Ask Correia – Writing stuff, 1st vs. 3rd person

Recently I’ve gotten a bunch of questions via e-mail, blog comments, and Facebook. Apparently I have a reputation of like, knowing stuff, or something. It must be because I now, like all really important people, have my own Wikipedia entry. Not surprisingly the questions are mostly related to guns or writing, two things which I know more about than say, crocheting or racquetball.  I usually just stammer some answer, embarrassed that I snookered somebody into thinking I’ve got a clue, but I got a really good one yesterday that I had to think about, and I thought it might make a good blog post.

Dear Correia, should I use 1st person or 3rd person for my book?

Great question. Got this one on FB yesterday from an aspiring writer, (paraphrased obviously), and I told him that I’d have to think about it some.

I’ve written books in 1st and 3rd. I like them both, but for different reasons.  For those of you who didn’t pay any attention in high school English (don’t feel bad, neither did I, and now I get paid to make crap up) 1st person would be a story told where the narrator is a character, and everything is from their perspective.  This is like when you’re telling your friends a story. “So then I punched the grizzly bear in the face!”.  3rd person is an outside narrator talking about other characters. “Jim punched the grizzly bear in the face!”  You get the picture.

Either way Jim gets eaten by a bear, but the difference is what kind of story you want to tell.

In Monster Hunter International, Owen Pitt is the point of view character and everything is told through his eyes. The major plus side of 1st person is that you can tell a very detailed story and really get into one person’s head.  Internal dialog is easy, and you can get the reader into the narrator’s shoes.  The downside is that you are limited in that you can really only see what one character can see, so you can’t tell as big of a story.  (some people asked why MHI had the magical elements of jumping around and reliving another character’s memory, well, dirty little secret, it is because it allowed me to write in 1st person and tell a bigger story, because cheating is totally cool if you can get away with it, see below on cheating).   

The greatest trap of 1st person is doing the really boring – “I walked into the room. I saw Jim’s body. I saw the bear. I smelled the blood. I saw the bear smiling at me. I decided that Jim’s bear punching idea was bad.”   Please don’t do that. That is a boring travelogue. You can talk about how things are without directly running it through your narrator.  Things just are, so tell the story.  This is not a slide show, mix it up to keep your reader interested.  “There was Jim’s body, hopelessly mangled. Blood coated the walls. The bear smiled. Apparently Jim’s bear punching plan hadn’t worked out.”

MHI and MHV are written in 1st person, mostly because Owen Zastava Pitt is one really funny dude, and therefore it was more fun for me to write that way. And if it isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong.

3rd person lets you tell a bigger story because you’re not limited to just one character’s perspective. You can still get into people’s heads, but it tends to be harder to make it feel immediate.  The vast majority of fiction is in the 3rd person for this reason.  It is strategically hard to place one character at every single event of importance.  Hard Magic is written in the 3rd person because I wanted to write an epic fantasy (well, believe it or not, that is actually how it started).  I could still get into the character’s heads, but now my primary point of view characters were Jake Sullivan and Sally Faye Vierra, who get about half the scenes, then I’ve got Madi, Cornelius, Travelin’ Joe, Francis, Dan, Harkeness, Black Jack Pershing, and John Moses Browning who each get some scenes told from their perspective. There are even a few individual scenes told from a really minor person’s POV who you never really get to know, just because for that one second they had the most interesting take on the action. Like the minor gangster getting tossed out a window by a Heavy or a random guard who loses his head to a teleporting magic ninja.

The downside of this is that some people don’t like the jumping around.  Well, you can’t please everybody.  I think most of the airport-bookstore bestsellers are garbage too, so shows what I know.  With 3rd person, try to stay interesting.  A challenge is that it is harder to get inside all those other heads as convincingly, and it really does help if you tie everything together.

Now there are hybrids too, which can be considered cheating. Which I personally think is awesome, because if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying hard enough.  Dead Six is written in 1st person, but it has two narrators, which allows us to tell a much bigger story, because we’re not limited to just one person through all the events.  As a plus, because I’m co-writing this with Mike Kupari, and each of us has taken one PoV character as our own, the two have very distinct voices.  

Now in the sequel to D6, Swords of Exodus, the plot got even more complicated.  We had a few elements that there was absolutely no way either of our PoV characters could have known when we needed them to be known. So we cheated. We took one of the supporting characters (a really popular one) who was not even around for the events of SoE, and we gave his journals to one of our PoV characters. Problem solved. We stuck with our same format, but cheated and added in what was almost a third 1st person. (plus it turns out that Bob Lorenzo is a hard core conspiracy theorist/vigilante/bad ass, so that made for some damn good journal).

Like I said before, I cheated in MHI by using magic. I do so again in Monster Hunter Vendetta.  Why? Because I wanted to mix stuff up. I cheat, so you guys can be entertained.  Not everybody likes those parts, but then again, there were people that reviewed MHI who thought it would have been better with less action, fewer monsters, or not as many guns… so once again, you can’t make everybody happy, and some reviewers are just smoking crack.

There is a downside to cheating though.  You’ve got to be smooth to get away with it. If it is your first book, and you break the format away from tradition, it becomes that much harder to sell to an editor.  Nobody knows you. You are not famous. So don’t go nuts.

When originally asked on FB, I suggested that he should check out Dan Simmons’ Endymion.  It is written in 1st person and 3rd person in a very creative manner. He does something similar in the earlier Hyperion where it is seven stories retold in different ways by different narrators, and then gets even weirder in Illium. I’m talking 1st, 3rd, poetry, memory, journals, dreams, hell, for all I know there might be some 2nd in there, and I don’t even know what that means. But then I thought about it. That might not be the best example of how to do stuff, because he’s Dan Friggin’ Simmons, who I happen to think is probably the single most badass writer alive. Dan Simmons can do stuff like that, but most of the rest of us can’t, because he’s like the Michael Jordan of writing.  You can ask Michael Jordan how to play basketball, and he’ll just tell you to leap from half court through five defenders and dunk it backwards, because he’s just that awesome.

On that note, how would it be, to be Dan Simmons’ editor, and he comes to you and says, “Yeah, I want to write a book about the Trojan War, on Mars, only in the future/past, and there are space Jews on Earth, and killer Muslim robots, but it’s okay, because the space Jews teleport, but then they walk under the ocean to Peru, and there’s dinosaurs, and the giant heads from Easter Island, only they’re actually put there by characters from the Tempest, and the narrator is a dead college professor who gets it on with Helen of Troy and two robots from Jupiter, one of whom loves to quote Proust, and Odysseus, and this one narrator gets eaten by a Tyrannosaurs Rex on his first page, but he gets resurrected on a space station, and shit, did I mention the dinosaurs? Yeah, well, see the real bad guy is a giant space brain that devours everything, but it has to fight Zeus!“ and then, God bless him, that editor answered “Dan! F*** yeah! That’s awesome! I bet we win like twelve Hugos! Here’s a giant check full of money!”

I want to be Dan Simmons when I grow up, but then again, I did just sell a book featuring a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible in a world with bear cavalry, gangsters, wizards, and John Browning fighting the magic samurai of Imperial Japan with Tesla super weapons, so I’m working on it.

So really, I guess it comes down to what kind of story do you want to tell?  Does it have a plot that can be told by one person, that is more immediate, with a PoV that the reader will enjoy?  Then  do 1st person.  Is it bigger, and needs lots more PoV to get the story across? Then do 3rd.  And if you’re brilliant and everything you write sells 100,000 copies, screw the rules and do whatever you feel like… Or really, the big question is, which one do you like better?  That is the right answer for you. Go for it.

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