Go away and Die First Person writing!
First Person writing?
Imagine for a moment you are listening to a really interesting story. In fact, let’s be specific. You are listening to Rob Roy MacGregor tell his story. After years of dealing with the Marquess of Montrose, “Robert the Red” borrows 1000 pounds, which goes missing. When his lands are seized by the authorities, his wife and children evicted, and his house burned, Rob Roy leads a rebellion against the Scottish nobles that ends in his surrender.
The is one of those rare times in history where what happens actually makes a great story, one that has inspired plays, songs, and two movies (one with Liam Neeson as Rob Roy—how cool is that!) There are a lot of great characters in this story: Rob Roy himself, his wife, the chief herder who might have stolen the money, James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose, and the men who fought for either side.
On the surface, this story seems ideal for a First Person Narrative. “I am Rob Roy MacGregor, and this is what happened to me.” First Person is also easy on the writer. No need to sweat all that Deep POV stuff; it doesn’t get any deeper than First Person! Only one character voice to keep in mind.
Then why not First Person writing?
But Dear God, do you lose so much! You get none of the anger from James Graham at Roy’s “theft” and uprising. You get none of the helplessness of Roy’s wife watching her home burn and their livelihood taken. The 1995 film with Liam Neeson had a fictional character that stands as one of the top five greatest villains I have ever seen, Archibald Cunningham masterfully portrayed by Tim Roth. When Archibald’s young mistress tells him she is pregnant by him, he replies “Well, he won’t be the first bastard born in Scotland.”
If the events of that 1995 film were made into a book that was written in First Person, we would never have that scene, unless Rob Roy was in the room hiding behind a curtain when it happened. Some authors attempt to escape this limitation by writing a First Person book from several persons. That’s even worse! Why? Because readers are trained to hear all First Person narratives in the same voice — their voice. Conan saying “I then split his head to the teeth with my sword” sounds exactly like Albert Einstein saying, “And that’s when I discovered the theory of relativity” because it’s your voice in your head saying those words! But when you read, in the Third person:
Conan broke the spells, snatched his sword from the throne, and split the dark wizard’s skull to the teeth.
That’s not Conan telling the story. That’s the narrator’s words in your voice. Add a little brain splatter, a grunt of satisfaction from Conan, and you’re right there in the room with the mighty barbarian king, safe and invisible, enjoying his revenge as much as he did.
There are writers who are aware of the limitations of First Person and try to get around them. They will even surprise you by killing the character off in First Person (“And the room grew dark as my intestines filled my bloody hands”)—no, No, NO. It never works. Readers are too trained to read First Person as if the person were standing in the room and telling his story. How weird would it be for the man telling you what happened to him last week ending with, “And then I died.” You’d be like, “Ah, dude, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you’re not dead.” It’s equally weird for a second or third person to push the one telling you his story aside and say, “And then this is what happened to me! There I was…”
Think of the greatest stories you know: The Last Supper, Monroe and Livingston telling President Jefferson about the Louisiana Purchase, The Battle of Midway—heck, even the birth of your first child—think of all those stories and tell me any of them would be better in a First Person narrative. Such amazing events demand the contributions of all characters to fully bring out their power. I don’t like First Person writing, and you should stop using it! When you tell your story, tell it from all angles. Don’t be lazy!