Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Me, me, me, It's all about me...or is it?

Some people have the idea that publishers see the first person point of view (POV) as a bad thing. Literary agent Chip MacGregor says that he doesn’t believe this is the case, but he does go on to say why authors—particularly new authors—struggle with it:

Many first-person novels from beginning writers suffer from an overuse of the "I-verb" syndrome ("I started... I walked... I ate... I moved... I handed... I answered..."). That endless parade of I-verbs creates a really dull novel. First-person fiction can be great, but in my view it's harder to master than third person.Chip MacGregor’s Blog

What is an author to do? Conversationally, we use first person all the time. “I went to the store and I bought milk, bread and jelly beans. I ate the jelly beans on the way home.” Three uses of the word I in two sentences. You can imagine that a reader will tire of seeing this if a whole novel is written this way. We could rewrite this as, “I went to the store and bought milk, bread and jelly beans. The jelly beans didn’t make it home.” Now we’re down to a single I, but we also introduced a passive sentence, “The jelly beans didn’t make it home.” Why not? The reader will want to know. We already know that I ate them, but it could have just as easily have been that they fell out of the bag on the way to the car. That “I” is lurking and we have to add it sometime.

I chose to write How to Become a Bible Character in first person. I’m not going to tell you that you should use it as a master course on how to write in first person. If I were to do so, someone would read the book looking for I’s and every one would stand out. Even now, I’m rather self-conscious of all the I’s in this post. What I will say is that by turning the focus of the story outward, the narrator referred to himself much less he might have otherwise.

The narrator of How to Become a Bible Character is Wayne Hiller and he is right in the middle of the action, but if you’ve read the story, you may have noticed that this story isn’t about Wayne. He is a part of the story, but the story is about Neal and the church where Wayne is the associate pastor. Neal aspires to greatness, but he has a problem because his attempts at achieving his goal are failing, but our narrator is amazed at the things that are happening. The result is that while Wayne uses I a lot in talking about what he does throughout the day, much of the story is about other people, so he doesn’t talk so much about himself.

Whether it was because she was in an unusual situation, because she was pregnant or for some other reason I don’t know, but after Tina moved into Bumble Bee’s house she seemed so much more manageable. I’ll not go so far as to say that she was nice, but she tolerated us. That was a drastic change from her previous attitude in which she acted in such a way that I thought she must have had the Devil as a bedfellow. (page 214)

By turning the narrator’s attention outward, away from what he is doing and his inner feelings, toward other people, we avoid the overuse of the word I. And yes, there may be some who would argue that this removes some of the intimacy with the character, since we don’t read about his feelings. To that, I would say that when a character shows us what he sees, we don’t need him to tell us as much about what he is feeling because we are going to feel the same thing.