11
Jun
09

The Magic of Perspective

So my forthcoming trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its two sequels, is epic fantasy. Each book is first person, written from a single character’s perspective (different for each book).

I’ve read a lot of “on writing” books and forums and been involved in a lot of writing groups and workshops, and a consistent theme that I hear in these places — usually from less-experienced writers, but sometimes from the masters — is that first person is somehow problematic for a fantasy novel, particularly an epic fantasy. What people seem to think, variously, is that a) editors hate first person because it doesn’t sell as well, or b) readers hate it because they need more than one character to care about, or c) it’s too hard to unveil the plot through a single perspective, or d) it interferes with worldbuilding. Or any number of other complaints, all of which boil down to: First Person Is Hard.

I have to say, I don’t really get all this angst about first person. Sure, first person is challenging, but I think that’s because it’s unusual. It’s true that most genre novels (especially high fantasies) are written in third person.* Also, AFAICT most beginning writers start out writing third person in creative writing classes and such. Third person becomes the default mode of thinking — so of course we find first person disquieting, especially the first few times we encounter it; we don’t have as much experience with it. The solution to this problem, IMO, is not to declare first person problematic, but to get some first person practice. Go out and read some first-person epics. Write some short stories in that perspective. Then not only does it become clear that first person is no harder than third person — or second person for that matter — but the writer can then learn to appreciate the ways that first person can enhance a story.

Because let’s be honest here — first person isn’t hard, but it is different. You really can’t tell the same kind of story with it that you can with third person. And that’s fine. I think part of the problem many writers (and readers) have with first person is that they expect it to be the same as a third person story, except with a bit more “I” and “we” and “me”. When this doesn’t work, they get frustrated. And instead of doing the logical thing — changing the story to fit the perspective — they try to force the perspective to tell the story they want. Yeah, that default third person story that’s in their heads. This is the writerly equivalent of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It’s illogical to get mad at the peg or the hole; the real problem is the idiot trying to make them fit together.

OK, this is getting too abstract for my tastes, so let’s consider an example.

I’ve mentioned here before that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a rewrite of a book I wrote ten years ago. That book was called The Sky God’s Lover. SkyGod had the same setting as 100K, the same core plot, the same characters. IMO it was decently-written — not as good as 100K, but that’s not surprising; I was a much less-experienced writer at the time. There was a lot more flab. Still, I think SkyGod was good enough for publication — so good that when I decided to rewrite it, I didn’t really think it was “broken.” I just had the vague sense that the story needed to be told in a different way. So I opted for a total paradigm shift, and started messing with various elements just to see what would happen. I changed the protagonist from male to female, thinking that was pretty radical. But it was changing the PoV, I found, that triggered the most profound transformation in the story.

See, SkyGod was third person, with various scenes and chapters related from different characters’ perspectives. Much of the story’s tension came from following the protagonist, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, as he moved from point A to point B to point C and collected plot coupons along the way. Typical monomythic epic fantasy, in other words. When I decided to redo it in first person, and solely from one character’s perspective, I couldn’t unveil information the way I’d done before. A first person story needs more emotional tension to work, or the narrative gets boring; I couldn’t have the supporting characters just give away the story. The protagonist was going to have to work harder for those coupons — bargaining for some, stealing others, and even then it needed to be clear that some of the supporting characters just weren’t going to give that information up for anything. The protagonist would then have to deduce whatever information those characters were withholding through other means.

There’s a word for this kind of plot strucuture: mystery. So in changing from third person to first person, I ended up changing the story from a “hero’s journey” to a sort of fantasy “locked-room mystery.” Yet this was nowhere near as drastic a change as it sounds. The story really is the same. It’s just told in a different way.

(Did it work? Well, 100K sold, while SkyGod didn’t. Beyond that, you guys will have to tell me whether 100K succeeds as first-person epic fantasy when you read it. Just seven months to go! ::sigh::)

So here’s the bottom line: first person, second person, third — it doesn’t matter which one you choose. What matters is whether the perspective fits the story. If not, and you end up in a square peg/round hole situation, try changing the peg. Or the hole.

* Most, but not all. Notable exceptions include Storm Constantine’s genderbending Wraeththu trilogy and Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.

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9 Responses to “The Magic of Perspective”


  1. 1 luckykitty
    June 11, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Great post. It’s funny, I’ve been struggling with a story and very thing that kept creeping into my mind was “would this be better as a first-person story?” However, rather than shying away from it as a more difficult approach, my hangup about it was that my brain kept telling me it would be the cheap way out, a cop out. I don’t know if that’s because a lot of the books I’d read that were similar to the story (mystery/sci-fi/cyberpunkish) were in first person, so a part of me insisted that was “done already”? So I made myself stick with a limited third point of view.

    I still haven’t made up my mind what I’m going to do, but it was really fascinating to hear how changing that POV freed you and made you feel it was a better story.

    If only I knew what shape of peg I had!

  2. June 11, 2009 at 9:30 am

    luckykitty,

    Well, you raise a good point. Readers clearly have no problem with first person, because the urban fantasy genre is chock full of it — though that’s partly because this genre tends to be noirish in its style, and noir tends to be first person. But that’s where the dollars are in fantasy these days.

    And yeah, in that genre it’s been done a lot. But I don’t believe that a perspective can be overdone, because it’s not the voice that matters, it’s what you say with it. So if you think first person might be the way to go, then try it and see. =) The only way to figure out your peg’s shape is to poke it at the hole, see if it fits, and if it doesn’t, reshape it and poke again.

  3. June 11, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Another major exception to the third-person-is-more-popular-than-first pattern is YA fiction, fantasy included; in fact I recently heard a YA editor say at a conference, “If I see a manuscript for teens and it’s not in first person, I want to know why.”

    YA fantasy is doing a lot better than adult fantasy right now — I wonder if the prevalence of third person and the kind of storytelling that goes with it is starting to make the adult fantasy seem a bit stale by comparison?

    (Though ironically I say this as a YA fantasy author whose first two novels were written in third person limited, and is still trying to get her first-person manuscript to behave!)

  4. June 11, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Actually, 1st person is the most common POV newbie/amateur writers are using these days. It’s one of the most difficult to do well and correctly. As an editor, it’s the POV most likely to make me cringe and suggest a rewrite (next would be multi-3rd person limited, the POV that often earns “head-hopping” complaints). The challenging part of writing in 1st person POV is that it doesn’t *feel* challenging to many writers. 1st person POV has become a shortcut for newbies because of the misconception that 1PPOV immediately engages the reader (it *does* immediately engage the reader, but only if it’s done really well)

    Check out chapter 6 of the Novel Writer’s Toolkit by Bob Mayer for some fabulous info on POV/perspective.

  5. June 11, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    OMG THANK YOU for writing this. I looove first person, and when I’m doing original fiction it usually comes naturally to the types of stories I tell, but I have heard all of those workshopping complaints a hundred times. And they make me sad. We have three PoV options, as you pointed out — why not USE them?

  6. 6 Liane Merciel
    June 12, 2009 at 5:04 am

    Interesting post, although I’m not sure I agree with the central assumption. Plenty of recent high fantasists have been using first-person. Pat Rothfuss has done very well with a primarily first-person epic fantasy. Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths is split between rotating first-person narrators (an interesting twist on the scope of rotating third and the closeness of first… strikes me as a tricky structure to pull off, but she does it brilliantly). Joshua Palmatier’s Throne trilogy and Dave Duncan’s Alchemist books are other recent examples of first-person POV in fantasy.

    So I don’t get the impression that there’s a lot of “angst” about using, or reading, first-person POV. It is tricky to do well, though, no quibbles about that!

    Second-person, now, _that_ would be different. And unfortunately probably not something I’d read, given that my only experience of that particular POV is Stewart O’Nan’s _A Prayer for the Dying_, which successfully put me off it forevermore.

  7. July 5, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    My favorite PoV recently was what I’ve been describing as named 3rd person in Greg’s Norse Code. Most of the book is in third person, except for the sections from the point of view of the ravens which is told in first person. To me this gave the impression that the 3rd person in the rest of the the book was those very same ravens. I found myself thinking about them in scenes in which they weren’t mentioned. I have no idea whether this was intentional … I’ve meant to ask Greg that a few times, but it keeps slipping my mind.


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