I found a very lovely article by Nathan Long on point of view. Nathan is a fantasy author mostly known for his Gotrek and Felix novels and The Blackhearts Trilogy, both of which are set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.
From the article:
Some of my favorite writers have worked best when they worked in first person – George MacDonald Fraser with Flashman, P. G. Wodehouse with Bertie Wooster, Kazuo Ishiguro with Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Emma Bull with Orient in her novel, Finder, and I have always found it a very comfortable to write that way myself.
So, how do you write first person well? I’ll give it to you in one word – voice.
Writing in first person is a very natural way of writing for me. It allows you to sit in the driver’s seat and actively participate in the story. When I write in third person I feel more like an observer recording the events, which is classic storytelling, but I seem to enjoy it slightly less. Maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word to use here. Writing in first person allows me to fantasize and emotionally experience what my protagonist is going through and I think that freshness translates to my writing.
And because I write in first person I don’t outline. I just write. Yes, I am a pantser. It’s more exciting for me. I write on a whim and I go where the story takes me. I normally have an idea and writing is me exploring that idea and evolving it naturally. With The Morrigan, for example, I knew from the start how I wanted the story to end. So everything happening in the story, as I wrote it, had to twist back to meet that idea.
I’m currently writing a 12,000 word piece, tentatively titled The Last Devil, for a science fiction anthology coming out later this year. Given the nature of the collaboration I had to submit a detailed plot outline, which I did, and it was my first time creating a story in its entirety before actually writing it. The process was a mix of frustration and fun, but also pleasant discovery. Frustrating because days would pass where I toyed with concepts and ideas, trying to wrestle them into something of a plot, unable to commit anything to paper. Once these ideas and concepts clicked the actual process felt like writing a short story where you tell instead of show.
Writing from an outline is proving an interesting experience. I find it more challenging to weave in the emotional highlights, mostly because I already know where certain things will happen, and that makes it less easy to record the emotions in a true way. Doing research, on the other hand, is far more refined and focussed and you plan scenes more completely. I’m discovering scene-by-scene that there are still surprises to be had writing this way. Previously thought-out scenarios take on a sudden surge in direction or become more colorful as new hues are added. This is quite wonderful.
When the story develops as you write it you don’t know what is going to happen or when, and when something does happen, that excitement or fear or terror is reflected in your writing because you’re just as surprised as the protagonist, and that is rather addictive. You get excited with writing a scene where you feel it raw and you want to convey that rawness to the reader.
Whether you write in first person or third, I think certain stories are better served using the first, while others, especially where you have a large ensemble cast, requires third person. When I began writing The Spirit Bow (My humble attempt at heroic fantasy) I did it in third person, without deciding to. It seemed to fit the story better. I wanted to keep my distance as a way of sustaining mystery and exoticism of the world and people. This is just my opinion, of course. I think my reading habits tend to overlap with my writing habits.
Anyway, I could probably keep on writing about this. Not because I know so much, but because I know so little. Writing is a wonderful way of taking your thoughts and just throwing it out there where you can order it until it makes sense…
And there I go again.
The article! Ah, yes the article. Please read it here. Nathan Long’s informed opinion on POV is quite interesting and very educational.
4 thoughts on “Pantsering in First Person”
I prefer first person for the same exact reasons you mentioned above. Here’s a question though, do you ever feel like parts of you (your personality, your faults, your personal issues) more easily become part of your character when you write in first? Because I’m realizing more and more as I write my main character is a reflection of me. I know I started writing this book to deal mainly on my issues with God and religion, but it became so much more than that. The short story I’m doing now I’m wriring in 3rd to make sure its not me all over again. (Trying to get into a fantasy horror anthology myself but I feel like I”m going to fall on my face on this one.)
As far as plotting, I’ve never done it, and I think I should. I struggle with staying on track. My writing is a reflection of my life. I’m too distracted with every shiny thing I see.
I suspect it all depends on the story. I think there is a little of us in every protagonist we create, but it’s all about the kind of story you’re telling in the end. In Seals I had an idea and that idea developed naturally. I wanted a young man who lost his dad when he was just about to go into law (similar to my experience), who had been kept alone isolated most of his life because of his “condition” (not me) and who had a bad temper (not me, mostly). I imagined how he must feel and tried to convey that in my story.
Your story is more personal and that is also a wonderfully exciting roller-coaster ride. I don’t think there is anything wrong if a lot of you is in your story, unless you feel weird about sharing too much. I suspect you can still get personal writing in third person, but it feels less natural, and maybe you are right in doing it in third in order to keep that distance.
I do plotting on the fly, usually. Seals was an accident while I wrote The Spirit Bow because of the research I did at the time. The Last Devil is new territory for me. Not only with plotting, but also genre.
Hey, writing is a weird and wonderful adventure. It’s what we signed up for.
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I tried to write in first person a couple of times, but I didn’t quite like it. I find that the third person limited allows for more layers, because there is more space of manuvering between narrator and POV character. There’s really an entire world to explore in the gap between narrator and POV character. At least, this is how I feel 😉
As for plotting, I discovered long ago that while I can pants a short story without problems, I can never do the same with a novel. Normally, I pants out a very ditailed synopsis (which is really a short story where I tell rather than show, as you said) then I start plotting. And plotting, for me, mostly means discovering the characters’ motivations. This is why the first synopsis never end up being in the novel. So many things happens during the discovering process, though the central plot points normally remain.
As I told to someone else, the synopsis and first draft is discovering what the characters did. Plotting for me is discovering why they did it 🙂
True, with third you can get into the head of more than one character and I take my hat off to writers who can successfully do that. You have to flesh out each character and make them real so the story can feel real and I see that as a juggling act.
A short story is easier, yes, and there is the danger of getting lost or contradicting yourself when you write a novel without a detailed plot outline. However, I tend to start with an idea. I begin writing, just to warm the engine and then I do research and while I do research the idea matures in my head. Once I sit down and start writing I am fine. I have had occasions where I wrote myself into a corner, but I enjoyed the challenge of finding a solution and sometimes the solution appeared out of nowhere.
I love your theory about synopsis and theory. It makes wonderful sense.