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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" 
Subject: (urth) For Marc, on POV
Date: Fri, 01 Aug 2003 10:41:40 -0700

I believe that most writers who write about writing -- I mean people who are
actually _good_ at writing fiction and choose to write about the process --
agree that first person PoV is not only the hardest of the three "basic" 
of-view to handle, it's generally the weakest. In the hands of someone who
can create a really individual voice, it's incredibly powerful. Otherwise, 
it tends
to clunk.

First-person seems like it should be easy, because it seems like it will 
create in a
more explicit way the kind of limitation a writer chooses by writing in the 
person limited point of view: we only know what the character knows or
perceives. But in fact, it complicates that issue. When you put things into 
first person, you encounter some issues that the third-person writer can, if 
ignore, at least finesse.

When is the story being told? And to whom? And why? Third-person narrative
allows you to kind of ignore these questions (though Wolfe, to his credit,
prefers to confront them head-on even in his third-person narratives), but 
writer of the explicit first-person narrative _must_ answer them, at least 
to the
extent that _she_ knows the answer -- she doesn't have to tell the reader. 
answers to these questions conditions a whole variety of other things -- 
such as,
for example, how much the narrator explains about what; whether the narrator
will drop in remarks about "What I did not know then was ..." or stick to 
linear narration of what he saw and knew and when he saw and knew it.

What I mean is, if "I'm" telling "you" a story, I have to take into account 
"you" know -- so I have to know who "you" are. Furthermore, when "I" talk
about something that "I" didn't understand when it happened, but "I" do now,
it's often better narrative for "me" to tell you what "I" now know, instead 
leaving the incident apparently mysterious and unmotivated. (Severian has 
slightly irritating habit of never explaining the events that happened to 
him as
they happen.)

The third-person writer doesn't have this problem. Precisely because she is
_not_ taking on the person of the character, reporting after the fact, she 
hide behind the pretense that her narrative voice is following along inside 
character's consciousness. There's not only no need to explain things the
character won't understand till later, there's no _excuse_ to do so.

Compounding this, the first-person writer to write every sentence (except
dialog in other characters' mouths) as if it were the viewpoint character's
dialog. In other words, for every sentence of the narrative, she not only 
to ask "is this an effective sentence?" but also "Does this sentence sound 
if Harry would actually say it?" She has to remain with the character's 
syntax, and other speech habits -- including any tendencies the character 
to repetition or omission.

H'mm. Some examples and I'll shut up.

Roger Zelazny handled first person with remarkable facility as, at times*, 
Heinlein. Both of them pulled off the trick of making you feel as if there 
someone sitting in the room telling you the story -- you sort of forget the
paper artifact.

* Those two words are very important.
However, both writers used it too much, and in so doing, they blew it. One
Zelazny first-person narrator sounds pretty much like another. Ditto 
in spades, vulnerable and redoubled.

I'm not a big fan of the Amber books, but if you go through the original
series, they're almost a textbook on how to handle the first person. 
narrative is always Corwin's; and -- from occasional brief side remarks -- 
gradually learn where and when he's telling his story, and why. This is only
fully explained at the very end, but it's built up from the first book.

A living writer who has pulled the trick of very well: "Robin Hobb," whose
"Assassin" trilogy has an extraordinarily attractive first-person voice. The
character isn't necessarily attractive, but the voice is; there's never a
hesitation, never a doubt that it's Fitz talking to us.

Le Guin's use of first person in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS works as well as
anything she writes; she's a master. I'd point out, though, that it works to 
very great extent because of the context in which she embeds it -- all the
third-person "documents" sandwiched between the chapters from Henry Eye's
point of view. Without those, I honestly think she couldn't have made the
story work; and it's worth noting that the presence of the first-person 
actually provides the rationale for their inclusion in what is otherwise a
continuous monologue, a nice bit of narrative jiu-jitsu.



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