Sorry, Third Person. I’m Just Not That Into You.

19/08/11 7:00 AM

I try not to listen when people talk about no-no’s in writing, mainly because there aren’t any no-no’s, at least when something is written well.

Tell me a “no-no,” and I’ll find an example of a book that broke the rule well, at least according to this reader and critic.

But I’m human. So I can get swept up in the “you shouldn’t write in first person” hogwash I hear on forums where writers hang out. According to these forums, I’m the biggest sinner since I’ve written both novels in first person (multiple first persons) AND present tense.

Oh, the horror!

With Forgotten April, I’d started out in third person pseudo-omniscient — I say “pseudo” because I didn’t know what I was doing and was trying to please my wonderful mentor who warned me about writing in first person.

Oh, but the story sucked in third person. BIG TIME. I tried. I tried for 80,000 words. But it was awful and I was depressed and, on a whim, I opened a new page and was like, “I just want to see what it feels like if I write it in first person. It’ll be my little secret. No one has to know.” So I gave it a go and immediately knew it was better — a whole lot better. I brought two scenes — one in third and one in first person — to my writers’ group and they confirmed it. The first person had LIFE.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve written in third person. In fact, I think my short story “Crush,” which is written in third person, is one of my best literary efforts to date from a craft perspective. So I know there’s a place for it, I like reading it (if it works), and I can write in it.

Anyhow, back to the reason behind my title. I’m working on my third novel, and due to recent comments in a writers’ forum about the problems with first person and present tense, I thought I’d approach this novel in third person and past tense. The past tense is working — it feels completely right.

As for third person? Not so much. I tried. I’d write and stop myself when I’d slip into first person and rewrite the section in third. At first, since I was still in those dreamy early stages of drafting, I wasn’t too bothered by it. But then, I figured the story out — you know, one of those breakthroughs where you stop riffing with that one melody you’ve discovered, and, instead, you start composing the full song and weave the melody in. Yeah, that sort of thing. So I was jazzed and excited and was writing a scene that worked really well when, holy crap! I realized I’d written the whole thing in first person.

Guess what? I need to honor that. The story is telling me it needs to be written in first person, and so are the characters. It’s still unclear whether I’ll be using multiple viewpoints, but, for now, this baby is staying in first person, past tense.

Sorry, third person. I’m just not that into you — this time, anyway. I’m sure I’ll be back. You behave while I’m gone.

Do you have a favorite tense you like to read?

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing, Writing | 7 Comments »

7 Comments on “Sorry, Third Person. I’m Just Not That Into You.”

  1. Ghenet Myrthil Says:

    I enjoy reading and writing in 1st person. My WIP is first person present tense, which has become popular in YA so that works to my benefit. One of my favorite writers – Jodi Picoult – writes in multiple points of view in 1st person. I think if it works for your story, it’s perfectly fine!

  2. Robyn Says:

    @Ghenet — Jodi Picoult is also one of my faves! She’s definitely been an influence on my writing. 🙂 Do YA writers ever receive flack for writing in first person, present tense?

  3. Mike Says:

    It’s good to find your voice. First person doesn’t work out for me but I know it is the most popular way of writing in the YA genre. I’d almost say it’s a requirement to write first-person, present tense, female protagonist and love triangle to get traditionally published as a YA author.

  4. Robyn Says:

    @Mike — you should hear the flack we scribes who write for adult audiences get for choosing to write in first person, present tense. There’s a thread on Kindle Boards…some of the things people were saying really surprised me.

  5. Ruth Madison Says:

    Personally I mostly write in third, but you’ve got to use what works best for the story! That’s why we have options. Present tense is tricky to pull off, but it can be done really well.

    Interesting to hear that you’ve gotten criticism on it. I have an unfinished book in first person present and I’ve been finding it challenging, but I think it is absolutely the best voice for the story.

  6. Robyn Says:

    @Ruth — I agree 100 percent. That’s why I think those sorts of “rules” are silly. It needs to serve the story first. I’m reading Lolita right now, which is written in first person, a critical element to the story, considering the unreliable narrator. 🙂

  7. Ruth Madison Says:

    I do love an unreliable narrator. So difficult to do well!