A trend in some genres today in the use of first-person-plural viewpoint. Especially in Urban Lit (although in others as well), I see tons of manuscripts written in this form. Most that come to me from that genre, actually. And writers are always stunned to hear that this is a cardinal sin.
“But x, y, z author writes that way!” is the common refrain.
Yep. And x, y, author is, well, famous. And once you’re a famous brand, you can write as badly as you want to as well and everybody will buy your book. Folks may not actually read said book, but will buy it. But that’s another story!
However, until you build a readership in the mid-six figures to bestsellerdom, you have to write stories and books that folks not only buy, but also read, and like, and tell their friends about.
“But readers don’t know what viewpoint something is written in!” is another defense.
And in most cases, true. Ask the average reader what viewpoint an author used, and she’ll look at you wide-eyed. The thing is, it’s not the reader’s job to know the ins and outs of good writing, but rather to be the beneficiary of such. Kinda like when you need brain surgery—you most likely don’t care the technique your surgeon uses, just that his track record is stellar.
“But first-person is so much closer for the reader!” writers argue.
This one is off the mark. It can surely seem to be so, especially to new writers. But third-person can be every bit as accessible to the reader if done well! It’s all in the skill set of the writer.
First-person viewpoint, by its inherent definition, is one viewpoint character and one alone through the entire story. It’s tough to pull off, for all the reasons that bubble up with that statement, even for seasoned authors. You’re very limited to that one person’s perceptions and senses and all that goes with that. Plus, if your readers don’t immediately bond with your Protagonist (like on page one), the boat sinks entirely. But we wouldn’t let that happen anyway, right? 🙂
It can also become monotonous—quick, in fact. So often writers want to also use Present Tense in first-person, and that monotony arrives before the first chapter ends.
Not so long ago—before the days of massive self-publishing—when writers had to hone that process and learn their craft and become good at what they did before even thinking of trying to bang on publishing’s door (which then took another bit of forever!), learning the rules was paramount. The easiest way to get a “No” from that agent or editor was by having glaring errors, up front.
And agents and editors do look for reasons to say no.
But now, why learn the rules if you’re just going to self-pub anyway? Who do you have to please?
Readers, that’s who. And though they can rarely tell you exactly what’s wrong with a book, they can sure tell you they didn’t finish it. And didn’t like it. And that’s what they tell their friends as well.
First-person is, indeed, easier for the writer. Because 99.9% of the time, what you get is merely the writer’s voice—no matter which character’s head we’re in. Which makes things confusing for the reader.
Because unless the writer identifies said narrator, we have no clue whose head this chapter/section/etc. we’re in. I.e., who’s narrating this part, and who we’re traveling with.
One of the toughest things in the world is to write multiple-first person and differentiate the voices. Steinbeck’s Winter of our Discontent was created this way, and masterfully. Then again he was, well, Steinbeck!
And boy, do writers then ever just tell the story. It’s all in their heads, right? So in their own voices, they tell a story about what happened to these characters. Nothing gets created, evoked, shown.
Even writers who have traveled the road a bit, and are a ways down it, get stuck in this first-person trap. A great exercise I have my writers do in this scenario is to rewrite a chapter (at least) in third-person. That gives you, as the writer, some distance. Which helps you to see the character’s part better, to experience what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, so that you can better evoke all of that for the reader.
Most of the time, writers get so caught up in it that they rewrite the entire book in third person. Much of the time it’s better. Sometimes, they go back and rewrite in first-person (singular! LOL) again.
But when that happens, they have a far greater picture of what they’re doing, what their characters are doing, and how to portray the story.
Can first-person plural be done well? Of course. Reference Steinbeck above. But it’s most often done quite badly.
Which all goes back to “learn the rules, and learn them well—long before you decide to break them.”
What rules have you loved to break?