Thursday, July 10, 2008

First Person is HOT

By Heather Moore

In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more books written in first person. And not just YA or Middle Grade either. Suspense novels, literary, mainstream, humorous, etc. you name it—they are being written in first person.

Also, hot on the market is present tense. Why? Is it is just a trend? Or is it here to stay? Traditionally, YA is usually written in first person—the woes of a teenager dramatizing every single detail of her traumatic life . . . you get the picture.

Recently I interviewed an author that I met at the L.A. BEA Expo (Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire, Harper Perennial). We’ll post her interview in September in conjunction with her new release. But when I asked Spechler why she wrote in first person, present tense, she said, “In general, I like first person because of the sense of intimacy it creates. Whenever I start writing in third person, I have to ask myself what exactly I’m shying away from. Sometimes I let myself write in third person if the intimacy of first is daunting to the point of paralyzing me; after all, it’s better to write something than to write nothing. For some reason, I think my sentences are prettier when I use third person, but there’s an immediacy and an openness that only first person can create.”

For a traditionalist like me, it’s taken some getting used to. I don’t read a ton of YA, so when I do open a favorite author’s book and see that it’s in first person, I hesitate. Then I dive in and by the second or third page, I don’t notice anymore. In fact, I’m caught up very quickly in the characterization. Just as Spechler said, it really does bring an intimacy and immediacy to the character.

Here’s a list of NY Times Bestselling authors who write in first person that may surprise you:

Jodi Picoult (first person and present tense, and get this—Perfect Match alternates with chapters in third person, present tense)

Jason Wright (first person in upcoming book: Recovering Charles)

Lolly Winston (first person, present tense)

Mary Higgins Clark (first person, past tense)

Sue Grafton (first person, past tense)

So, if writing in first person is your natural style, you won’t have to conform to the traditional narrative third person any longer. Write, write, write!

11 comments:

Kimberly said...

I've always shyed away from first person, and find that as a reader I can enjoy it. Except when the genre is fantasy, strangely. When it comes to fantasy, I don't want the sense of immediacy. I imagine that's because I read my favourite fantasy novels repeatedly over the years, and having that sense of immediacy the seventh time I read a book just wouldn't work somehow.

Funny how personal preference factors in to such things.

Melanie J said...

I'm nearing the end of my first novel which I'm writing in first person. But it didn't start that way. I actually started in third person because it felt more comfortable to me as a writer. As I began to re-read it though, by chapter five I realized that I have a protagonist who holds people at a slight distance emotionally and it was hard as a reader to connect with her. She opens up a lot as the story unfolds so I needed to find a way to make her more relatable to the reader, to help the reader see past her cool outer shell and cheer for her from the start. So I switched to first person and wrote that way for a few chapters. I had my "beta" readers (my husband, sister, and best friend) read it for an opinion on which POV worked. Me included, we had a two-two tie. But my gut said this is a girl that third person added an extra layer of insulation around, so I went back and rewrote the first five chapters in first person. Sigh. But it feels right and I'm glad I gave it a try both ways so I could find the main character's voice.

Tamra Norton said...

I'm on the last pages of The Host by Stephenie Meyer. She writes first person so well! I'm right there in the character's head feeling all of their emotions. I love it!

As for writing, I write YA and middle-grade and first person is just what comes out of me. It feels natural...so I guess I'll stick with it.

Julie Wright said...

First person is natural to me for writing. I think it is more intimate and immediate for the reader. I'm a better writer in first person than I ever will be in third.

I know there are a lot of people out there who say they HATE first person, but I am willing to bet each and every one of those people has a "favorite" book where they aren't even aware it was written in first person. Us first person writers are very sneaky that way.

First person works and works well. Don't let anyone tell you not to write a book that way

Don said...

Still trying to find a voice I like, I've bounced back in forth between first and third person several times.

I may need to follow Melanie's example and write a few key scenes in both POVs, and decide which makes the story and character stronger.

Janette Rallison said...

Glad to hear it since most of my books are first person. Still, I do love third person too.

Karen Hoover said...

For me it depends on the book. I've written both ways and there are times when I wanted to write in third person and couldn't connect with the character. Writing first person made their voice very immediate and distinct and allowed me to know them as an individual.

As for reading, if I love the character, it doesn't matter how it's written.

Josi said...

I had a writer friend who was told by another writer that she should change an entire book she's written in first person to third, that first would never work. I found that horrifying! I think most writers will naturally write from where they are most comfortable--for me it's 3rd and if someone told me I had to write first person I'd be in trouble. It's good to know we have the freedom to choose our own voice!
Interesting that there it is a growing trend in the direction of 1st, I hadn't realized it until you pointed it out but I am finding more and more first person fiction. Interesting.

Pink Ink said...

*Traditionally, YA is usually written in first person—the woes of a teenager dramatizing every single detail of her traumatic life . . . you get the picture.*

Sometimes, I pick up a YA book and if it's first person, it has to be done fairly low-key (no whining allowed) or I hesitate to read on.

I usually write in third person, but the last ms I wrote was in first, and I was surprised that I didn't annoy myself too much. :-)

I think POV just depends on the story. I am experimenting with third POV right now on a mystery, and so far it seems to be working out...

Joan Hall Hovey said...

Jane Eyre, one of my favorite books, was written in first person. So was Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. I began writing for the confession magazines many years ago, and they had to be written in the first person by their very nature. I've written 5 suspense novels in the third person. For my sixth novel, I am attempting first person.

There are the pros and cons. You forfeit distance for immediacy, and you don't get as much opportunity to flesh out out other characters in the story, except through the perceptions of the main character and through their actions and dialogue.

We'll see how it goes. -:)

All the best,
Joan

Joan Hall Hovey said...

Jane Eyre, one of my favorite books, was written in first person. So was Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. I began writing for the confession magazines many years ago, and they had to be written in the first person by their very nature. I've written 5 suspense novels in the third person. For my sixth novel, I am attempting first person.

There are the pros and cons. You forfeit distance for immediacy, and you don't get as much opportunity to flesh out out other characters in the story, except through the perceptions of the main character and through their actions and dialogue.

We'll see how it goes. -:)

All the best,
Joan