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The First Person: Your Thoughts, Please…

So I thought I could do with a new challenge, so I’ve decided to write a novel. I’ve written one before (even though it was many years ago, long story what happened to it, move along now), but I figured it would be like riding a bike in that “you never forget” and all that.

It so isn’t.

Do you know how long the average spec is? I’m not talking page count. That’s 90 – 100 pages if you’re sensible, any more makes script readers want to stab themselves in the leg with a fork (honestly). That extra twenty or so pages really *can* be the difference between a PASS and a CONSIDER on that report, if only on the basis of the fact that reader *could* have had an extra espresso and a doughnut (and walked to the local cafe for both) IF the writer hadn’t written an extra twenty pages. Okay I’m exaggerating. A little.

No, the average spec is approximately 18-30,000 words maximum: that’s everything – scene description, dialogue, the works. Note these are screenplays without black on the page. The irony is, I find the “better” writer you are (as a screenwriter, in any case), the LESS you write. (The only reason I know this by the way is because I am an anorak who keeps lists and runs word counts on my fave scripts. Oh, I also play a new game these days now I have a laptop: I call it WRITE THE SCRIPT REPORT BEFORE YOUR BATTERY DIES, but that’s just a working title, feel free to suggest a new one.)

So getting into this novel writing thing is proving strange. I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure how to strip stuff OUT, not put stuff in (oo er). Writing in the past tense seems alien and focusing on other characters’ ins and outs (double oo er) and not just the protagonist’s arc seems even weirder.

I find I’ve become hung up on the third person, the “s/he”. This does not normally concern me; I write scripts in the third person (and the present tense), so perhaps it would help me if I thought about this story from the first person – the “I” of the story? Maybe if I were to look through one character’s POV, tell it how he or she sees it, then I would feel more comfortable? It would fool my resisting brain into believing I was writing say a treatment instead of an actual novel?

I’m reliably informed that most of the top ten adult crime novels at Tesco this week are written in the first person (thanks Mum). My son says all the novels he’s read recently have been in the third person however. My novel is *supposed* to be for the so-called tween audience – that’s apparently 8-12s, your classic Harry Potter/Lord Loss/Eragon/Stormrider readers, like my boy.

What do you reckon?

Should I go with the flow and battle on with the third person and hope I get into it, or go with the first person which I *feel* I could get on with better?

Any thoughts appreciated…

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31 thoughts on “The First Person: Your Thoughts, Please…”

  1. Here’s a nice platitude for you:

    Do whatever’s best for your story.

    If you wanna punch me, you’re out of luck unless you board a plane. Sorry love!

  2. Hi Lucy,

    I read recently that the first person is becoming the predominant mode for literary fiction – something about being coupled to the rise of the cult of the individual in the last 50 years. (Compare that to the bizarre omniscient narrator you get in Victorian novels.) But I’ve read lots of novels that flit between third and first person. I guess in the end it’ll be your story that will determine the techniques you use. Hmm, that’s of no help whatsoever, is it?

  3. Anya: live in fear…

    Colin: that is helpful, thanks! It certainly seems to be popular in adult fiction, at least. Hey: maybe if I write this kids’ book in the first person I could be one of the actual first people to cash in on it, sell the manuscript for three million squid and live in the manner I’d like to become accostomed??? Can dream, anyway… *sigh*

  4. Yes well, as a novel writer (ahem — almost published but didn’t quite make it) I’m qualified to comment, maybe. (120,000 words but I actually wrote probably 200,000+ through the various drafts.)

    I’m not a fan of 1st person, the Libba Bray “Great & Terrible Beauty” trilogy is all 1st person, present tense. Takes a bit of getting used to but it does work.

    (Pity she, as an American, thought she was qualified to write about Victorian England — she almost pulls it off but there are mistakes.)

    These are aimed at the older teenage girl. Why did I read it? Because the lead is perfect for my daughter and the film is on the cards, though it’s been in development hell for 2 years.

    Anyway. I think very tight 3rd person works best — but that’s because that’s what I like to write. I don’t do omniscient.

    Also 3rd is much closer to screenwriting because the reader is “looking at” the protagonist. By making it tight 3rd — only seeing what your protagonist sees — again it’s very script-like.

    So I’d say no. Stick to 3rd.

    FWIW. (Very little, I imagine.)


  5. I say go with third person. I’m also a screenwriter, taking my first crack at novel writing, and here’s my reasoning for liking third person. Like in the movies, characters can only know what they see, and in both novels and films, some of the dramatic tension can come from things the main character doesn’t know, but that the audience/reader does. In first person, the reader can’t know something the hero doesn’t, unless your main character is supposed to be really dense, which you probably don’t want. Dummies don’t usually make very interesting protagonists.

  6. It also depends on genre to an extent. Crime stories tend to benefit from a first person narrative because it’s often a voyage of personal discovery, the untangling of an enigma. That’s a highly personal voyage and keeping it in the first person engages the reader much more with that journey – because they feel that they’re personally on it too. Fantasy on the other hand I think benefits from a third person narrator because the sense of wonder at strange new sights and experienced can be conveyed better from an external viewpoint. I think.

  7. FWIW – WTF???

    Ah, “for what it’s worth”? Had to look that up on Google, I’m so uncool.

    Steve and Malice, I see your point re: “looking at” the protagonist like we do in movies and it’s a very good one.

    However the problem I’m having is that I’ve always associated books with the kind of personal discovery Colin references – I’m also keen I think to get out of “screenwriter mode”. My story’s also a rites of passage to some extent, so for the moment (I think!) I’m leaning towards the first… Though no doubt I will change my mind backwards and forwards a bunch of times yet!

  8. As a counterpoint to Malice’s comment, there’s no reason why you can’t have a variety of first person viewpoints throughout – Talking It Over by Julian Barnes does this quite successfully. However, if you’re writing for the tweenie market, I’m not sure how unneccessarily complex this would make things. I’d be tempted to stick to the first person myself, but only because I find it easier than the third.

  9. Hi Lucy

    First person narration can make a strong connection between character and reader. It’s the style of choice for most first novels which are usually strongly autobiographical. But don’t forget you can bring the main character alive with dialogue (as a scriptwriter, you’ll be used to doing that) and access to interior thoughts etc.

    In the first person, the reader can only ‘see’ what the main protagonist can see, so you need to use third person if you want to give the reader information that the main character wouldn’t know.

    You could tell the story from an assortment of 1st person narrators.

    But if you stick closely to the thoughts and feelings of each character as you tell their story (tight 3rd person narration) you can achieve that same connection between reader and character that you get with 1st person narration.

    You can also consider making the narrator a character in their own right but not the main character, so constantly enquiring into the state of mind and motives of the main character (Great Gatsby).

    Do you consider yourself a prose stylist? You don’t get many opportunities to show off if you’re writing in the first person, as all descriptions etc. obviously have to be done in the voice of that character. You can’t be too literary or it sounds phoney or ‘written’.

    Oh, and don’t worry about the market or what’s popular or what everyone else does. When you’re writing a novel, you’re supposed to be inventing something new. Do it your way. If you imitate, you won’t succeed.

    Why not try writing a scene from the novel in the first person and then in the third person. Which works best for you?

    Good luck with it xx

  10. Mary Gentle mixed third person past tense with current tense in GRUNTS! which I thought was a huge mistake – it unsettled me totally. My response was “YUK!” to a story I probably would have otherwise thought was a lot better, and did enjoy quite a bit despite itself and despite the ending…(Sorry, I’ll shut up already.)

    I would recommend that whichever tense you go for, whether you go first or third person, don’t mix it about.


    Me personally – I find the transition between novel and screenplay a difficult one. Totally different writing styles that I am still getting the hang of. It’s like speaking two languages and not using one of them for a while, you forget how to speak it, and it takes practise to get it back. From my experience I suspect that you are going to have to retrain yourself back into novel mode…good luck!

  11. Thanks Chip, I think multiple voice could work – kids are incredibly sophisticated in their thought patterns, more so I think than we were: my son will watch or read and “get” ambiguous points that would have been over my head at the same age, though we’d have had the same reading age technically.

    I know what you mean Eleanor, I haven’t read the book you’re referencing there I don’t think but I’m not keen on mixing first and third – I get quite a few novels through Bang2write now and many do this and personally I think this detracts from the story, though that could just be me. End of the day, I think people just want a good yarn with no gimmicks or fancy stuff: I see a lot of manuscripts in the style of things like letters and blogs, more style over substance, when the story itself could be really good.

    Wow Helen, thanks! You’ve actually helped me get the root of it – I’m not a prose stylist at all I don’t think and now I think of it, I think that’s what my agent was hinting at when we spoke about this and he said to me my dialogue would work really well in this story, but “beware of overwriting”… this character too is stroppy and finds out stuff as he goes, so it being his POV could work since he thinks the world revolves around him anyway. Perhaps first person IS the way to go not only in terms of my personal pref but my ability too? Hmmmm… Much to cogitate on.

  12. If as you say the character is stroppy and as Helen says first person is for novels that are autobiographical, then you should def go with first person, lol

  13. Hi Lucy,

    I had a similar problem when I started my novel (still working on it) – my first draft turned out more like a treatment because I’d kept the writing so sparse, as you do in a screenplay, and I’d kept to a tight 3rd person narration because that’s what I feel comfortable with.

    It turned out to be a really useful document (but not really anything that would qualify as a ‘novel’) – I could spot all the plotholes, whatever was lacking and identify where 3rd person wasn’t the best viewpoint to use dramatically.

    So, basically, what I’m saying (very badly – it’s Sunday morning and I’m still sleepy) is: use whatever viewpoint you need to get through your present draft, and when you’re finished you’ll know whether or not it works for your story. Then you can fix it in the re-write 🙂

    Oh, and I believe that 3rd person, single viewpoint is the most popular style for children’s books – if that matters.


  14. Thanks Lisa… though: a rewrite?? You mean I have to go through this more than once?!? ; )

    Best of luck with your own novel! Keep us posted on your progress.

  15. I mostly wrote my novel in the third-person, with regular bursts of first-person throughout (to hide the identity of that first-person speaker – that’s one of the great, unique things about novels, where someone can be talking to the reader while entirely anonymous!).

    Third-person’s great fun once you’ve got your head around it. Why, it’s like swooping in and out of characters’ heads, like some kind of god! Provided you don’t switch viewpoint mid-scene, of course, it’s a right old hoot.

  16. Cheers Jase, now you mention it I really should read your novel: I got a copy about nine months ago from a charity shop for about 25p! Sorry I didn’t add your fortune…

  17. Congrats on tackling a novel again. And for an age group that currently has more for girls than boys. Despite a few high profile names.

    I’m with Helen on giving both 1st and 3rd a try. I will write at least 3-4 chapters in 1st and 3rd then see which flows best. (reading and writing).

    In fact, if 1st person I will also experiment on who in the story is no.1. It isn’t necessarily the obvious protagonist.

    I’ve used both 1st and 3rd but never mixed. I’m basically lazy and I know the mix one is harder.

    If you want to see an example of multiple 1st person then Talking it Over (Chip’s suggestion) is really worth reading. Or the one I’m reading at the moment, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.

    And I didn’t know you assessed novels too. Hmmmm.

  18. Thanks Rach! ~Think I will give both a try.

    As for the novel assessing, Bang2write READS ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING. For novels I do the first three chapters + synopsis as a “trial run” type of thing for writers wanting to send their stuff off to an agent… I’ve done plenty of these in “real life” for agents, so if you’re interested drop me an email (and anyone else who may be!) Thanks for allowing me to pimp my script reading ass! ; )

  19. Having had 18 novels published, I’ve mostly written in the third person – but I prefer first person. Third’s great for overview storytelling and, like Helen says, you can get close to individual character’s thoughts without sacrificing that narrative objectivity.

    In my experience, first person is great for maintaining a sense of mystery, holding back key info or avoiding the need for overview. You can trick the reader via unreliable narrator syndrome, and you can spare yourself big descriptive text, concentrating more on the feelings and thoughts of the viewpoint character.

    For a tween market book, I’d probably favour close third person. Maybe think of it like Life on Mars – that effectively a first person narrative, but the audience still has room to see things through its own perception despite only seeing what Sam Tyler sees.

    Sorry, does that make any sense?

    My main complaint about novels is how much typing is involved – but I am a lazy git.

  20. You see, I like to write treatments in the first person to get “into” the character, so think that could be really valuable… I spent last night going through my son’s books and his recent super-fave LORD LOSS by Darren Shan which he never, ever stops going on about, is in the first. Hmmmmmm. More thought perhaps. Thanks though David! Always handy to know what others have done/found useful/liked before I reckon.

  21. A book agent told me recently that 1st person narrative for kids’ books is tricky ‘cos kids like the variety of dialogue and interaction with the other characters. Not impossible, o’course, just damn tricky.

  22. Yikes, just when you think you’re coming to a decision… Interesting info though, thanks Danny! I asked my son which he preferred and he said the first. However – is he *technically* tween cos he has a reading age of 15! Also it could be said that he’s not your typical reader, since he’s completely obsessed with books, whereas I would imagine your average kid doesn’t read quite as much as he does… So who should I go with, the agent or my own kid??

    Maybe I should conduct a survey of random kids somehow. Only how do I do that without getting arrested?? “It’s okay officer, I’m a writer, I just want to ask them which they prefer: the first or third person!!!” That’d go down well… Argh. Brain exploding.

  23. Hi Lucy,

    I can contribute to your random survey of kids with a highly scientific sample of one 11 year old girl (yeah, not in your target gender but she’s pretty broad in her tastes). So I asked my daughter which she preferred and straight away she said 1st person ‘cos you get to feel what they’re feeling. Like yours tho’ she’s not entirely typical being also obsessed with books and with a high reading age. I checked through some of her faves by some very successful authors and they seem to be a real mixture of 3rd and 1st. Doesn’t help much eh!


  24. Thanks Elinor!

    And thanks Caroline – that’s certainly something I think too and when I think of my fave books when I was eleven – ADRIAN MOLE was an obvoius one, as was DIARY OF A TEENAGE HEALTH FREAK – perhaps I should go with my instincts and go with first…

  25. Why not do it as second person narrative, like ‘Bright Lights, Big City’? Sorry, that’s probably not very helpful…
    I wrote a novel (unpublished, but samples of it are on my website if you think I’m just making this up), and I found I needed third person, as I had a large cast. First person’s something I usually stick to in shorter stories, never a whole novel – though given an ex-girlfriend once told me (quite categorically) that men can’t write female characters, the idea of writing a novel from the viewpoint of a female protagonist has appealed, just to try to prove a point. Yes, that’s the level of maturity in my head!
    But I think David B’s probably summed it up best – he even wrote about himself in the third person in ‘Thrill-Power Overload’, if memory serves, so he knows what he’s talking about.

  26. Dear Lucy,

    I think the first person will make your readers connect much better with your book. I also would suggest considering putting it in the present tense. I did this with my book, and I feel it made it read much more immediate, especially the humor.

    Good luck! Take it one chapter at a time 😉

    XX Jesse

  27. Hi Jesse, thanks for dropping by. Yes I think that’s the way I’m leaning – been waiting for the decision to change and it’s lasted several days now, so maybe it’s here to stay! Had a look at your site and book – good luck with that.

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