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.

23 Responses

  1. You must be a mindreader. I had meant to ask you a question along these very lines, but decided not to bother you. I’m glad other people are less courteous than me. ;)

    Could you address the writing process you use in the future? How do you get started?

    Thank you.

  2. I struggled with this while working on “Alone: King of One” There were so many times that I wanted to jump into someone’s head. But since I was in 1st person I couldn’t do it. Until I finally decided to cheat and change the narrator for two chapters. Hey I couldn’t help it, the pre-teen M1 Carbine wielding Psi-Mage was too interesting a character to pass up.

    It was awesome! A lot of people complained about the shift in POV but I tried to not abuse it, and I had a good plot reason to do it, involving the spirit of an evil cat-monkey alien, possessing the body of the main character. Whoa now that I think about it, I might be halfway as insane as you Larry. :-D

    Oh I finally finished the first draft of Alone:King of One. If you get the chance to take a look at it, let me know what you think? Thanks.

    Everything else I’ve done so far has been 3rd person. And I do miss some of the closeness but the freedom is awesome.

    Right now I’m working on “Zombies!” (working title) It’s 3rd person with three characters right now. Actually four if you include the police dog. Hmm maybe I should write a segment from his POV.

  3. is Dan Simmons a code name for JOHN “MOTHER FRELLING” RINGO?

    you can tell me if it is. lol

    i’ll go check that guy out, i’ve never heard of him before.

    eh, john’s my favorite alive writer.

    now some one needs to learn how to bring folks back, like they do to Duncan Idaho

    and then Frank can write a book with john ringo and mr doc Travis can then add some awesome science in it.

    and you can write the intro and other things about the book cause you will make sure every one knows how bad ass it is!!!!

    • Ahhhh Ringo. If I ever meet that guy I’m going to punch him in the face and then give him the biggest hug of his life. The punch is for the ending of Eye of the Storm and Live Free or Die, the hug is for everything else.

      Oh, and Larry. When you say things like bear cavalry you make completely heterosexual males giggle with glee. Thanks jerk.

  4. For the record, Mordecai was my favorite character in MHI. If he came about to let you cheat by getting into Machado’s head, well, he turned out brilliantly, so I guess cheaters do prosper, eh?

  5. Larry,

    Here is a new writing question for you. What is the best way for a writer to include guns in his/her novel convincingly if he/she has little experience with them? I have ideas for novels involving a lot of firepower, but having lived in mostly gun-unfriendly states (NJ, MA) I don’t have enough experience (ok virtually none) to be able to write about them in a realistic manner. Thanks.

    -Scott

    • Get some experience. Get a “gun nut” to take you shooting. If you can’t do that don’t trust Hollywood. Most “gun movies” aren’t.

      Here are a few simple tips.

      #1. Bullets penetrate through a lot of stuff. Ducking behind that car door, interior door, or sheet rock wall will NOT save your sorry bum.

      #2. The thing that holds bullets in a semi-auto pistol, and rifles is called a magazine not a clip.

      #3. Rifles do a lot more damage than pistols. Usually.

      #4. .45ACP > 9mm

      #5. Typical bulletproof vests act like tissue paper when shot with rifle rounds.

      #6. The type of firearm a character carries says a lot about them. Do some research. Is you character a 30’s private eye, a Sergeant across the Rhine in ’44, a hunter in the backwoods, a cop in the present day, or a Space Marine? All of these characters will have firearms but they will all be completely different.

      #7. There are exceptions to every rule, except for #4 :-)

      • This is certainly bad advice, but I can’t help but add this: remember that you could probably get away with a bit more if you’re writing non-fiction.

        I once read a book that claimed that gun manufacturers were making handguns that are smaller, contain more bullets, and contain bigger bullets…those wily gun manufacturers are out for complete death and destruction! And so I made up my mind to purchase one of those 60mm 90-round handguns that could fit in the palm of your hand, as soon as the gun industry came out with one. Oh, and while we’re at it, I’d like advice on that concealed carry holster for my AR-15 “assault rifle” with bayonette and flare launcher.

        (Never mind that those three goals are completely contradictory, and result in compromised designs…but then, this book was called “Every Handgun is Pointed at YOU”, by the Violence Policy Center, and I somehow found it in the “non-fiction” section of the library.)

        Come to think of it, there’s a fun book especially for writers to give advice on how to write about guns. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the title of it…hopefully you’ll find this book, or something like it, in your research!

    • Research is the key. As stated above, ignore Hollywood. Go to sites such as http://www.m4carbine.net, http://www.thehighroad.us, http://www.thefiringline.com, http://www.akforum.net, http://www.pistol-training.com, and http://www.world.guns.ru, as well as the links from each site. You’ll be tempted to start asking questions but resist it at all costs. There have been threads on most every subject (including the proper way to hunt monsters) and some sites are less tolerant than others on hypothetical questions or questions which can be answered via a search. Many of these sites are loaded with professionals for whom shooting bad guys is in the job description so aspiring authors don’t fit into their worldview that well. However, the sites are exceedingly valuable resoruces. Be sure to crossreference everything you get with other sites to make sure.

  6. Great write-up, Larry. Very informative.

    I’ve always written in first person (because I’m lazy) but now I’m tempted to mix it up a bit with some later stuff and give third a try.

  7. Larry, you just gave me soo much to think about, stuff that I was just beginning to struggle with. Thanks!

  8. 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.

    See, it’s this ability to make me nearly fall out of my chair laughing that’s possibly the most awesome aspect of what you do…

  9. This post was more entertaining and fulfilling than a lot of books I’ve read. I’m not sure if that’s an indication of how awesome you are, or how much they sucked.

    Or maybe it’s both.

  10. When I want something serious and theoretical and philosophical I pick up Ayn Rand.
    When I want to laugh my ass off to the point of needing superglue to put it back on along with action and guns, rifles, shotguns, crossbows, flamethrowers and magical weapons that give wedgies, I come to you.
    Thanks for being man!

  11. Very few books are written in 2nd person. Probably the most famous are “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.

    “You see the bear crouching over Jack’s body. It lumbers towards you

    If you punch it in the face, turn to page 210.
    If you turn and run like hell, turn to page 211.
    If you cry and wet yourself, turn to page 212.”

    • I’m finishing up a book called “Practical Common Lisp”, and the “Practical” chapters that describe how you might design something is written in 2nd person. On the one hand, it makes sense, because 2nd person is useful for “how-to” books…on the other hand, I kindof wish it was written in 2nd person plural, using “we” instead of “you”. I don’t quite know why, but it might have something to do with the fact that the author is guiding me through these things, rather than me deciding for myself to do them…

      At least, I *think* using “we” instead of “you” is 2nd person plural…or perhaps it’s 1st person plural…but then, what would you call something like that Heinlein story with four distinct people sharing one body, if you were to write from their points of view all at once? If we’re not careful, we could end up with fractal points of view, I guess…

      • ‘We’ is first person plural (and an example of a correct formulation using “we is”).

        Technically, ‘you’ is the second person plural (‘thou’ is singular), but modern English has entirely adopted the more respectful form, which uses plural to address individuals (think of it as similar to the ‘royal “we”‘).

        I recommend ‘you-all’ any place you need to specifically use second person plural. Competing options ‘yinz’, ‘yous’, and ‘youse’ are too locale-specific. ‘You guys’ is similarly universal, but some people find it insulting.

  12. My name is Larry Correia. I write blog post about something else but in it I put bits about books I wrote but you cannot read yet. I poke you with a stick hahaha because it is funny to me.

    You never pass the opportunity to torture us! :)

  13. “…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…”
    And now you are going to make us wait for the rest.
    Y’know, you have a really, really sick sense of humor.

  14. > ” I bet we win like twelve Hugos! Here’s a giant check full of money!”

    Still laughing about this three minutes later…

  15. Awesome and informative. Very encouraging for a musician with major writers’ envy (I play music for a living and I write to get away from it all).

  16. So, this was one of the questions I had for the Kaffeeklatsch today, but I didn’t want to make it run long and keep you from your ultimately more important things going on after (no sarcasm meant here, all superlatives sincere). Anyway the question to do with perspective was: Why do you often poke fun at Twilight, when it and MHI are both written in first person? When I first met you, it must’ve been after Baen had bought your MHI story and you were doing a signing at B&N at the Jordan Landing. You told me your book was “the anti-Twilight”. In some ways that was an accurate description (and obviously an adequate one, since I was hooked enough to buy the book, although I also bought it because you were a local writer and I have sworn solemn oath to support everything local), but it is in first person, which I didn’t notice until I got it home to read it. So at first, I thought I was cheated because it was just another “first person pulp”…except for the excellent writing. Even Raymond Chandler did first person perspective, but because the characters he invented are so interesting, it’s fun to be in their heads. Same with Owen. My peeve is that this first person diary style is so trendy lately–and I don’t like reading diaries. You probably won’t be surprised to know that I enjoyed your Hard Magic books better than Monster Hunter. (Side note: Women absolutely love first person diary style. So to all of Larry’s “listeners”: if you’re writing for women, yes, go ahead and do it in first person.)

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