Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, January 27, 2014

Wait. A first person narrative isn't serious???

In the course of the discussion last Wednesday about choosing your novel's perspective, there were a few comments that completely blew my mind, in the sense of the Death Star exploding into a million pieces. Here they are (emphasis mine):
Lane Diamond: I started out my first book as a third-person tight POV (protagonist), because so many literary agents indicated they profoundly disliked first-person narratives (no doubt because they tend to devolved into a narcissistic string of I, I, I, I, I, I, I). 
Shawn: My first agent told me that First Person was the mark of an immature writer. She said that in this era, it has no place outside MG and some YA. She said it was solipsistic, in only the way a kid could be solipsistic. Oh, man, in graduate school they pounded it into our heads that third person was "the" way to go, that first-person was a weaker perspective, that it wasn't respected--that no one would take a first-person narrator seriously. Well! Excuse me, stuffy professors, but I feel that you were quite wrong. 


Deep breaths. Deep breaths.


Apparently there are literary agents and professors and all kinds of ostensibly rational people out there who think first person narratives are somehow unserious.

Yes, the perspective employed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, by Vladimir Nabakov in Lolita by Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint (I COULD GO ON)... This perspective is unserious?

Oh, but those are older examples you say. Well, what about Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon, The Secret History by Donna Tartt I COULD GO ON.

I'm sure there are some people out there who don't like first person. Fine! Don't read first person books. But to call it unserious is completely crazy.


Bryan Russell said...

Yeah, that would pretty much scupper my love of epistolary novels, too.

Clara Callan?
We Need to Talk About Kevin?

Lane Diamond said...

Yep. That irritated the crap out of me when I saw it as several literary agents' sites. It took me a while to decide to ignore it, but I'm glad I did. :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think this is a weird perspective. I actually think first person is harder to do well because it's more limiting than third person.

Matthew MacNish said...

That's just silly.

Coryl o'Reilly said...

It could be because so many novels have been written with poor/repetitive sentence structure, in the form of "I did this. I did this. I did this." In that way, the repetition is more obvious due to the pronoun being (quite necessarily) repeated. It's not like that doesn't happen in third person, but it is less obvious when there are multiple characters and things to describe.

But yeah. Any literary folk who discriminate against a specific POV or narration style are bordering on scum.

Josin L. McQuein said...

The problem isn't first person, second person or third person, and the problem isn't past tense or present tense. The problem is implementation.

IF you're reading a novel - any novel, any genre - and you're thinking about the POV, then it's not done well. POV should be like punctuation; it should blend seamlessly into the narrative so that it's a tool rather than a defining feature.

You don't consciously notice every set of quotation marks, yet you can tell when a character is speaking. (Or, if you're reading The Road, you'll know when they're speaking without them.)Quotations are markers and tools to clue a reader in to what's happening, but if done right, they'll eventually become invisible.

POV should be invisible. The first page tells you if you're in the MC's head or not, and from there it's all about the story. You shouldn't still be thinking about POV on page 5.

Stephen said...

First Person POV novels are uncommon, but to say that a writer is not serious after he/she spends months and 300+ pages on a novel...

I disagree with the agents. Was J.D. Salinger not serious? Is Lee Childs not serious?

To be fair, I have read elsewhere (maybe it was in Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress) that the first person POV is actually more difficult to write than a third person POV. I would say it takes a serious writer to pull it off.

Thank you for posting this. This mindset against first person POV is an unfair position, and it seeks, in my opinion, to put the dollar before the art.

Shawn said...

Well, let's parse your examples for a second.

Group One Examples: The most recent example you provide was Portnoy's Complaint, 1969. This is a bit like offering up Pilgrim's Progress as a case for why Full Storyteller Omniscient is a relevant voice choice in 2014.

Group Two Examples: The "oldest" 1P narrator is Richard from The Secret History, who is a college student. All the rest of the 1P narrators are younger.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a good example, but again... You're pointing to the exceptions that prove the rule.

And -- of course -- if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: The "rules" for your second published book are much less onerous than the rules for your breakout book.

Hey, I can (and have) ripped out a 90K word 1P novel in six weeks. First Person is EASY. It dramatically limits the complexity of events you must convey. The perspective is already fixed. Eee. Zee.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, I've heard the knock on first person POV, but I've decided that--like some other rules--is good for a beginner but can be ignored by someone who truly understands the craft of stringing words together that will hold the attention of the reader. A more modern example: the late Robert B. Parker, whose novels gather no dust on my shelves because I read them again and again.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's not the case - in Never Let Me Go the narrator starts young but by the end of the novel is well into her twenties. Nowhere Man and Everything Is Illuminated are also narrated by adults. In fact I'm pretty sure Richard is the youngest narrator in that group, not the oldest.

Shawn said...

Ooops. While I was keyboarding out a wordy diatribe on First Person being easier to write, the collective chimed in with the assertion that it's actually more difficult.

I'm the designated blog contrarian once again.

Anonymous says "I actually think first person is harder to do well because it's more limiting than third person."

That is precisely why I find it easier. The author's catalog of choices is much smaller.

Painting by numbers with a 18 color paint set is easier than standing in front of a blank canvas with a box of 2000 tubes of oil paints.

Shawn said...


I saw "Everything's Illuminated" and my brain read "Unbelievably Loud and Incredibly Close."

You're right. Mostly. The narrator of Illuminated is a rather young man.

And I swear you added "Nowhere Man" in a blog update because I totally missed that. My bad.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that limiting the perspective is easier. IMO, it's easier to do third person because you don't have to be as careful about perspective. (I've done both.)If you are making the story simpler because you are doing first person, I would venture to say that's why editors think first person is usually badly done.

I don't think any of the plots that Nathan used as examples could be considered "simple" plots. Some are very internal struggles, but none are simple.

Peter Dudley said...

Shawn, while I see your point about limited options in first person, that doesn't make it easier. It only makes it easier if you accept the idea that a masterpiece can't be painted with just 18 colors.

Complex plots with significant action taking place in other times/places are very difficult to manage in first person. Other characters' motivations, feelings, thoughts, and even actions are far more difficult to present well in first person.

I'm not a painter, but I bet it's a lot easier to paint if you have 2,000 colors at your disposal. If you have only 18, you have to use those 18 to make all the shades and shadows and depth and richness you can easily get with a bigger palette. (Assuming that you want to create something beautiful. If your only goal is to fill the blank space with color, then yeah, you're probably right.)

The real problem with the advice about first person being non-serious is that it's market driven herd mentality. It's the "what can I sell" aspect of publishing.

Shawn said...

Yes, no doubt that a Master can paint a masterpiece with three hues of paint.

The problem is not a shortage of paint. The problem is the shortage of Masters.

Perhaps Peter, Anonymous, and I can half-concede and meet in the middle.

First Person narrative is like the bass guitar: easy to learn, but difficult to master.

And, for the record, I've got nothing against First Person when it's done well. I was shamed by an "authority figure" and I made a choice not to write it again.

L.G. Smith said...

Yeah, that kind of blanket dismissal drives me nuts. Some of my favorite novels are first person. Gone Girl is a very recent example of how it can get you dangerously deep inside the mind of the protagonist. It's all a matter of execution.

Jaimie said...

I can understand the accusation that first person "isn't serious."

Let's think about why "12 Years a Slave" is going to win the Oscar over "Her." (And my point is redacted if this proves untrue, WHICH I DOUBT. At the very least, Her isn't going to win.)

Her is a really tight narrative about one specific incident and how it affects one man. 12 Years a Slave tells a broader story about history, slavery, culture. How one person (Cumberbatch) can try to be good in the face of evil. How another (Fassbender) can use widespread evil to cloak his evil inside. How humanity must sometimes accept and believe the inhumanity being imposed upon them in order to "survive," and what is "surviving" anyway? I could go on.

Her has more depth than I mentioned, but I highly doubt the Academy would call it as "serious."

My point is: I can understand why people would consider "more serious" stories which cover broad strokes over stories which really, really immerse you for however long.

As for me, I enjoy both. A lot of good prose can come of first person, like The Great Gatsby, as you mentioned.

Steve MC said...

The Heart of Darkness, Too Loud a Solitude, Fight Club, The Bell Jar, Deliverance...

And yet I heard just the same in college and in literary books on writing. Made me really doubt myself.

Finally I was like Huck Finn: "All right then, I'll go to hell!" And only then began to find people on my side.

I seem to be doing first person mostly. It’s for me a way of gaining stylistic freedom. I’m able to use conversational tones and rhythms that give great expressive value and appeal for me. I can turn the volume up and down within a single sentence. I can slip in and out of the kind of colloquial talk and the kind of formal talk I’m partial to. And of course it’s the “I” who can be most intimate, who speaks in confidence, who tells us secrets.
- Philip Roth

abc said...

Right on, Bransford Man!

Anma Natsu said...

While I'm not a fan of first person POV in particular, I also strongly disagree with the idea that it is "amateur" or somehow less anything than any other POV.

I've also seen comments like those on some well known writing sites - that first-person POV has too many Is in it...I just shake my head in amazement. I mean really, the narrator isn't supposed to tell their story without using the word I or me???

I'd also disagree with the idea that it is rare or somehow antiquated, as I have turned away from many recent books because they are first person POV and I rarely enjoy reading that style. I just can't believe it is "hard to find" if I can pick up 5 random selections from the bookshelf or from Amazon and 3-5 of those will be first person POV.

Nat Russo said...

The only problem I've ever had with first person PoV is poor implementation on the part of the writer. But that can be said about any tool in the craftsman's toolbox.

I, too, have heard the complaint about too many "I"s. But hey, I've seen third person PoV use too many "he"s and "she"s!

It's about mastery of the craft. Personally, I don't think I could pull off a novel-length work in first person. I don't think it fits my writing style. Oh don't get me wrong...I'm going to try it someday. I just have a feeling it's not going to be enjoyable for me, or well done. And I'm not going to publish crap.

I've read books in first person that I absolutely loved, and some I absolutely hated. But it had little to do with the PoV, and a LOT to do with the skill of the writer.

Mirka Breen said...

These generalizations are marks of laziness. Lazy thinking is not the sole provenance of agents, but it does make the profession look, well, thoughtless.
That said, The Catcher in the Rye made for an almost-take-over by first person narration.

Anonymous said...

The problem with first-person is that it's a gateway to the true abomination: present tense.

Achilles Hammond said...

I don't think any POV is easy cause writing a good book ain't easy.

By the way, Moby starts out in first person then goes into a version of third, doesn't it?

Interesting discussion.

Stoich91 said...

The Book Thief!
The Fault in Our Stars!
Diary of a Wimpy Kid!
Who said books can't be successful in 1st person? These books, although MG/YA, have sold more copies than most 3rd person ever dare to sell. If 1st person is the exposition you write in, write! said...

Hey, you mentioned my comment, how cool is that? Thanks so much, Nathan. Great post.
This reminds me of when I shopped my memoir around a few years ago and the editor of a large NY publishing house commented it would be stronger in third-person. Hello! It's a memoir! Too funny. It never ends, no?

laurakcowan said...

Oh. My God. Too bad that even though I usually write in 3rd P those novels are some of my favorites. The more I hear about advice agents give (is there a book Sh*t Agents Say yet?) the more I want to run screaming away to preserve my artistic development process. Oh. My God. I don't remember my professors in my language and lit undergrad program saying this, though, even though they were top ten school snobby in terms of dead white guy literature being the only serious literature.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I find the idea that you must write in only one way or POV or tense profoundly unserious.

Jan M. Leotti said...

Shame on those professors for teaching narrow-mindedness. There are many great novels written in first person. Most have already been mentioned.

An agent's primary job is to sell your work, so if they don't feel they can sell first person POV, they won't take it on. However, if first person becomes all the rage, watch what happens to their opinions... I'm not slamming agents here. It's what they need to do to survive.

I don't believe any aspect of writing comes without practice and hard work. If writing first person is done well, it's a joy to read, as is any other POV done well.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

As a writer, I find first person intimidating and believe it takes a gifted writer to carry it off. It's very serious writing.

Jan M. Leotti said...

Susan Kaye Quinn: Ha! Agreed!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I'm with Matthew MacNish and Susan Kaye Quinn on this.

Toby Neal said...

I just had to come out of my email and all the way to your blog to comment on the excellent WTF gif.
Also, I think first person is HARDER to do well because its so EASY to become whiny, dislikeable and self involved... which is why, out of 9 novels, I've only done it once and that for my literary suspense.
More two cents...maybe these folks are jaded by a lot of bad first person, and I guess I can sympathize with that...but well done, it's the most powerful INMO.

Mark Noce said...

This surprises me because all the agents at the SFWC every year say the opposite, how much they dislike 3rd person and prefer 1st person. I often heard the same in grad school from professors. I even changed from writing 3rd person to 1st person just to get more competitive. Go figure.

Nicole L Rivera said...

I was told that in a critique group when I suggested the author might wan to try the story in first person. She told me that was for amateurs. I preceded to hand around my work for critique--that was in first person. (Shamelessly, I might add, because this comment infuriated me).

G. B. Miller said...

I did my first novel in the traditional 3rd person, but with a bunch of novellas sitting in my not-quite-slush pile, I decided to redo one in the first person.

While re-writing drove me nutty at times (for every 10 pages in 1st, a few paragraphs in 3rd), it was a worthwhile challenge. Plus I got some decent feedback on it as well.

Personally, I think 2nd is the hardest to write in.

adan said...

"so" very good to hear, uh, read this ;-)

& with simple direct examples -

thank you nathan :-)

"I" needed that!

Cordia Pearson said...

Oh, freakin' bite me.

You've never written 1st Person POV if you think it immature, easy and (again, Bite Me!)self-absorbed. (Yeah, you, miz agent. Why use a simple word when you can be pretentious?

Thanks, Nathan. One more thing to want to go pound sand into said rat hole.

gwenstephens said...

I tend to think it's a matter of personal taste, whether one likes or is turned off by first person. And a writer needs to tell the story that's in her, in POV that best represents the story and how it will appeal to its readers. Teens are by nature "all about me," so perhaps that's why first person is so common and works so well in YA.

Anonymous said...

Something Happened. That could not have been written in anything but the first person and it is a tremendous, significant work.

Lisa Shafer said...

My first thought was, "So, Edgar Allan Poe was 'an immature writer'?"

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I couldn't agree with you more!
See what I did there? I became your voice in your head, didn't it?

To declare a perspective the sign of an immature writer is to declare oneself an immature reader, who needs separation from the narrator and therefore story to prevent from incorporating it too personally.

It's like saying all intimate conversations should be conducted in third-person. So nobody gets hurt.


(Full disclosure: I find first person narrative the most effective means of conveying a story, of involving a reader in a story, as opposed to turning the reader into an audience)

Lori Schafer said...

The whole thing's silly. I mean, how would we react if an art critic said, "Oh, no! That painter must have no talent - all of his models are clothed. 'Real' artists paint nudes." As long as people appreciate the work, why put all of these rules and regulations on what's acceptable in art? It's not a matter of what's easier or harder, either. Some writers are going to be more comfortable with 1st person, and some with 3rd - just like their readers. It's a personal preference. Bad grammar may be a sign of an immature writer, but choice of perspective is not.

Stephen Parrish said...

The "don't write in first person" advice is ubiquitous and entrenched. It might have first come from Saul Bellow, who advised strongly against it even though, of course, he employed it: "Do as I say, not as I do."

I classify this advice with other origin-unknown dictates, like "Don't anthropomorphize picture books" even though many of our childhood favorites did so (The Little Engine That Could, etc.).

We love first person if it's well done, because we're inside the protagonist's head in a way no other perspective will invite. And our kids love inanimate objects coming to life in stories because it makes the stories magical. And agents who broadly disallow perspectives and styles and world views will miss out on some of those rare gems everyone's looking for in the gravel.

wendy said...

LOL at your ani gif.

One of my first, epublished, books for children was in first person, and I think the more effective for that as the POV character was slightly unreliable leading to a surprise ending.

Hope my comments on that blog post didn't offend, btw. 0.o

Tina OReilly said...

I was told the same thing by an agent last year at a conference. 1st person pov seems to have a bad rap.

Marion said...

I'm on the side that first person is easier.
A poet is limited in their choices. I have heard poets say that those limits are liberating. Is poetry an inferior art? I don't think so!
And "you can't paint a masterpiece using just 18 colors." Huh?! Van Gogh had a palette of about 7 colors, they say. It's all about how he laid the color on the canvas. Of course, most of Van Gogh's contemporaries said his work was garbage. There's no accounting for taste.

Suzanne said...

If I could hug this post I would!

Proud to be a first person and *gasps* present tense writer, and I'm deadly serious about both!

Inkling said...

A first-person narrative not serious? What nonsense! You can hardly get more serious that describing what it's like to work in a hospital caring for children with cancer and yet that's precisely what a non-fiction book I wrote, My Nights with Leukemia, is about.

And how about The Diary of Anne Frank? Is she being narcissistic?

Narcissism is self-obsession or self-love, it can be as much a part of a third person tale as one in the first person. "John Smith is the smartest person in the world" (written by John Smith) is as narcissistic as "I am the smartest person in the world," said by John Smith.

The advantage of first-person is that it more readily allows an author to get inside the mind of the leading character than third person. It also allows the author to talk, one on one, with the reader.

thewriteedge said...

The Hunger Games is filed in the YA section and is told in first person, and yet what struck me more than anything else is the seriousness of the issues Katniss faces. She lives in a reality where children are forced to kill one another, for goodness sake! Where they're taught that in the name of politics and, really, entertainment, it's okay to kill and form strategies on how to carry out mini wars against one another. Can you possibly tell me what could be more serious than that?

Bob said...

I consider Raymond Chandler the master of first person, and without I in every sentence.

When choosing a POV, learn your craft well because as a reviewer I've seen some bad writing that sells, which reflects badly upon all authors.

starbaby017 said...

I write and prefer to read stories told in first person present tense. I read others too, but I can connect with and get sucked into to those that are in first person a lot quicker than any other POV. Why? I'm not sure, but I do have a theory. First person gaming. Yes, that's right. Now hear me out. I loved to play games where they were created to make it seem like I was the main character. After a long day at school or work or whatever I could come home, turn on my PS3 and go shoot some bad guys, save a princess, or dance my buns off. Reading in first person present tense is the SAME THING to me. Sure, I can read about what a character is doing, and it can be fun, but I would rather feel like I'm the character. That I've escaped my world and have been deposited into whatever book I'm reading. I hated high school, but reading YA's and experiencing it again through someone else is fun. Same thing with slaying monsters, falling in love, figuring out who killed who with a candle stick, and damn that silver tie...
And for those that think it's EASY, try spending every free minute pouring your heart, soul, sweat, and tears into a 70k-100k novel only to have it criticized by agents, editors, and FELLOW AUTHORS. Real easy.
Personally, as long as a book gets people to read it, who cares what style the author wrote it in. If every book was the same, it would be boring.
I don't care what you write or how you write it. We're all following the same dream and I think that's pretty awesome.

Kathleen said...

I write first person present because I like to know what's in my protagonist's head. Sometimes, even if you are writing in 3rd, writing a scene in 1st helps you understand your character better. Read what you like and write in the POV that "speaks" to you.

Ann Chamberlin said...

I was told by my NY publisher that they would not take anything else by me in first person. Indeed, they didn't. Maybe that means I am in hell, nor am I out of it. Sometimes I mix, to be in different heads. But I really have to say, for my genre (historical Fiction) I think nothing brings the past to life like I.

Anonymous said...

First person sells. Readers love it for some reason. It's the elite that shun FP and why we don't see more from trad publishers.

Lauren B. said...

When I see First Person in a lot of YA or unpublished writing, it tends to annoy me mostly because it's written 'as though' it's third person-- a play-by-play of events as they happen. Hence the overuse of I's.

It doesn't read like how one would be speaking naturally if telling a story to someone else. i.e "I looked in the mirror and ran my fingers through my long blond tangles." (egregiously bad example to make my point.)

To me, the most successful first person is when the narrator is clearly speaking TO somebody, whether it's the reader or someone 'off screen'. And they are speaking with an agenda, whether or not that agenda is clear. Like Humbert Humbert, Holden Caulfield, Offred, etc.

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Nina Niskanen said...

I once posted a short story on Online Writing workshop for comments and one of the comments was that while they thought the story in itself was competent and even good, they thought that the first person POV was always unprofessional. Not my execution of said POV but that there was no way to execute first-person in a professional manner. They also provided links to academics and literary agents who said the same thing. To say I was dumbstruck by the comment would have been understating things.

Jason Bougger said...

I never realized that some people in "the business" have such a low opinion of first person POV.

I never really think about it, and just write what feels natural. I've got one YA novel I'm querying that I feel needs to be first person, but then another with multiple characters that has to be third person.

Most of the YA books I've read are in the first person, so I just assumed that's the standard.

I've switched back and forth in revisions of short stories and usually end up with a POV I'm happy with.

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