be an increasing trend). What I like about voiceovers and first person novels is the perspective they offer. But I guess the rest of the world wants a more global view. Like everything else in literature, its probably just a passing phase.

We all grew up with "Once upon a time..." Think about it. From our first moment of hearing a story, we heard it in the omniscient view, and usually past tense. "There was a beautiful princess, and she went...." "The frog said "But wait, if you..."

What's more, I always feel that a third person, past tense story is one that's over, that's already happened. Which is kind of interesting, isn't it? Because if done properly, a tale told in first person doesn't telegraph that something is over. It brings the reader in at the beginning, to go on the journey with whoever the main character is. (Whomever?)

I mean, Rebecca. Last night, Rebecca dreamt she was at Manderley again. (I guess she had told someone about it?) His name was Ishmael. And how could you possibly third-person-ize Catcher in the Rye ? And why would you want to?

One pal of mine got a review (of a book I thought was hilarious and wonderful) which said something along the lines of: "I can't understand why this is written in first person. I couldn't even read it." Huh?

Don't get me wrong. I'm comfortable either way. If I open the book, and at the end of page one I'm transported into the book's world--fine with me. First, third. I'm happy.

But I agree--I'd love to hear what you all think about why first person is so often vilified. Is it too--self-centered? Does it make the focus too narrow? Does it require too many coincidences?

RO: So let us know what you think.....and anyone know which books those three lines are from? First person to answer gets a Jungle Red gift!


  1. Well, my first novel was in third --but I cheated because I was so in the head of the main character. My second (which is "on the shelf") was in first. I had a blast with it. My current WIP is in third for one narrative line and first present for the other. I love it, but we'll see what the experts say.

    David Copperfield
    Out of Africa
    The Razor's Edge

  2. Give that girl a kewpie doll! Actually we can do better than a kewpie. Send me your address ( and you will receive your JR prize. Will ship on June 23, since I leave for Tanzania tmw morning, to build a library which I hope will include those three classics!

  3. whoo-hoo! I never win anything. Off to e-mail you now . . . .

    Oh, and do share more about the libarary you're building--I've donated to the camel bookmobile project and would love to help with your project as well.

  4. I think 1st gets a lot of criticism because it's much harder to do than it looks and it's not always done well. It's much more challenging for the writer to find ways to build in description and to provide insight into character and place without the 3rd person options of showing the character's gestures, expressions and tone of voice. I think each POV has strengths and challenges, which can be weaknesses, but all are wonderful when done well.

  5. The suspense I'm shopping around in query land right now if first person, and I think it is a fair bit harder to write that way and do it well. Third person is more forgiving. I also have multiple two main characters and two minor characters that get pov time, which was a huge challenge to write with distinctive voices. No clue if I pulled it off well or not, but it was a fun story to write.