Thursday, July 25, 2013

I had an Adventure and Someone Else was the Protagonist

I've been wanting to blog for a while about POV choices in writing, and actually that IS what I'm going to discuss today. But before that --

Yes, there's an anthology call out right now for speculative stories about coffee! Find a little more info about it here, but it sounds fun. Now I just need to come up with a story by the deadline at the end of August, right? I'm thinking a few cups of caffeinated fluids derived from pulverized roasted tree-beans should provide ample inspiration.

For someone who drinks an almost worrisome amount of coffee every day, this is totally something I should send a submission to! If not because I always write speculative fiction about coffee (I haven't yet, ever), then because, on principle, I should write such fiction. It's like loving cats and never writing a story about cats! Oh, wait, I haven't done that either, never mind ...

Don't tell my cat or she'll be furious.

But I wanted to write about Point of View choices in fiction! If you've read any how-to-write books, you know that POV can be split infinitely--some authors say there are 2 options when writing fiction, while others list over 30. If you can distinguish 30 different sorts of POV, why bother? Just lump them back together, because I can't keep track of all that!

It's really not that complicated to me. Either you write a story in first-person (I/me) or in third-person (she/her). I wrote a story in second-person once (you/your), but this is a morbidly limited POV. Whenever you read second-person, it sounds like a letter someone wrote telling you what to do, and for me comes off contrived virtually always.

I've never sold that second-person story, in case you're wondering, and I always roll my eyes when I have to read this in someone else's fiction. Stop telling me what to do! I'm not in your story, I'm just a reader--just passing through!

But here's what's been bothering me: I read the guidelines to a magazine somewhere the other day that explicitly stated they prefer third-person stories to first-person. Why? I thought. Then: Everything I'm writing these days is in first-person! Is this true of other publications and they just don't tell people? Is this a pan-cultural subconscious reality that people feel, but don't always articulate, and which now means I'm not going to sell anything ever ever ever again?

Then I thought: Hey, how many stories do I read on average that are first vs. third-person? What are the percentages? And honestly, this isn't the sort of thing that I notice when I read. I just read a story and if I like it, I like it. It's funny to think that I only really notice that a story is third-person when it uses the male main character's last name in place of his first name (see my blog from Monday, August 27, 2012 for an honest-to-dog rant on that topic), and I only notice first-person-ness when you never declare whether your character is male or female.

So come on, what's the big difference? Is there one, even? You could argue that a first-person perspective is more immediate, direct, and intimate. Just as you could argue it's less interesting in the sense that, well, if this character is narrating this story, obviously they lived through their adventure and, presumably, turned out all right. Unless it's an HP Lovecraft tale--in which case, it's first person but the narrator is now a gibbering blob of jell-o. And yes, he used first person because of its directness and intimacy in capturing the descent into madness which virtually all of his characters partook in.

But first person has its limits. For example, you can only follow one character, get inside of one mind (yes, I've seen this rule broken, but generally speaking ... ). What if you need the reader to know things that the main character doesn't? Then you can't use first person. What if the main character is the sort whose mind you don't want to get inside? Well, then I'd argue that this isn't a very good main character you've got, but that's just me.

The advantages to third person don't seem all that great or significant--so why would someone prefer it? I guess first person can start to sound narcissistic (I led the charge, I declared my love, I wrote a blog), but only if you don't know how to approach your topic properly. And it can be one-sided (although the point of a story is generally to follow ONE character through something that happens, and hopefully out the other end). And it can start to sound like wish-fulfillment, as though the author is putting herself into fantastical and self-serving situations. But third person can be abused in just the same way, so that a character becomes a cipher for the author's ideal self, solving crimes single-handedly while saving the day all in time for dinner!

But if you write realistic characters, what's the difference between the POV you use? Either way your characters can't be one-sided perfect heroes who are only weakened by kryptonite and witty banter with girls. They need to think and fail and question and struggle and not refer to themselves by their own last names in internal monologue. They need to exist in a world aware that it's there around them and they are not the center--or they need to have this belief come crashing down on their heads. They need to do more than be worshipped and loved and agreed with. In short, they need to be people who are not only convincing but interesting and, above all, worth rooting for.

What's the big difference between making the story about "me" or "her" if the same adventure is had? I still don't know, but maybe someday I'll write a story both ways and see what I find out.

No comments:

Post a Comment