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.