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Monday, July 6, 2009

Breaking the Rules

I've read some perspectives on points of view recently, primarily first person, that I find myself disagreeing with.

Nancy Kress in her book, "Characters, Emotions, and Points of View" writes that in first person, it is like you're in their head all the time, so you can't do multiple points of view (though she suggest there are novels that do that successfully). And in first person, the point of view is artificial compared to others, in that people don't go through life giving a word-for-word accounting of what they were thinking or a dialog that took place.

I understand where she was coming from, and who am I, a newbie published author, telling Nancy Kress she's wrong? But I don't feel that first person is any more artificial than third person. In each case, what you have is someone telling a story. In third person, it is someone telling a story about someone else. In first, someone is telling their own story. In either case, it would be artificial for them to recall word-for-word dialog and details. On that point, third person is just as artificial. That's what it all boils down to. People realize that fact and generally accept it in trade for having the feeling of "being there" with the character and sinking into the story. No narrator is going to have that much detail at their fingertips. As a matter of fact, one would expect a first person narrator to know more of the details than a third person narrator.

I've also heard it said that scene breaks are not proper for a first person point of view. In a stream-of-consciousness story, I would suggest that would be true. That is the only type of story where you are in someone's head without break. But if you can have scene breaks in third, you can in first as well. After all, if someone is telling us a story, no matter who it is about, and they want to skip over the parts that don't really move the story along, why would you include that?

To put it another way, if I'm telling my son about something that happened to me and I wanted to dramatize it, it would be natural for me to skip over the parts that weren't relevant to the story. Same as third person. Scene breaks in first person are quite natural, in fact and don't violate the point of view.

I think what confuses people is that first person is automatically associated with a close first person. For by default, that is what most first person is. It is one of the advantages of first person, down to being able to see things the way the character sees them, even if it is wrong and not the truth. Out of all the points of view, you can get the closest to a character in it. So when it is used, it tends to be used with that goal in mind.

But, you can have a more distant first person. This is a case where the narrator "I" becomes more overt, just like in distant third or even omniscient. Yes, there is an omniscient first. But it is not the same as omniscient third. In first, you don't jump from head to head at will. However, it is the blatantly overt narrator who already knows how the story will play out, and may make comments like, "If I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have entered that building." They're omniscient in the sense they will look over the whole story as it is being told, knowing how it all fits together, who will do what, and how it all will end. It is more like sitting by a fire while your uncle tells you a story from when he was in the war.

So first person can have distance like third can, or be close where the narrator, though there, is invisible and you're reading it "as it happened." But the past tense still says, "this happened in the past so someone is telling you this after the fact." It is still narrated and so can take all the same rules that a third person narration would take. What changes that is whether either is close or more distant.

Another assumed rule about first person is that you cannot write a first person story where the point of view character dies. The idea is, who is telling you the story? If it is past tense, which most first person is, then that assumes you have a dead narrator telling you the story. How can that be? Third person avoids that because it is someone else who is narrating.

But I'm not that hung up on that issue. Here's why. The above only holds true if you're of the belief that once you die, that's the end of things. You pass away into oblivion and exist no more. But there are plenty of beliefs out there which would say otherwise--that say you do continue to live on in another state. And in many of these beliefs, there are stories of people who have come back to help others or talk to them. Christianity, for example, has plenty of stories of saints returning to guide someone in need. It would not be hard to imagine that such a person has returned in spirit form to tell his or her story. This explanation even works for mainstream, but certainly for fantasy and non-hard science fiction.

So, whether such a "framing story" is explicitly stated or not, I find it probably that you could have a narrator telling us his or her story who no longer is bound by this life. But on this issue, the practical reality is that there are a lot of editors out there who see it differently. So violate at your own risk. I've had stories rejected because my first person point of view character died.

If you find yourself in such a situation, there are three things you can do. One is to create that framing story explicitly. Have the ghost return to tell someone his story. Maybe he can't be released from this world until he gets it off his chest. We've seen such stories, so making it into a framing story would help make sense of the first person character dying in the end.

Two, convert your story to third person. You can keep it in a close third and not lose much. But if your plot depends on the reader seeing an untruth as true through the first person point of view, you could consider the third option, as unlikely as you are to use it.

Three, you could convert your story to a first person, presence tense. Being in presence tense, your story ends when the character dies...because he's the narrator. But since it is present tense, you can take the narration right up to when he or she dies. But, you'll have to balance what you gain from that with what you lose, which is difficulty in the reader adjusting to a hard-to-swallow point of view. Few like present tense for a story. I've read one, and it did take about three to five chapters before I wasn't thinking about the oddness of it. It takes some skill to write one that people will accept.

A possible fourth option, though it may not fly with an editor, is to explain in your cover letter why you're using first person past point of view even though your character dies in the end. Acknowledging that you're aware of this fact, and you are doing it on purpose for a specific reason may be enough for the editor to give it a chance.

In my Reality series, I use first person point of view in a semi-unique way. The basic rule is that the first person point of view follows the ring. You get a hint of that in the recently released book, "Transforming Realities," but it comes out even stronger in the last book, yet to be published, "The Reality." Because of that, I've done a couple of unconventional things. But as you can tell by this post, I'm not opposed to breaking the "rules" when I have a reason to do so. And I disagree with some of the rules given to begin with, radical that I am.

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