Friday, 9 October 2015

Me, myself and I: writing in the first-person.

Back at the beginning of September, somebody on Twitter asked, ‘Is writing from 1st person viewpoint a bit too "masters degree" writing and not suitable for commercial fiction?’

It was a question that surprised me a bit as my John Williamson stories are written in the first person and I never thought of them as ‘Master’s degree’ writing at all. But it didn't seem the sort of thing that you could sensibly discuss in 140 characters, so I had to let it go. But now I’d like to return to the question where I can give a considered answer. (Just one reason why I prefer blogs to Twitter.)

The White Rajah is a story about James Brooke, a real person in the mid-19th century. It was the first book I'd ever written and I found it difficult to get hold of Brooke’s character. An editor told me that all the incidents around Brooke seemed to work, but there was a hole where he should be. I just didn't know how to fix this. Then I tried putting a fictional character (John Williamson) at the centre of the story as the narrator and have him describe what was happening to Brooke. I'm not saying that the result is perfect, but it seems to work. I certainly found it much easier to write.

Telling the story from the point of view of this fictional narrator meant that it fell naturally into the first person. I've long been a fan of Macdonald Fraser's ‘Flashman’ series, which is all written in the first person, so it seemed to me a natural thing to do. It's much easier in the 19th century when, I think, people were more inclined to put their thoughts on paper, often in quite a formal way. In The White Rajah, Williamson is looking back over his life from a moment of crisis and writes about his experience in order to decide how he should move forward. It seemed to me credible that he would do this and I certainly wasn't trying to produce a ‘Master’s degree’ novel.

The White Rajah was successful enough for my publisher to ask for a sequel. I had already decided that I would like to write about the Indian Mutiny and John Williamson's position at the end of The White Rajah meant that it was quite credible that he might have moved on from Singapore (where we left him) and arrived in India in time to be involved with the events that were unfolding there. Having written The White Rajah as a first person narrative, I naturally carried on in the same way with what became Cawnpore. Rather to my surprise, I found Cawnpore massively easier to write, partly because of the first person narrator. By now, I felt I knew John Williamson and as soon as I started writing in his voice it was easy to see things as he would have seen them. In Cawnpore Williamson is the central character, rather than observing someone else, and it was easy to write as him. The central theme of the story is the difficulty that most of the British had coping with the India they were governing. Williamson, after years in Borneo and alienated from the British community in India by both his class and his sexuality (he is a homosexual from a farm-worker’s family) is both inside and outside the European community and through his eyes we see both Europeans and Indians struggling to behave decently whilst failing utterly to understand each other. Williamson offers the chance to see the events of the Mutiny through someone who is at once distanced from them, yet intensely emotionally involved. I would have found this much harder to do in the third person.

Are first person novels inherently uncommercial? I don't think that this is the case. I've already mentioned Flashman, which was spectacularly commercially successful, but there are others. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a particularly impressive example. Bridget Jones would be another.

First person narrative is harder in action-adventure type novels as these do not favour overly self-reflective heroes, but Andy McNab’s Nick Stone shows that the approach can work even in the sharpest of commercial thrillers.

Writing in the first person imposes quite a tight discipline. Most obviously, it means that you have to maintain one point of view throughout. Nowadays (it was not ever thus) frequently changing point of view is considered a failing. I have seen writing advice that suggests you could draft your story in the first person to ensure that you keep tightly focused on your main character and then, if you need to, rewrite it in the third person. It's an interesting approach, which I think might help some people. It certainly does not suggest that writing in the first person is intrinsically difficult.

Why aren't more books written in the first person?

One of the main problems is that sometimes you really do want to be able to move your point of view. In many stories (including my own James Burke books) the hero is not alone. Sometimes you want to follow what is happening to other major characters. This means breaking away from the main character and is pretty well impossible in a sustained first person narration, although some authors have dealt with it by alternating chapters of first person narration with chapters told from another point of view.

The reader may need to have information which is not available to the hero and this is difficult to cope with in the first person. Sometimes the narrator will say something like, "I did not know it at the time, but Dr Death was already using his evil personality ray to turn my own men against me." Sometimes such an approach can be made to work, but there are obvious problems with it and it can be used only sparingly, if at all.

There's also the question of tension. Although readers generally know that the hero will survive to the end of the book, the fact that they are telling the story does rather take the edge off incidents where they face imminent demise. I've heard of a story in the first person which ends with the protagonist’s death, simply breaking off in mid-sentence. I've never read it, or met anybody who has, and I can't help feeling that if it really exists it probably has very limited appeal.

Writing in first or third person is an author's response to the technical problems of telling the story in a way which flows naturally and draws the reader in. It's not a decision between a commercial or a literary form. That said, I found that when I wrote the more blatantly commercial James Burke books, I moved naturally to the third person. Even so, I've produced enough examples to demonstrate that the answer to the question on Twitter is no, it's not ‘Master's degree’ writing and, yes, it is suitable for commercial fiction. If you're a writer, it's worth experimenting with. It gives you a new way of looking at your characters and allows you to experiment with different styles. If you're a reader, don't be put off by books in the first person. It is no more true that they will inevitably be dull and mannered than it is that every book written in the third person will be exciting and contemporary.


  1. The "master's degree" comment is kind of incomprehensible; I'd have thought first-person would be too intimate and subjective for such a rarefied descriptor, but then the descriptor really doesn't make any sense. Is there a definition somewhere of "master's degree" writing that I missed?

    I wrote THE AX AND THE VASE in first person, but it was an intuitive choice; it was pretty much in stone before I ever analyzed it intellectually (the first person allowed certain prejudices and ignorance, and provided for unreliability in the narration, which I liked). Each story is unique, and each novel is written with and serving its own circumstances. Nobody writes their book with its audience's educational attainments in mind, for heaven's sake.

    Whoever came up with this idea was pigeonholing, or at least way overthinking.

  2. I tend to agree, but it made me think about why I chose to write the Williamson books in the first person, so it seemed worth discussion. It was a strange comment, given how many successful commercial books are written in the first person. I've just mentioned four, but these came quickly to mind and I am sure there are many others.

  3. Exactly! Your discussion is a good one; I've done this myself, but won't dredge up links to shill my own dead novel on your blog. :)