April 23rd, 2008
Kaye Chambers–First Person: The Writer’s Knuckle Ball

I want to thank my friend, Kaye, for being my guest today and giving us her take on writing in First Person.

Writerly Wednesday

Hello! I’m Kaye Chambers. I’d like to thank Maura Anderson for inviting me to talk about my favorite topic: writing.

I am a first person author. This week, in light of Tiger by the Tail, I’ve been asked a lot of first person questions and urged to blog about it. Before I get started, I’d like to point out that I’m not Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Katie MacAlister, Keri Arthur…well, you get the point. There are masters of First Person out there and they’re not me. *grins* This is simply my take on writing the hardest point of view there is.

I get asked a lot, “Why First Person? I mean, that’s breaking the cardinal rule.” The answer is easy, “Because that’s the way the story needed to be told.”

Not every story can be told in first person. First person isn’t simply taking your third person limited narrative and changing it to a single POV and substituting “I”. In fact, the best advice I can give on whether or not you should write your next project in FP is to ask if you’ve tried it in third, yet. If a story can be told in third, it should be. It’s not even up for debate. If you, as the author, can write it in third person or even picture it that way, then the character isn’t strong enough to be the single point of focus for the story.

Some stories can not be told in third person. The voice of the character is just too strong. The first manuscript I wrote in first person was started twelve times in third person before I turned to one of my writing circle friends, Colleen, in a wail, “It always ends up with ‘I’.” By the end of the first chapter, the heroine was telling the story so strongly that there wasn’t any other room for anybody else to talk. Her advice was to try it. It was the first project I ever finished. It won an award and I’ve never looked back.

Recently, Samhain Publishing published my third completed manuscript, the second in first person, Tiger by the Tail. I was somewhat shocked by the reception it has received. I love Sasha, but she’s a voice inside my head. If I hated her, we’d have a problem. I wasn’t expecting the world to slip into her skin like I do.
And that’s what makes first person special. It’s like curling up with your best friend over a cup of coffee and talking. She’s telling you a story, or ‘he’ if you’re a Harry Dresden fan, which I happen to be. When I read a good first person, I feel like I’ve made a friend when I’m done. One I’d like to visit again and again and again.

So, you’re thinking of giving it a whirl? Good! The hard part is figuring out how to pull it off. We all have our own voices as authors. In third person, how we turn a phrase is what makes us shine and what we carry with us from manuscript to manuscript. Even third person limited is told from our perspective as authors. Unlike third person omniscient, we can’t be God, but we do control the characters senses. We control what they notice at any given moment no matter how they notice it.

In first person, how your character turns the phrase is what makes them real. How do you separate your voice from theirs? You don’t. You have to trust yourself to be true to the character. It’s like role playing on a grander scale. In order to make first person truly successful, you have to put yourself aside and acquaint yourself with your character on a very personal basis. At a recent workshop I attended given by Bob Mayer, he described it as the most intimate POV as well as the hardest and most limited.

Why is it limited? Because no one else gets to see, hear, think, or define anything. Every tiny detail of your story has to be woven in through subtle details. It’s like painting a portrait. Every detail and brush stroke means something to the grander design. Some details are more obvious than others. For example, your heroine has POV rights – it’s her story – but your hero is thinking he’s going to do something rash. In third person, we’d simply give him some internal thought or dialogue or a POV shift. In first, we don’t have that luxury. We have to build all our secondary characters bold enough so she (and the reader) knows them well enough to pick up on their expressions and body language to address it to the reader. Even if she doesn’t point blank say, “I know he’s up to something,” she can note the details – he won’t meet her gaze, shifting from feet to feet, making a lame excuse to bolt out the door. Without being overt, your heroine tips the reader off to mischief.

Now, I’m also going to make a rather obvious point here about voice. As a first person author, I can’t write the same heroine under a different name with a different premise. My voice has to change according to every POV character. Even though my characters all tell their story as “I”, they aren’t the same person, so the flavor has to change with them. How do you change it? It goes back to the role playing mentioned above. Knowing your character well enough to slip your skin as a person and an author and write from their eyes is how you change your voice every time out of the box. I guess you can say it’s like being a schizophrenic who has permission to embrace the crazy side of themself. Yes, I talk to the voices in my head and let them have a turn at the helm.

This brings me to another point about why first person is so intimate. How deep is deep enough into your character? In third person, we’re allowed a little bit of a narrative filter. In first person, it’s a deal breaker. Falling into narrative telling instead of actively showing (from the POV character) will kill the tone and mood of a first person story. It’s the most common mistake. You just can’t treat a first person story like a third.

It’s another reason why first person is so limited. Until you actively try to write first person, you don’t realize just how much you, as the author, narrate a story. In my opinion, the only way you can successfully write first person is to be deep into character and trust yourself to write the scene true to the spirit of it.

A lot of authors write alternating point-of-views, switching from third to first and back again. That’s not a bad idea if you need to have the reader step back and see things differently or you need to interject plot elements that your point of view character can’t possibly know. By inserting that bit of narration, you also allow the reader to become better acquainted with other characters and other elements in the story.

I’m going to break off here and bring up another type of first person novel – alternating first person views. This opens up the field a bit. It’s adding a different narrator for elements just like using an alternating third person. I am not a fan of it. Why? Because unlike using alternating first and third, you’re not creating distance with your reader in the alternating view. In general, you open the story from the focus point of view and create that initial connection with the reader, create that bond, and then you break it and expect the reader to shift their emotional connection to the alternating persona. It doesn’t work, in general, at least not for me.

First person is like falling in love, one little bit at a time. With each scene, the reader takes that little baby step into emotional involvement. It’s why publishers print, “An Anita Blake Novel,” “A Harry Dresden Novel,” “An Aisling Grey Novel,” or a “Riley Jenson Novel” on the cover of a book. Even if you hated the author’s last book, you’re going to buy it…even if you hated the last one in the series.

Why? Because they’re our friends and we want to know what they’ve been up to.

2 comments to “Kaye Chambers–First Person: The Writer’s Knuckle Ball”

  1. Wow, Kaye; I know third person is difficult to pull off, and I know why I can’t do it (and why you can)!

    For me, I’m the narrator who’s watching a movie flicker in her head; none of the characters are me. It’s like I’m directing an Improv group: “Here’s what’s supposed to happen, now run with it.” And sometimes they follow along, and sometimes they argue with me till I want to scream (which, in the end, only makes the story better, believe it or not). The only time I tried to write in first person it felt awkward and uncomfortable, and I knew it wasn’t for me. It wound up sounding like a cross between internet porn and really bad Mike Hammer fan-fic.

    And I agree completely with the switching of first person POV’s. It can get really confusing unless you do the first/third switch. And even then I’m not sure it gives the distance needed.


  2. What a wonderful post!