In the words of somebody, “I’d rather not. What else have you got?”

Ever since I learned that it’s popular these days to write in the first person (write stories, that is, not things like letters and ordinary correspondence — this post is after all in first person), I’ve tried to avoid it in my own writing, except in the nonfiction stories — it feels really weird to write about yourself in third person, for some reason.

Then something happened last year and I started writing fiction in first person. It started with Wind Age, where I thought it was going to be third person (having no reason to think anything else) but was stuck, and so tried to get it started by letting Alfhild talk for a bit. I could always rewrite it later in third person, once I had something to work with. Well, that didn’t happen. I ended up writing all 64,000 words of it in first person, to the point where if I got interrupted while I was writing it took a while for me to resurface. It’s odd at first when you’re not used to seeing your own world through the eyes of a girl who lived more than a thousand years ago. I did spend a hundred thousand (for the most part poorly-written) words, in third person, with Lily, over the course of three years, and saw things the way she does too. But it’s different when you’re writing in first person. The very act of writing I did this or I was here or I saw it puts you deeper in the story.

But it’s very easy to slip into first-person writing that focuses entirely on the speaker, which is not only annoying because it leaves out other important things that are going on that the speaker wouldn’t notice (one drawback of first-person), but vain. Also, these days it’s overdone, just like all the other trends, going up and being imitated just to get sales. It will crash (like all the other trends, and the stock market, along with a few other instances of vanitas vanitatem), and something new will come along. I decided that I don’t want to be part of that crowd, I want to write something different.

I’m a Creative Writing major, and with each class I get more annoyed that the books and examples we’re using — and supposed to view as outstanding examples — have all been written in, at most, the last five years. This isn’t teaching us to write great literature, it’s teaching us to write what’s popular. These stories haven’t stood the test of time yet (and I very much doubt most of them will), so why are we using them? So I try to go farther back, and read the big thick books written in outdated styles that according to all the experts’ analyses should be long forgotten but are still somehow there. I’m not writing to be popular.

All that said, last year in addition to Wind Age, I started a story set during and immediately after the Conquest, with two point-of-view characters, and both in first person. Then toward the end of the semester I wrote a short story that I tried and tried to get to be third person, but wouldn’t work as anything other than first. I was quite relieved when I started thinking about retelling Lily’s story and she assured me that she’d much prefer I write hers in third. If I must write in first person, I’d at least like to keep more than half my works in third. We’ll see how well that works.

The title is one of Oskar’s quotes, but he at least knew the authour.


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
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15 Responses to In the words of somebody, “I’d rather not. What else have you got?”

  1. Hope Ann says:

    I write in both first and third person, depending on the book I’m working on. Strangely, in the book that switches between first person, present tense, to third person, past tense, I’ve no problem keeping the persons separate. It’s switching between different works in progress that I’ll suddenly discover I’ve been writing first person in my third person novel.


    • noliealcarturiel says:

      I’ve noticed some of those places. Usually it’s in the really tense or climactic scenes that I discover, for example, Ethaniel has taken over the work of the chronicler and telling things his way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thegermangolux says:

    I don’t mind first person, actually. I’m reading a book that’s written in first person at the moment – namely, ‘Jayber Crow’ by Wendell Berry. It’s excellently written, and a very well told story, and it couldn’t be written in third person and still be the same story. Incidentally, ‘Jayber Crow’ was published in 2000, which puts it in the field of the fad, I suppose.

    First person, in itself, is not bad. It serves a unique purpose and just plain works better for certain types of stories. I submit, however, that the reason first person is so popular of late is that this age is an age of emotions. Not affections, mind you, for those are a different breed, but emotions. Postmillennials have a tendency to focus on the emotions, how they feel about a thing, and not how they think about a thing, or how it fits into their principles. Everything is about how it makes one emotionally comfortable or uncomfortable. First person expresses this gush of emotion very well.

    For the record, I loved the short story you wrote in first person, and I probably said something to that effect. The first person made that story into something I don’t think it could ever have been in third (though you would be the best judge, as author).


    • noliealcarturiel says:

      I agree about the rise of emotions overtaking affections. Just ask Levi about his so-called Art Appreciation class — or no, perhaps better not. The question isn’t whether a story would be essentially the same in two different voices, but which one is better.

      If I ever get anything back about the story, maybe I’ll find out what other people thought of it.


      • thegermangolux says:

        By the story, you’re referring to the Coventry Carol one, I assume.

        Can you say that one is better than the other? They each have a distinct purpose. I don’t think that tradition even dictates one over the other. The Bible varies between first and third person. Novels have been written in both persons ever since the conception of the novel, and in fact some of the very first novels proper (Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Gulliver’s Travels) used first person. On the other hand, third person was the predominant form in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, right?

        Basically, since tradition has a good deal of weight in deciding any matter – does it give a verdict on first versus third?


      • noliealcarturiel says:

        Yes, the nameless story named the Coventry Carol

        Why can’t I say one is better than the other, to me, personally, in my opinion?
        Oi. Schools annoy me.
        The Bible uses all three persons, by which in this case I mean first (I, we), second (you, y’all), and third (he, she, and in rare cases, it). Lots of the Epistles are in second person. Luke switches back and forth between first and third several times over the course of one book. Moses writes about himself in third person (I have to say the literary quality of Exodus is splendid. I’d like a class on nonfiction with it for our textbook.).

        Do you really mean to count backwards with “nineteenth and eighteenth centuries”, or is the eighteenth a typo for something? It depends. In the 18th the epistolary novel was popular, which was naturally in first person. 19th saw a lot of women novelists writing under pen names, and a lot of third-person narration, but first wasn’t unheard of either.

        Tradition! In this case, tradition gives about an equal amount of evidence for each side, which isn’t terribly helpful when trying to come to a decision. But I hold that you can say “first is better than third” or “third is better than first”, and the statement be objectively true (obviously not both for the same case). Some stories are objectively better in third person — try to imagine Exodus, for example, in first (I must admit I was doing that on Sunday, trying to figure out how the interjection of “I”, itself not usually conducive to humility, would change an inspired writer’s view of inspiration). That would turn it into more of a memoir than a story whose theme is “that they may know that YHWH is God over all the earth”. The medium is the message, in the words of Neil Postman. But for some other story, and I’m not coming up with any good examples, first might better serve the intended purpose. Inasmuch as the voice helps or hinders the art being made, you can say that it is good or bad for the story.

        Does that make any sense?

        Liked by 1 person

      • thegermangolux says:

        Yes, it makes sense. I was holding my breath, because I’d just asked a question about tradition and was curious if we agreed. Turns out we do.

        I think I meant the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

        Here’s another possible post subject, and certainly a debatable topic – what about omniscient versus limited versus multiple point(s) of view?


  3. Christine says:

    I hear you on this one! What’s funny is I used to HATE first person. Sometimes I’d even not read a book because it was in first person.

    Then, one day a couple of years back, I did something unthinkable: I wrote a first person book. I was writing in the very thing I spent my life hating on! But you know what? I…enjoyed it. Much like you were saying, there’s something so INTIMATE about writing in first person. But it also has it’s limits. Still, after I tried it myself I learned to not detest first person. I even often enjoy it in books now.

    BUT. I do agree that it is waaaay overused these days. Some books call for it, I think. But some just do it because it’s the “trend” and it’s annoying. I personally like books in multiple POVs, and first person usually stops that. (Though there are SOME books that use multiple POVs and all in first person and that just gives me a headache. Bleh.)

    All that to say. I don’t hate first person anymore, and I do think it’s better for a few choice stories, but overall I still much, much prefer third person and wish this first person trend will end soon.


    • noliealcarturiel says:

      Part of the charm of third person might be that a lot of books that we grew up on (Tolkien, for instance) were in that voice, and so we associate it a lot with those sorts of books. For the next generation that grows up on first-person narrators, maybe it will be the other way around, with third-person just beginning to be rediscovered.


  4. thegermangolux says:

    Would I incur a large volume of disgust if I mentioned that I read The Hunger Games, and rather liked it? Yeah, it illustrated the first-person trend of this age all too well, but it was a pretty good series nonetheless.


    • noliealcarturiel says:

      That one’s written in present tense as well, right? The series seems to have had a lot of influence not only on the first-person trend, but on the dystopian trend, which I for one could do without. What made it good?


      • thegermangolux says:

        It’s written in present tense some of the time – only when it makes sense. Present tense the entire time would be frustrating.

        The Hunger Games is, again, a good example of what happens when a good story is very much influenced by the style of the times. It’s in the first person, it’s dystopian, it has a female protagonist (no offense, but it seems like a lot of books have female protagonists these days. Maybe it’s just me.), and the grammar could be better.

        What made it good was where Suzanne Collins went with the story. It could have been a good-triumphs-over-evil-and-that’s-that story. It could have been a protagonist-wins-against-overwhelming-odds-and-proves-himself-to-be-pretty-much-perfect story, like G.A. Henty’s books tend to be. It could have been a lot of cliches, given the story’s setting, but it’s a story about a protagonist fighting a war on personal and national levels, a war that she doesn’t understand, and can’t see an end to. I’m being really vague, but it’s hard to say much without ruining the plot.

        And in addition to having an unusual and powerful plotline, it’s a well-told, beautiful story. As far as futuristic technology goes, Collins hits the spot.
        The love interest thing starts to get old, but I wonder if it isn’t there partly as a concession to the audience. At any rate, it certainly helped the book to sell.

        Maybe you should read it, so as to get a better understanding of the first-person trend. Or just because it’s a pretty good book.


      • noliealcarturiel says:

        I have several bones to pick with Henty’s writing. Perhaps I should write a post on why people shouldn’t read him.
        Well, almost all of my books have girls or women for protagonists. Am I being sexist? Oh, wait, I can’t be as long as I’m putting women above men. That is, of course, the quintessence of equality.
        To be fair, a lot of the girls in my stories are also frustrating, annoying, or simply bad characters. I don’t plan to have a certain number of each, or whether a guy or a girl will fill a certain role. They show up and do things, and I chase after them with a pencil and notebook. But the general tendency of writers to have heroines instead of heroes might well be catering to public opinion.
        But it’s a popular book, so I hesitate to read it unless I know it will be really good, not just pretty good. I have read things about it, too, that don’t help — such as the hope lacking when it’s most needed.


      • thegermangolux says:

        Henty is a good example of good morals in bad literature. It’s like roses in manure, I suppose.

        I thought the Hunger Games was really good. It doesn’t compare to the literature of the past, if only because time has not had opportunity to judge it. But as far as modern literature goes, I think the Hunger Games is some of the best stuff produced.

        Wingfeather Saga is still better, of course.


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