PoV-It’s NOT about pronoun choice

For whatever reason (deadline looming, chores waiting, dogs accusing me of neglect) I decided to put this together as an exercise in futility. The issue is one of using first vs. third and the need to slay that particular dragon.

Ignore it if you wish. I’m no one.

I’m taking material from many sources I’ve spent the last year studying and condensing hundreds of hours worth of work into these pages. I’ve gone to credible sources — successful, commercial writers — not my cohorts. Why? I’m one of those people that like to learn. And teach. It’s a curse.

This argument has arisen so often in my writer’s forums that I periodically get so sick and tired of it that I can’t look. And then I get better and I’m back in the fray because I keep thinking, If I can reach just one person, my pain will be worth it. The rational me on the other hand says, Why should I care? Less competition, right?

Often the food fight breaks out between these two camps of writers. There are actually more than two camps, but let’s just stay with two since that’s simple. The two camps are the big “L” literary and everyone else. The critical acclaim vs commercial success camps.

If you are in the critical acclaim camp, this is not for you. I don’t care if you disagree. We’ll just agree to disagree right now. We good? Good? Onward…

For reference I’ve posted these excerpts in many threads. Usually this is my go-to set.


Some best selling author advice on 1st person:

The first problem inherent in first person is that it’s not natural. People tell others stories about themselves, yes, but they don’t tell four-hundred-page stories with perfectly recalled conversations and detailed descriptions  …

A harder question to resolve is why the narrator is telling his story this way. Clearly the whole story is over, since we’re holding the entire manuscript in our hand. The narrator knows how the story comes out, yet he’s withholding the end from us, building it up and pretending he doesn’t know what will happen. It’s very artificial…

If you are writing a literary novel, you may want to consider these implications of first person. You may even want to take advantage of them by writing the dual-viewpoint first person: younger and older versions of the narrator. If, however, you are writing commercial fiction, I’d advise you to just forget the implied artificiality of first-person narration and write it anyway.

Excerpt From: Nancy Kress. “Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/IHAdC.l

 

The use of present tense and stream of consciousness were attempts to bridge the first-person time barrier—with little success, I might add, since both techniques tend to drive away the vast majority of the potential audience.

The use of deep penetration in the limited* third person is an attempt to break down the barrier of space in that narrative voice, and it works very well; thus it has become the most widely used narrative approach.

Excerpt From: Orson Scott Card. “Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint.” iBooks.

The one below this is particularly relevant:

Though first person is usually the first choice of the novice storyteller, since it seems so simple and natural, it is considerably harder to handle well than third person, so that the novice usually betrays himself.

Where do the mistakes come? Most commonly, the novice writer inadvertently confesses in the first page that the first-person narrator is a fraud, that he is merely a mask behind which an incompetent writer is trying to hide:

I watched Nora from across the room, the way her hands danced in the air like mad ballerinas, graceful and yet far too busy. She was upset, worried about the upcoming deal. The people who tried to converse with her were all so boring, their talk so petty; yet she tried to act as if she were interested, even excited about the subject at hand, so that they would never guess how tense she was. She thought back to how things began, back in Rotterdam in the last years before she met Pete and her life dissolved in ruins . . .

I don’t need to go on, do I? There is no way in the world that the first person narrator can possibly know what is worrying Nora, or her motives as she converses with other people. Still, he might be merely guessing at her thoughts or motives—until we get to the last sentence, where he gets inside her head for a flashback. This is simply impossible—it is a technique of third-person narrative, one which is completely unavailable to first-person narrators unless they happen to have supernatural powers. Yet you would be amazed how many young writers make this mistake.”

Excerpt From: Orson Scott Card. “Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint.” iBooks.


My argument on the artificiality of it goes something more like this:

Writers that put themselves on the page and in the story (which I realize is done in meta-fiction and literary and memoir, etc., but I’m talking about how it applies to commercial fiction) find the “I” natural. And I’m not talking about not putting yourself in the story in the sense of using your experience or expertise. I’m talking about being aware that there is a reader on the other side of your words.

And that awareness starts with knowing that if the reader is sitting on the couch reading, he must subordinate his own self* when he reads “I walked into a bar” or “I walk into a bar” or “You walk into a bar” because on a subconscious level, he is not walking. He’s parked his butt on the couch. Whereas “He walked into a bar” is much easier for him to process, and then allow him to lose himself in the story.

As per the Card example of how a novice betrays himself, this is my biggest issue with first person. The novice thinks it’s a pronoun choice and therefore everything he writes is so because the “I” says it’s so. No. You cannot say “Let there be light” and make it so. The “I” does NOT have that power. Yet poorly written first person does it on so many levels: describing things the VPC can’t see or know; interpreting non-VPC emotions, motivations, thoughts, etc.

People writing in 3rd person do this as well, and many make the same argument, but for whatever reason, it’s easier to fix, because the ego-ness of the “I” is gone. The illusion of the “naturalness” of the “I” is gone.

When does 3rd to 1st become nothing but a pronoun shift? When 1st is written well enough that the author doesn’t betray himself. When the author is no longer in the story. When the writing understands that it’s about the reader and the reader experience. When the author understands that there is someone on the other side of those words, that page.


So, opinion aside, let’s parse out the Card example (I’m so sorry, Mr. Card, but that example is just too good not to beat up on).

[1] I watched Nora from across the room, the way her hands danced in the air like mad ballerinas, graceful and yet far too busy.

First peeve: “I watched” is a filter. It’s the author reporting that the VPC (viewpoint character) is doing something and it’s the first sign that the author is violating PoV (point of view). Maybe violate is too strong. Think breach or slip or blip. Whatever strikes your fancy. It’s an issue of tightness of PoV and narrative distance and closeness, all writerly issues which to some degree or another matter (or not) depending on the intent of the writer or the needs of the narrative. That’s a fancy way of saying that sometimes filters are needed, wanted, intentional, and that distance is used on purpose for pacing, etc. Just how far into the weeds do you really want to get?

[2] Across the room, Nora’s hands danced in the air like mad ballerinas, graceful and yet far too busy.

No filter. The VPC skips telling you that s/he is watching and just describes what’s being seen. Word choices like “danced” and “mad ballerinas” and “graceful” and “yet far too busy” are VPC opinions and they are what create immersion and flesh out characterization. Another VPC would’ve used other words. This is what “being” the character is about. As in “being in your VPC’s head” rather than being the author and using the words you’d use for you.

[3] She was upset, worried about the upcoming deal. 

This is the part where the novice comes in. The novice argues:

“I know when people are upset, therefore I can write characters that also observe and judge and conclude this. Because in real life we can tell when people are upset.”

Alright. Need I point out this is not real life? This is a work of fiction, a product held in somebody’s hands, either in paper or digital form. They (the reader) are NOT you (the writer). Likewise, they are reading as your VPC. Not you.** Unless the story is so well fleshed out that the reader knows Nora as well as the VPC knows her — as a writer, your story has so excellently established their relationship, that the reader can identify on the same level— it’s telling, at best, and authorial intrusion, at worst.

Maybe the VPC knows that Nora is upset and worried about the upcoming deal because Nora told him/her that. Now, if that conversation was dramatized earlier in the story, fine. We can make the argument that that’s how the VPC knew this and the author is reminding the reader, which would be entirely appropriate depending on how long it’s been since the reader experienced the original event. Sometimes you need to remind readers.

Maybe it’s an intentional choice to “tell” rather than “show” for the sake of signaling that (a) it’s not that important, or (b) for pacing. Fine. Did you do it intentionally, or were you just lazy about PoV? Because PoV is about choosing pronouns, don’t you know? Right? See how much it’s not? No? Let’s keep at it then, shall we?

[4] The people who tried to converse with her were all so boring, their talk so petty; yet she tried to act as if she were interested, even excited about the subject at hand, so that they would never guess how tense she was.

So while [3] was marginal as to whether or not it violated PoV [4] is blatant. Remember now, this is Nora who thinks the people talking to her are boring and their talk is so petty. Nora. Who is not the VPC. It is Nora that is trying to act interested, not the VPC. It is Nora who is hoping they won’t guess how tense she is. Not the VPC. The novice writer has just put up a big neon sign and announced his/her presence.

Now let’s say you want to write this so that the reader remains solidly grounded in the VPC (who is NOT Nora). First, the VPC would have to change positions so that s/he is no longer “watching from across the room” and then s/he would have to make the internal judgment that the people were boring. Better yet, the writer would have to do some work and show that the people were boring by showing us the dialogue. The writer, preferably would show us that they were petty. It’s not enough to just tell the reader. Yet many writers do just tell us and not because it’s a conscious decision in deference to value of the information, or pacing, or any of the other valid reasons to tell. And on top of that, they tell us everything. To death. They show very little. Because telling is easy and showing is hard.

But for a reader, allowing him/her to come to the conclusion that the people were boring, that they were petty, that Nora was struggling to act interested because she was a decent person, is immersive and interesting because it makes the reader part of the story. It’s not the writer “lecturing” to the reader, like I’m lecturing to you now. Annoys you, doesn’t it? Then stop doing it to your readers.


When is the 3rd or 1st a matter of just pronoun choice? When it’s PoV compliant and seamless:

The white ash towering over Jody seemed to mock her. About a foot above her head, there was a strip of wood, a remnant of what had been a sign or marker, still firmly nailed into the bark. She anchored her hands on her hips and glared at the defiant nailhead and then at the tree, just for good measure. The tree and its band of brothers had seemed harmless enough when she’d started her run, but now they looked like something out of a fairy tale, all dark and brooding and carnivorous. It’d been years since she’d seen the movie where the trees came alive to snag the poor little princess as she ran through the big bad woods, fleeing a witch or wolf or evil stepmother or something. She was no princess. And apparently no Boy Scout either. Because a scout would’ve been prepared, and known where he was.

Shift to 1st. Except for the first sentence, which has a hiccup, it is just a matter of pronouns, however I note that what’s missing with this is the retrospective narrator, that first person narrator that let’s you know that this is a retrospective and doesn’t try to trick you into thinking that the story is anything but a retelling by a narrator that survived:

The white ash towering over me seemed to mock me. About a foot above my head, there was a strip of wood, a remnant of what had been a sign or marker, still firmly nailed into the bark. I anchored my hands on my hips and glared at the defiant nailhead and then at the tree, just for good measure. The tree and its band of brothers had seemed harmless enough when I’d started my run, but now they looked like something out of a fairy tale, all dark and brooding and carnivorous. It’d been years since I’d seen the movie where the trees came alive to snag the poor little princess as she ran through the big bad woods, fleeing a witch or wolf or evil stepmother or something. I was no princess. And apparently no Boy Scout either. Because a scout would’ve been prepared, and known where he was.

*This is why first person is actually a distancing technique, contrary to the belief that it’s automatically closer and more natural. It may feel more natural and closer to the WRITER but it does NOT feel natural to the reader. Some readers take to it more easily. Dare I suggest “These are not the droids you’re looking for”? Only if the 1st person narration is well done, PoV compliant, AND told by an interesting and compelling 1st person narrator that the reader easily slips into does it actually feel more natural to the READER, whether or not there are droids and Jedi mind tricks involved. So if you’re choosing 1st person because you think it’ll save you a lot of work because using “I” is like pixie dust, think again. At least go out and read these two books by Card and Kress before deciding on 1st person for the sake of “I.”

**How do you in real life know that someone is upset? You pick up on physical cues. You process those, and based on your experience, conclude that Nora is upset. When you skip that process of describing physical cues, of interpreting them, you’re merely presenting the VPC’s conclusion. You are telling the reader what to think, rather than showing them and allowing them to draw their own conclusion. This is why telling is a distancing technique. Like all techniques, it has its place. Are you using it in  that way?

4 thoughts on “PoV-It’s NOT about pronoun choice”

  1. I think that people are getting better at first person simply because there is more first person out there to read. OTOH, no one has a blessed clue how to write omni anymore, because nothing is omni and we don’t have an ear-feel to how omni is supposed to work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right about no one having a clue how to do omni right anymore. Most attempts I’ve seen are a hodge-podge of techniques meshed up together. It just makes a nasty mess.

      Like

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