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Writing Excuses 5.3: First-Person Viewpoint

Writing Excuses 5.3: First-Person Viewpoint


Key points: first-person let's you really get into the character's head. With first-person, the reader doesn't know how reliable they are. First person is very immediate. Beware of dropping out of that immediacy, especially to describe appearances or other things that the character would not stop to think about. Think about how the character would tell the story. Be careful of getting so wrapped up in the voice that you lose the story.

[Brandon] And we once again have the wonderful Bree Despain back being our guest star this week. Thank you, Bree.
[Bree] Good to be here.
[Brandon] So, we did a podcast a couple of weeks ago about third person limited. We want to do an entire podcast talking about the ways to write first-person viewpoint the best. So, let's just start off again with a reminder, why do we like first-person? Bree, why do you like to write in first person?
[Bree] I love to write in first person because I feel like I am really getting into the character's head. I used to be into acting. I see it as... it's like method writing, it's like method acting. Where I'm actually, like, I feel like I'm getting into that character, or that character is actually inside my head. I will tell the... you can tell the story the way the character would tell the story.
[Brandon] OK. Dan, never do this. Never method write.
[Dan] Yeah, I was going to say, I can't say that because then people get creeped out. But, no, I actually do a lot of the same things.
[Brandon] I've never even thought of that... method writing it. Do you ever kind of get in the mindset so much... this is a tangent but... that you are so influenced by the character that you're thinking like them and things like that, or is it just...
[Bree] I'm afraid to admit, but yes I do.
[Brandon] Wow. Dan? [Inaudible]
[Dan] Here's another one that I shouldn't answer. No, actually, there's a scene in Serial Killer, and if you've read the book you might know which one I'm talking about, that really messed me up for a few days after finishing it. Because it's very intense, and it's very... I'm doing this, and I am thinking this, and this is what I'm going to do...
[Brandon] Was it the clock scene or was it the outside the window scene?
[Dan] No, it's in the house with the mom. With his mom.
[Howard] I'm glad that scene messed you up, because it messed me up.
[Bree] Yeah. I told people I was going late at night to record a podcast with someone who writes about serial killers and people are like, "Are you sure you want to do that?"
[Howard] That's fine. There's plenty of witnesses here.
[Dan] Yes. We record in alleys behind the meatpacking plant...
[Bree] Meet us there at midnight.
[Dan] Knock three times and then say hello to the man with the hook.
[Brandon] OK.
[Howard] This is our writing prompt.
[Dan] The reason I like first-person, and I write first-person just like Bree. The thing that I really love about it is the lack of reliability. We've talked about unreliable narrators before. I love the fact that this is all coming so acutely through the lens of one person that you can't necessarily trust what they say or what they think or what they feel.
[Brandon] That's actually what attracted me when I've written in first person. The main attraction has been the ability to distort, to hide, to change, and to...
[Dan] It's just incredible fun to do.
[Howard] The extent, Brandon, to which you did that with Alcatraz... I don't know if you know this, but the first Alcatraz nozzle... novel was the first... nozzle? The first Brandon Sanderson...
[Dan] You can buy those on his website, by the way.
[Howard] Was the first Brandon Sanderson I'd ever read. I remember thinking a third of the way into the book, "Oh, my gosh. How is he getting away with this? It is so unreliable." I loved it, but it felt very rule breaky to me.
[Brandon] I do feel like my first-person are not as elegant as the real masters of first-person because I'm generally using it... when you read my first-person, I'm using it as the reaction against my third person limited. Which I really love, and I think I do really well. I do first-person when I want to do something different. Which is... it's a good reason, I suppose, to do it, but I'm not really a master of it. I cheat a lot. Like Alcatraz books, Alcatraz doesn't talk like a teenager because he is writing it many years later and things like this. Bree, I just... out of curiosity, in your book, do you write it as if she's looking back at her life and writing it years later or is it kind of the over-the-shoulder camera first person where you're just in her head as she is experiencing it?
[Bree] I do over-the-shoulder camera... I almost said over-the-shoulder boulder holder, but...
[Dan] You actually did just say that.
[Bree] I did just say it. Over the camera. I kind of think it's as if she was telling it five minutes later.
[Brandon] Right. You just narrate it kind of as it happens.
[Howard] I just figured out what that is.
[Dan] Howard just got that 15 minutes later because he's not that smart.
[Bree] Back to...
[Brandon] OK. Back to this. That's actually a very good... you see that very commonly in YA. One of the reasons that it does is that it's not necessarily in present tense, but it gives it a present feeling. So rather than... it's actually very important. I recommend it, particularly in YA because one of the main reasons to use first person in YA is to establish one character solidly that can carry an entire book with their voice immediately. You don't want to then have the problem of who is this person later on who's telling us this story. You want them to be attached to that character right then.
[Bree] I like the immediacy of it. That's why I like first-person. I like to be in the moment the way the character views it, and not necessarily removing... her reflecting back on... well, maybe...
[Dan] The older first-person stories, kind of in the early days of noveling, like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. It's first-person, but it has that obvious frame story. The frame has really kind of gone out of style. You don't get that sense of I'm an older person remembering what happened, but it's happening right now.
[Brandon] You still see that in a lot of the adult genres. You don't see it in the young adult. That's why... I think it's actually a nice thing that YA has developed. I'm thinking of something like Robin Hobb, which does have the frame story. Or The Name of the Wind, which we've mentioned that we love. Again, a frame story. This is very common in the... but it's not as much of a problem there, because it's an adult looking back for adults on their kind of adult...
[Dan] Even in Name of the Wind, the frame story itself has its own story. Whereas the classic Victorian frame story was just two people sitting by a fire. One of the things that I do... a trick that works well for me for first-person is everything is in past steps even though it's essentially immediate, but whenever he has his own thoughts in the moment, I'll put them in present tense and italicize them.
[Bree] I do that too.
[Dan] Which makes it a little even more immediate and is a nice way of saying by the way, this is happening right now which is somehow separate from the narration, even though it's also in his head, but just... it's a trick that works really well.

[Brandon] Bree, foibles of first-person? Things you've seen people do that you just think are bad move, or maybe things writers need to be aware of to watch out for?
[Bree] I think a lot of it comes in description or even personal description. You'll be telling a scene and then all of a sudden it'll stop and tell what everybody looks like. I'm thinking, would the character really think that at this moment or telling in the story, would they really stop to describe what they look like? I think men have a harder... I've heard men say, "Oh, you can never put the physical description of the actual character in a first-person novel." But I think that's because they... it's... that may be a difference between men and women, where girls do think about what they look like a little more. So I can see slipping it in here and there. In that, I think it's harder... I think men have a harder time pulling that off.
[Brandon] Just don't do the cliched look in the mirror and describe yourself.
[Bree] Oh, yes. That's horrible.
[Brandon] But people still do it. New writers.

[Brandon] Let's pause for our book of the week. Bree's actually going to pitch one that she really liked reading to us. It was Beastly, you said?
[Bree] Yes. Beastly. I actually just finished the audio book from audible. It was a really, really great narrator who read the story. But it's a modern Beauty and the Beast set in Manhattan and it's told from the Beast's point of view. It was great first-person, just getting in the head of this... who starts out as a very, very unlikable character, and has to go through the journey of... Beauty and the Beast, and learning who he is.
[Brandon] It's been getting great buzz. I've heard it from several people that they've really loved it.
[Bree] And there's a movie coming out with Alex Pettyfer who's really hot.
[Brandon] Well, there we go. Go and download your free trial at audible and support us. Thank you for listening. Bree, thanks for pitching that to us.

[Brandon] In response to that, I'm actually going to ask you another question and make you talk some more.
[Bree] Oh, great.
[Brandon] Advice to aspiring writers who want to write first-person. What can they do to really make their first-person just sing, be wonderful?
[Bree] I think the biggest thing is to think about how this character would tell the story. It's really the voice of the story. How would this... what is their point of view on the world, and how would they view how this story is told? A pastor's daughter is going to tell a story different than a hardened, already vampire slayer type person. To really think about... it's the thoughts. That's why I like to write first-person is to get my character's commentary on what is going on. To me it's all in the thoughts,
[Brandon] OK. The commentary. Dan, advice for people approaching first-person? Also, foibles, since I didn't pitch that to you, but I think you write a wonderful first-person. I think you'll have good advice.
[Dan] Well, thank you.
[Howard] I think he writes a creepy first-person.
[Brandon] Well, that's wonderful first-person.
[Howard] I'm still having problems with it.
[Dan] That's wonderful and creepy. He's a multifaceted person. I think it's very important to get the voice. For me, that's one of the biggest strengths, and to get it right. Something that you, Brandon, have mentioned many times on the podcast is that I tend to write myself into books and stories when I first start them. Part of that is on purpose because I want to get a handle on the voice. When I started Serial Killer, the first thing I did was a 20 or 30 page monologue of just him talking about his life, which was never really intended to be part of the book. But it was a way for me to figure out who he was and what he sounded like when he talked. Then scrapping that, going back and starting over... it worked so much better from that point because I had that voice down.
[Brandon] Right. This I think this does play into what Bree said as the worry, the potential pitfall, because with first-person... we've mentioned this on the podcast before... one of the things you can do is, you can do scenes that would be more boring from a third person viewpoint and make them exciting simply by using character voice. You can do an infodump. You can have the character talk about what they think of school and what school was like... which in a third person narrative, would just slow the book down and be dreadfully boring. But in first-person, if the character has this wonderful voice and it's who they are and it's talking about things and can be charming or creepy or whatever... they can talk about the most simple things and be fascinating.
[Dan] I got a great example of that. I did this writing for charity thing on Saturday I helped a critique group... we looked at first pages and stuff. This one guy had this fantastic first page of his book that was this first-person from the point of view of a girl describing her why she didn't like going to school because she was the weird kid that nobody else liked. But all of that came from the lens of National Geographic. She was this nature freak. So the other girl at school who was like the alpha female, was described as she would be the cover shot on the magazine because she is the big sparkly pretty bird with all the feathers that everyone wants to see, and I'm in the background and no one cares because I'm just the weird looking brown bird in the bush. It was a really well done character quirk that brought out that voice really, really powerfully.
[Brandon] Yeah. You can do some of these things. It's one of the great advantages of first-person, but I think the folly is, what Bree brought out is, it can be too tempting to go into these lapses for huge periods of time. While you are building this one character in a wonderful way that everyone is engaged by, you can lose the story to the point that it can be jarring on the backend when you go suddenly back into the story and we've forgotten who everyone is.

[Howard] So, it's a little late in the cast to ask such a deep question, but when you're doing first-person writing, what are the techniques you use for developing characters who are not that first-person? Because I assume that other characters are important, and they still have to have arcs.
[Brandon] Great question. I think it's a little harder. At least I've found that it's a little harder. How do you guys do it? First person experts...
[Dan] Well, again for me, it's about unreliability. The way to develop all the characters in John Cleaver's world was to have him say things about them and then to have them describe their actions in a way that is demonstrably contradictory. My mom is a jerk and she doesn't love me at all. She doesn't care about me. Then, in every scene we ever see her in, she's doing something to help them, because she loves him very much. He just doesn't see it that way. So that helps develop her character because of that inconsistency.
[Bree] I love the contradiction. But one thing that happened in my first book was, there's a best friend character, who she becomes not very important in the story, she kind of... the main character doesn't give her a lot of credit. So she is... because we see her through the main character's eyes, she's portrayed as kind of flighty and not very helpful and just all over the place and she only cares about boys and all this stuff. Where in the second book, she opens up to the main character and we actually find out she is a much deeper character. That was really fun to suddenly explore through... because we're only really going to see her the way the main character sees her and portrays her. Suddenly we open up this whole new facet and what she knows. Like she knows a whole lot more than we ever thought she knew.
[Brandon] Wow. That's very interesting. Yeah. That's a great thing. I mean, I will say, honestly, that one of my big challenges in writing first person has been other characters. I don't seem... really feel like I know someone as a character until I've written a scene from their viewpoint. In first-person, you either have to do that and throw it away or switch to another first-person narrative or just not do it. I've found myself actually doing narratives from other characters' viewpoints that I don't include in the book so that I can see through their eyes and make them live and breathe and feel, too. I hope that it enhances the writing. I'm not sure if it does. But it helps me to write them.
[Dan] No, I think that's very good. That's what I was talking about with writing monologue scenes from your characters. It lets you figure out who they are.
[Bree] Yeah, I do that a lot in my head. I think about how would this character see this. Even though I'm not showing his point of view, I really, really do think about what that character is thinking, also.
[Brandon] Then, if you become a huge, big bestseller, and you've actually written some of these things out, then you could do the book from that character's viewpoint, and have... you've already written it.
[Dan] The behind-the-scenes.
[Brandon] All right. Bree, thank you again for doing these podcasts with us. As your closing reward, I'm going to make you give us the story prompt.
[Bree] Oh, crap.
[Dan] We warned you that this was gonna...
[Howard] Well, we're off to a good start.
[Bree] I got wrapped up in the...
[Brandon] We love doing this to our guests.
[Bree] OK. Story prompt. Something that deals with first-person.
[Brandon] You know, you can always just put...

[Bree] Your character has a secret. We don't know what it is, but how would they get around hinting at that secret without giving it away?
[Brandon] All right. That's your story prompt. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character, voice, writing excuses
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