Writing in First Person Totally Kicks Ass

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Best selling stories are impossible to put down after ten pages or so. What hooks me is the bond I feel with the main character. I have to sense that she should be a friend of mine.

As my son the psychologist-in-training tells me, so far the only scientifically documented difference between people with friends and people without friends is their ability to share feelings.

If you want your reader to love your hero, that protagonist has to share her feelings with the reader, but not necessarily with the other characters.

The single most effective way to nudge your work in this direction is to write in first person. (“I” instead of “he” or “she”.) This makes it seem like your hero is divulging secret emotions to the reader in a way that she wouldn’t do with anyone else in the world.

Here’s an example from The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins:

“I want to tell him that he’s not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena. That I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do really have feelings for him it doesn’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children. And how can he? How can he after what we’ve just been through?

“I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.”

You might say there’s not much dialogue in The Hunger Games. That’s true, except for the fact that it’s all dialogue.

The whole story is Katniss talking to me. Occasionally she looks over into my eyes while I’m reading to see if I really get what she’s just said. You know?

It’s possible for the hero to talk fairly directly to the reader in a second-person story, too, but it’s more difficult, sometimes awkward and less intimate.

See if I’m right. Here’s part of the same passage of Hunger Games with one small change, it’s now re-written (ruined by me, please forgive) in second person:

“She wants to tell him that he’s not being fair. That the two of them were strangers. That she did what it took to stay alive, to keep them both alive in the arena. That she can’t explain how things are with Gale because she doesn’t know herself…”

To me this sounds relatively clinical, removed from the raw emotion.

Now I know what you’re thinking… you were wondering what I did on Dec. 27, 2012.

Here’s the true story. I’ve written it in first person.

There were three of us. The white water sucked us downstream toward a giant log that had fallen across Washington’s Elochoman River, blocking the whole thing.

Just before aluminum hit pine, our guide, the only man in the drift boat with any experience shouted, “We’re going to lose the boat. We’re f~~ed!”

I didn’t say anything, but I wondered how badly f–ed we were exactly. Certainly he didn’t mean dead. Did he?

We hit the log and stopped instantly as the river rushed on around us. The guide and my son-in law crawled out to the left on the log, but I had to crawl out to the right because there wasn’t time to stand around waiting for the boat to flip. On my side, the log tapered to about the width of a telephone poll. It might have been slippery, I think. My left knee slid off and before I knew it, I was dangling with my legs downstream in the whitewater.

If I’d fallen to the right, on the upstream side of the log, I would have been dragged under and, hopefully, pushed out the other side. But people don’t generally make it all the way under logs in these circumstances. They get dragged under, and they drown. So I’m told.

Next thing, I hear the guide’s terrified voice, “Oh no, Talmage!” Too ignorant to be afraid, I said calmly, “I’m cool. I can hang here all day like this, no problem. Save your boat.”

I dangled there as the whitewater pulled my camo pants down over my ankles. It sounds pretty, but my jeans stayed up, so we’re good. My fingertips found bumps on the log, and I held on there for the longest time while the other two saved the boat.

When the big guy, my son-in-law, came over, he grabbed my right wrist and pulled like hell, but I must have weighed a lot more than usual with the wet coat and wet jeans, and boots full of water, so he finally had to give up. Actually, I had to convince him to give up, and then insist that he let me go.

“OK, let go!” I says. And he does.

The December rapids took me, and honestly, the water felt warm compared to the idea of drowning. Breathing water scares me a little.

With my outer pants around my feet like chains, I couldn’t swim much, but I finally found the bottom of the river with my feet and pushed off toward the edge, caught a small log that was hanging from the bank, jumped up and crawled onto it. It must have taken me fifteen minutes on that log to undo the velcro around my ankles and free myself from those camo pants. I felt old.

And lucky.

But let me tell you something that went through my head while I was hanging by my fingertips off that first log, waiting for my son-in-law to hopefully fish me out. It was a prayer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get religious on you. I just want you to hear what I said, verbatim:

“I hope you can get me out of this.”

That was it. There wasn’t any, “Dear God,” or “please” or anything else.

Obviously I’m not saying a miracle was involved, or that my mortal hide is worth God’s time in any way. I just think my prayer sort of shows where my head’s at with this divine intervention thing.

I’m not sure, but I think God’s hands are sometimes tied by the cause-and-effect web of our own free choices. Our free wills. Without natural consequences, there couldn’t be free choice. Therefore sh-t must happen if human beings are going to exist in a non-robotic state.

If the deacons will please rise for the morning offering. Sorry, was that too religious?

First person story telling, though. I like how it feels, don’t you?

Suppose someone told you that same story in second person. It wouldn’t feel like we got to know each other at all, would it?

Writing complex stories in first person is said to be difficult or impossible because a vp protagonist can’t be in more than one place at a time. That’s got to be true, I guess.

But what’s more important to you, touching millions of people with your soul, or writing a grand, complex story that only a few beyond your inner circle of brilliant writers will ever appreciate?

There are many reasons why writing in first person isn’t the default mode for most authors. I get it. I myself am not yet comfortable writing my female protagonist’s story in first person, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and I doubt I could fake it in first person where everything is raw and totally exposed. And I’m too in love with my protagonist to start another story without her. Maybe this is the “sentimentalism” that some great authors say they hate.

So shoot me.

But a zillion readers, all hammering through your book to the end, telling people what a night they’ve had with your hero? If you write in first person you’ll get the emotions from your hero to your reader more powerfully and more naturally than you probably will in second person. Try it if you don’t believe me.

Check this out, now. It’s Katniss again…

“As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I’m not prepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-two tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time. My heart starts pounding and I have a strong impulse to run. How have the other victors faced this alone? During the highlights they periodically show the winner’s reaction up on a box in the corner of the screen. I think back to earlier years… some are triumphant, pumping their fists in the air, beating their chests. Most just seem stunned. All I know is that the only thing keeping me on this love seat is Peta – his arm around my shoulder, his other hand claimed by both of mine. Of course the previous victors didn’t have the Capitol looking for a way to destroy them.”

Can you feel the draw of this special person, Katniss, telling you every detail of how she feels?

 The contrast between how openly and honestly she speaks of her feeling to the reader, and how much she hides from other characters creates a bond, too.

See if you can’t go back and rewrite one of your second-person babies in first person. Or start something new in first person.

I predict that you’ll get closer to a meaningful page-turner than ever before if you dare to write intimately in first person.

M. Talmage Moorehead

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