Friday, January 08, 2010

A Different Perspective

by Jennie Bentley

I’m going to list a few of my favorite authors for you:

Jennifer Crusie
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Lois McMaster Bujold
Dorothy L. Sayers
JD Robb
Suzanne Brockmann
Terry Pratchett
JK Rowling
Tamora Pierce

(All of them are worth a read, if there are any you’re not familiar with.)

And here are a few more of my favorite authors:

Janet Evanovich
Donna Andrews
Nancy Martin
Tasha Alexander
Nancy Haddock
Lindsey Davis


Do you know the difference? Why I didn’t just put them together on the same list?

The top are authors who write in the third person. (He said, she said.) The bottom are authors who write in the first person. (I said.)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to POV lately. So far, everything I’ve written (published and unpublished) has been in the first person. The Do-It-Yourself books are written from Avery’s point of view; A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS and sequels are written from Savannah’s point of view.

First person singular comes easily to me. I think and talk in first person singular. (Yeah, I know. So does everyone else.) My literary voice is also first person singular. New characters pop into my head and take over. I don’t see my books as movies: I see them through the eyes of the protagonist. When the protag looks in the mirror and describes herself, it's because that's the only way I can see her. All of which makes writing first person very easy.

Of course, there are drawbacks to the first person perspective. The protagonist is only aware of what he or she has seen with his/her own eyes, or what someone else has told him/her. If it happened elsewhere, when the protag wasn’t there, and nobody bothered to mention it, the MC won’t know about it. (MC = main character, not master criminal. I get confused on that sometimes.)

Because the first person perspective is limiting that way, it doesn’t work for every book. Or every genre. Romance, for instance, is usually written in the third person. With multiple points of view, to get hero’s and heroine’s take on the same events. Thrillers are rarely written from the first person perspective, and often have multiple points of view, as well. Ditto for romantic suspense, the romance/thriller hybrid. Fantasy and paranormal seem to lean toward third person, as does science fiction, although I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read enough of either to be able to say categorically that it’s so. That’s my impression from what I have read, though.

Chick lit, women’s fiction, urban fantasy and YA are often written in the first person. Mysteries are about evenly divided, it seems, although there’s a noticeable distinction between funny, lighthearted mysteries and dark, serious ones. Police procedurals lean toward third (Julia Spencer-Fleming, Ngaio Marsh, Deborah Crombie) while sassy girl sleuths are usually first (Janet Evanovich, Nancy Martin, Donna Andrews). PI novels can go either way. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole books and Lindsey Davis’s Falco books are written in the first person—and they’re funny. Kelli Stanley’s new book, CITY OF DRAGONS, on the other hand—you have to read this book; it’s fantastic!—is written in third, and it’s pretty dark.

You may wonder why I’m giving so much thought to this.

I’m currently between books. DIY-4 was handed in at the beginning of the week, and I don’t have to start DIY-5 until May. (Deadline is September.) That gives me four months to work on something else. Enough time to nail down a first draft. The problem is, I’m not sure what to write. And whether I shouldn’t break out of my comfort zone and try something new. A new genre, a new point of view.

So what about you? Do you prefer one POV over another? For reading? For writing? Do you confine yourself to one when you write, or do you use both? Some people write books in first and short stories in third; some people do the opposite. Some only write one way. Which are you?

And if you have an opinion on which I should be, I’ll be happy to take that under advisement, too.


Annette said...

For my long fiction, I've always written in third person. But I play with different POV styles in my short fiction, just for a change of pace.

Joyce said...

I've written short stories in third person, but the books are in first. So far, my protagonists won't have it any other way. I do have a police procedural forming in the back of my mind that will most likely be in third person.

Dana King said...

It all depends on how the story is best told, whether I'm reading or writing. I've used both, and I have no preference when reading.

What's tricky is using both in the same piece. I haven't tried t yet, and I've switching from first to third and back take me right out of some books, but when done well it can be very effective. (John Connolly, some of the more recent James Lee Burke are good examples. Crais has done it a couple of times, for short stretches, and makes it work, too.)

Wilfred Bereswill said...

My novels are in 3rd and a short story that I'm waiting for a contract on is in 1st.

Jennie, you missed the hybrid. If my memory serves me correctly, James Patterson's Women's Murder Club alternates between 1st & 3rd. Far be it for me to criticize, but I find that a bit of a cheat.

As I write, my brain seems to work in 3rd person. But, so far I write thrillers and I read a lot of thrillers, and I like to get into the mind of the bad guys, so 1st from the POV of the Protagonist can't do that.

My new work in progress is a suspense, which could easily be 1st. I'm actually considering trying a chapter or two in 1st to see how I feel about it.

The short story I wrote in first actually creeped me out because it was from the POV of the killer and writing so personal from a deranged mind can be uncomfortable.

Jennie Bentley said...

Some good points here, guys! And yes, I did miss the hybrid. Stupidly, because my favorite author, Elizabeth Peters, writes both first and third, sometimes in the same book (the Amelia Peabody series), and I left her off because I'd have to put her on both lists... but I totally ignored the hybrid. Duh.

Personally, I dislike the POV of the bad guy, even when I don't write and just read. I don't want to be there. Too creepy.

ramona said...

Jennie, interesting topic. My first creative writing instructor taught us that first person was the sign of a beginning or insecure writer. I've come to disagree with that wholeheartedly, but at the time, I took it as wisdom and tried to never write in first person. Now, I write in whatever the voice tells me sounds right.

BTW, I notice that my word verification is "troll." I'm a little hurt.

Kelli Stanley said...

Jennie, you're a sweetheart. :) Thanks for the shout-out about CoD!!

The third person POV was a conscious decision -- because my first two books were first person, I wanted to try something new.

I found that I really love third person, because it's like using a more flexible range camera ... you can zoom in for a tight POV that's clearly the protagonist's, or you can zoom out for more distant shots. Filming is about the only metaphor I can use to explain it. :)

And I'm with you--first person psycho isn't something I'd like to write!!

Thanks again, doll!!


Jennie Bentley said...

Ramona, yes, first person POV is often looked down on as being 'easier' than third. In some ways it is, but in others it's much harder. The plot is more limited when you can only show it from one person's vantage, and it's more difficult to get across subtle (and unpleasant) personality traits of the main character's when you're writing in first person. Example: the protag in A Cutthroat Business, Savannah Martin, is a perfect Southern Belle with a ton of insecurities and hang-ups. And she's got some racial prejudices she has to work through. And when she's telling the story, it's a challenge getting that aspect of her across in a way that won't turn the reader off. So no, first person POV isn't always a breeze.

Jennie Bentley said...

Kelli, darling, you are SO very welcome. It's an awesome book and everyone needs to read it!

Great clarification on the 3rd person POV = camera shots, btw. Very easy to understand.

Pat Remick said...

I've been writing in third person -- I think it's because it feels similar to what I did all those years as a reporter. Right now I'm trying something in first person --and IT IS very challenging, but exciting.

So I'd say -- break out of your comfort zone and see what happens!

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks for checking in, Pat! Yeah, breaking out of your comfort zone is always a good thing. Doesn't always work out, but you usually learn something, even if it's that you're better suited where you are! :-)

Jemi Fraser said...

I enjoy either pov when I'm reading. You've listed several of my fave authors btw :)

When I'm writing, 3rd person pov comes much more easily to me. I've done a bit of 1st, but it's a slower process.

Jennie Bentley said...

To each their own, Jemi! I have to really think to be able to do third person POV, but first is a piece of cake. I guess it comes down to inclination and what you're used to.

Just because I found the answer interesting, I'll share with you what happened when I posted a question on Twitter a few a days ago, at a forum called #askagent. I wanted to know whether third person was 'better' - more lucrative, or prestigious, or easier to sell - than books written in first, and the answer I got back from the lit agents participating was no, POV doesn't matter. Just write the book the way the book needs to be written. So there. :-)

queenofmean said...

Third person seems to come more natural to me. Although I have experimented with first person for short stories.
Lately, I've been reading Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware series. Those are hybrids, too.

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks for stopping by, Meanie! Yeah, hybrids have become more popular lately, I think. I don't remember many of them from years past, but now they're not uncommon at all. I prefer one POV or the other myself, although some authors make hybrids work quite well. It can get confusing, though, especially with an author who isn't experienced enough to really differentiate between the voices. Then again, I guess that applies to any book with multiple POV, not just a switch from first to third.

Patg said...

I prefer to write in third person, but I read both. Fewer in first person lately. What I dislike is present tense. That slows me down to snail (or as my daughter prefers to say) cadaver on wheels level.
To be honest, the hybrid is very interesting, when you only get the first person protag's voice every few chapters. I really like that. Just as I like multiple POVs when done well. Those authors that can slide seamlessly between characters, even in one paragraph, are my heroes.

Joyce said...

Pat, I'm with you on the use of present tense. I HATE it!