Writing Excuses 12.1: Variations on First Person
Key points: First Person variations! (1) Epistolary, letters and journals, in-universe artifacts. (2) Reflective narrator, there I was, surrounded by… the storyteller over the fire. (3) First person immediate, I’m talking to you! Often present tense, lots of YA. Will I survive? Keep reading and find out! Think about the meta-element (how did we get this to read? Who is the narrator? Where is the line between the story universe and mehaving a book in my hands to read?), and the fourth wall, which might be where the shadows of the story are written?
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[Mary] Season 12, Episode One.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Variations on First Person.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we are beginning season 12. We are extremely excited to bring this season to you guys. We have decided that we really like the format we’ve been using the last few years, where we take an entire topic across 12 months and break it into smaller parts. This year’s topic is going to be structure. We’re going to be talking about things like viewpoint, we’re going to be talking about things like voice, we’re going to be talking about how to specifically write stories of different lengths. There’ll be an entire month on short fiction.
[Brandon] We will be doing all kinds of really exciting things, and, like before, we’re going to post for you, on the liner notes, the monthly topic so you can get ready for them. The other big thing we’re doing is we are inviting some permanent long-term cohosts onto the podcast. This means that…
[Mary] And we’re so excited because we’ll be welcoming Wesley Chu and Mary Anne Mohanraj and Piper Drake on with us.
[Brandon] What’s going to happen is every second week of the month, I’m going to fly to Chicago.
[Mary] And I’m going to still live in Chicago.
[Howard] And I’m going to stay home.
[Brandon] We will have the second week be an exploration of some topic related to what happens in the first week. Now, the first week will be the four of us as you grown to know and love…
[Howard] Or at least know…
[Dan] And tolerate.
[Brandon] Then the second week will be in Chicago with a different team, slightly shaken up.
[Mary] So the second week is going to be me and Brandon and Wes and Mary Anne.
[Brandon] Then the third week will generally be some sort of wildcard, often with the four of us. Not always with the four of us. Again, we love the wildcards, just letting us do anything that we come across. Usually, this will be with a guest, recorded at a convention of some sort. But it is completely what we want to do. Then, fourth week will be me and Dan and Howard and Piper Drake. Who is an awesome writer, who you’ll get to know across 12 different episodes over the year. Our goal with this is this idea that we as writers tend to repeat ourselves a bit. Those of you who’ve been listening for 12 seasons might see… Hear the same things over and over. But when we invite someone new on the podcast, we find that it causes us to look at things in a new way, and it digs new ideas out of our brains, while also just injecting some new viewpoints and perspectives into it. We think that’s extremely valuable to you. This is actually brought to you by the Patreons specifically. We can do this because you guys have been supporting the podcast. We wanted to thank you and let you know what your money is doing. It’s specifically bringing you these extra guest hosts for the entire course of the year.
[Brandon] We do know that at least one of these guests is confirmed for the cruise this year.
[Mary] That’s right. We will have Wesley Chu and Piper on the cruise with us this year.
[Brandon] Okay. So two of them are confirmed. So the goal is we will do this in future years with different guest stars, and try to bring as many of them as we can on the cruise. So you can listen to them all season, get to know them, and then come with questions, be familiar with their work and that sort of thing. Now, that is season 12.
[Brandon] We are extremely excited, and we are starting with what I call variations on first person. This is we want to dig really deeply into first person. The different types of first person, specifically. So I’m going to kind of pitch this at the podcasters. Because, when I was brand-new at this, I thought there was first person, there was third person, and I’d kind of heard of this omniscient thing, and that was it. But the more I write, the more I realize that there are tons of variations within those. There are different tools used for different purposes. So let me ask you this. One of the most famous types that kind of shows this to people, we’ve mentioned this before on the podcast, is epistolary.
[Mary] So, an epistolary is basically a first person narrative that is written in the form of letters or journals. It is… The idea is that the character was actually writing it. Usually, it’s called epistolary because it’s usually involving letters. Frequently these have multiple first person points of view. So Dracula is a good example of this. Lady Susan.
[Mary] Frankenstein. And then… Oh, shoot…
[Brandon] Sorcery and Cecilia.
[Mary] Thank you. Patricia Wrede. I was trying to pull that one out of my brain and it was not there. So these are all things where it appears that you have characters who are writing letters back and forth.
[Brandon] Or they’re writing in their journal. There was a contemporary version of this called Illuminae, which was done through the form of government documents, texts, and things like this that were collected by an agency. So you have all these texts and they actually would redact it. They would black out certain things as if you had gotten the files, or you were a government worker and you’re reading through these case files and things. It’s a very interesting means of doing a first person. We’ll define all of these first, then I’m going to start talking about why would you use the different ones.
[Brandon] When someone sits down to kind of write a first person, I feel that they immediately start with something I call reflective narrator. Can you guys maybe talk about this? To jog your memory, this is like what Bilbo did. Where the first person narrator, years later, is sitting down and reflecting on their life and writing it down.
[Howard] I… No crap, there I was, surrounded by…
[Howard] And then off we go into some sort of a story. I use that as an example, because you’ve probably, in real life, heard somebody begin relating a story in exactly that way. One of the reasons it’s effective is because it feels natural to us, it feels real.
[Mary] One of the things about the epistolary form in particular, and this reflective narrator, is that the person who is writing is writing to one specific character. Usually. Occasionally, you will have variations on that where it’s like, “To whoever finds this letter that I have cast into the sea…” But they are writing it for a reason and a purpose. That is shown in the reason that… In their reflections on what happened.
[Dan] The novel that the Prestige movie was based on was epistolary, with a lot of back-and-forth writing to each other. There was a lot of kind of hidden motive involved in the letters that they were sending.
[Brandon] So let me ask you this. What’s the difference between first person reflective, like a reflective narrator, and an epistolary, if it’s basically just a long epistolary piece?
[Mary] You can have a first person reflective when it is the character who is speaking. The way you do that… The way it’s structured is a lot of it is going to come up in the sound of it. When someone is speaking, you get a lot more of the um’s and the er’s and the things like that. Even in written form. So this is going to have a more spontaneous quality than an epistolary, which is going to have a more studied quality. You don’t necessarily expect an epistolary to be the first draft that someone is mailing off.
[Howard] As you double down on epistolary and start creating redacted government documents within your work, what you are really creating in your book is a collection of in-universe artifacts. That idea of this piece of text is an in-universe artifact is really cool. It adds to a sense of immersion, it makes the reader at some point, if you’ve done it right and they’ve bought off on this, they are on a voyage of discovery through your universe and learning about it through these things that you have dug up and then provided to them.
[Brandon] I would say that first person reflective has its own cool aspects to it. Because epistolary, if it has a drawback, it can feel just very disjointed. You’re like, “Whose… I’m only getting a snippet from this person. Whose viewpoint am I in right now? What happened in the intervening time? I’m confused.” Where a first person reflective narrator really can have that sense of a grand story well told by a storyteller. Two big examples in genre of this, I’d say the two biggest ones of recent years of the kind of the contemporary fantasy era, would be Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb and then Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss.
[Mary] Oh. Interesting. Because I don’t think of that is an epistolary, although…
[Brandon] No, no. I’m saying these are both reflective narrator. These are the big examples of reflective narrator, and you can see kind of the difference between these and something like Dracula, in that it is generally one person telling a story intentionally. Whereas epistolary usually is we’re just writing letters to each other, and there’s a story behind the scenes that we don’t understand that’s growing out of it.
[Dan] I think that that’s key to epistolary, and key to making epistolary unique, is that it’s not just one voice, but several different ones. Or at least two different ones that are interacting and have something going on behind the scenes.
[Mary] The other thing about the epistolary form is that it requires the reader to be much more active participant. Because they have to stitch things together. A good example of this, I think, is Cherie Priest’s Maplebrook. Which is basically it’s Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraft…
[Dan] Isn’t that Maplecroft?
[Mary] Maplecroft. Excuse me, Maplecroft. Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraft. It’s all told through letters back and forth and some journal entries. You have to piece together what happened. And because each narrator is unreliable, you have to figure out exactly what happened and what went down. That really does… It does cause the reader to have to be much more engaged. It’s like interactive storytelling in some ways, without the choose your own adventure aspect of it.
[Brandon] I do think the line is kind of blurry between the two. Because you look at original Lovecraft, most of those take the form of a long journal entry or a letter that somebody’s writing about a creepy experience that happened to them, but it feels more like a reflective narrator in the let me tell you this crazy thing that happened.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. We have a special treat for our book of the week this week, because my lovely and intelligent wife is going to talk to you about a book she read recently and really liked.
[Emily] Okay. I recently read The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. It’s a story inspired by Indian folklore and Greek mythology. It tells the story of 17-year-old Maya who is a princess ostracized by her father’s court because of the terrible horoscope that was revealed at her birth. One of the fun things about this book is the very elegant and descriptive prose. It was fun to read for that reason. The character of Maya is a very well done. She’s a strong character, and a fun character to get to know as she kind of discovers herself. It’s a debut novel. I felt that the plot got a little muddled at times, but in the end, she pulls out a story that is so evocative and descriptive and fun to read that I really enjoyed it. One of my favorite things about this was the addition of the Indian folklore. I learned a lot that I had not known about some of these things, and went and had to go and look up some Indian folklore. I really enjoyed this book. If you are prepared for a bit of romantic gushing, you will also enjoy this book.
[Brandon] Okay, that was The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. Chok… Chok… I’m sorry, I can’t pronounce it correctly. But it will be in the liner notes. She was on a panel with me at DragonCon and she was brilliant and blew me away, which is why I bought the book and started reading it, too. Emily always finishes things before I do.
[Brandon] So that’s why I brought her to give the promo on it. It is in first person.
[Brandon] So. Let’s talk about the last of the first person types that I have written down. Now, these are not the only variations. These are the big ones I see. This is what I’m going to call first person immediate. Now this is this kind of interesting viewpoint that is used most commonly right now in YA stories. It’s become the standard and dominant. This is a first person that isn’t really in the context of someone telling the story after the fact. It just feels like you are there and they are narrating their life to you in some sort of magical way that doesn’t involve it ever being written down. It’s almost like a third person limited in first person, where they’re sticking you in the person’s head but you are hearing it directly from their viewpoint. Hunger Games is in this, and a lot of the contemporary YA stories are in it.
[Dan] John Cleaver is written this way…
[Brandon] Yes, John Cleaver.
[Dan] As well. I actually struggled quite a bit when I started with trying to figure out if this was going to be a reflective narrator or not. And decided, partly for reasons of it being horror, I didn’t want the safety of knowing he was going to live through it. So I didn’t want to say, “I am now 70 years old and I going to tell you about my childhood as a demon hunter” or whatever. But also, because of that immediacy. It does really bring you into the character in a way that no other form can.
[Mary] There is one place in the book where you slip from that, and that’s when you say… There’s a line… I’m not going to give the whole line, but you slip and you say, “This is, of course, before we knew that…”
[Dan] That’s on the first page. That was a concession to making people know that it was going to turn supernatural later on. That didn’t entirely work, but… That’s a different podcast.
[Howard] The first person immediate… Both of the Space Eldritch books… Stories that I wrote and my story for Shadows Beneath were first person present tense. Because… And Brandon, I liked the way you described that. It’s third person limited, where some of the boundaries have been stripped away and you’re just sort of packed right into that person’s head. These were horror stories, and I love the way that works. It is very immediate, it is very obvious that it is not reflective, because it’s present tense. I kept trying to step away from that voice, to see if I could tell those stories in third person, and I couldn’t.
[Brandon] This is most commonly present tense, which is kind of what… Why YA is dominated by a lot of present tense. Because this kind of steals some of the best parts of third person limited and some of the best parts of first person. Steals the ability to have a strong voice, really strong voice, from first person, but it steals the kind of… The bonding to the character as they are, rather than partially to the character at another time frame from something like first person reflective. That is, I think, one of the big differences is when you’re reading Assassin’s Apprentice, or you’re reading Name of the Wind or even, to an extent, The Hobbit. You are realizing that someone after the fact is telling this story, and that storyteller’s personality is a lens through which you see the story, and you as a writer and as a reader have to build two different characters. There is, in the Assassin’s Apprentice books, there is Fitz who is the wiser, older, more broken person who is writing this narrative, and there is Fitz, the young kid, who’s still idealistic, who is living them. That division can be really cool, but it can also cause a little bit of confusion and it can divide your resources, so to speak.
[Mary] The other thing that it allows you, with that division, and something that is very useful about first person, is that it allows you to have the narrator comment on their emotional state. In stage terms, this is the soliloquy, where the narrator… The character steps away from the action of the play to the audience and delivers “To be or not to be.” The soliloquy, which explains their emotional state, it breaks the fourth wall, it addresses the audience directly, and then it returns to it. We used to see that in third person, with the address to the gentle reader. Now it is something that we pretty much only see in first person.
[Brandon] So, Dan, why did you choose first person instead of third person? What advantages did it give you when you were writing John Cleaver?
[Dan] Well, with John Cleaver in particular, the voice is the reason that the book works. I like first person because it essentially replaces your narrator with a character. When you’re writing third person, you have all of your characters plus an extra one named narrator. That is kind of sort of me as the author and kind of sort of nobody. I wanted to just do away with that altogether. So you really get to know John Cleaver or whatever other character really well. Like I said before, it’s in a way that you can’t do it with something else. I did the same thing and I actually went first person in The Hollow City. Neither of those are actually classified as YA which is interesting that this is a predominantly YA thing.
[Brandon] I wouldn’t say it’s predominantly a YA thing. I would say YA is dominated by it.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Brandon] But that’s different from saying it’s predominantly…
[Dan] Now that I think about it, one of my very favorite book series that I talk about a lot, the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. This is kind of a weird mixture of immediate first person and reflective first person. Because there are some of the books where he is constantly referencing that “now I am an old man and I am sitting here in my tower and I am writing this.” Then there are other books that don’t do it at all. It’s really fascinating to watch Cornwell flip back and forth between those, and how they each serve a different purpose. That if I want you to be really, really engaged in this story right now, then he does away and kind of steps back from that larger frame story. There are other times where he wants you to reflect, and he wants you to think about the passage of time and the wheels of fate and all of these things. That’s when the frame story will step in and take over.
[Mary] I used that, actually, with Lady Astronaut of Mars and also with… Oh, I can’t remember the name of my own stories. Forest of Memory. Part of the reason I used that… And it’s actually… I have a theory that this is one of the reasons that first person is becoming very prominent these days, is because it works really, really well in audio. Exactly for the reason you’re saying, Dan, about replacing one of the characters. Because in audio, I have to think about the narrator as a character. So one of the things that I did with both of these is that it is reflective in that the story is being told to someone who is listening to it right now. But it is being told about something in the past. So there’s also an immediacy to it in that the character is being changed by the action of telling the story.
[Howard] There’s a meta-element to all this. When you mentioned the fourth wall earlier, I had a fascinating argument with one of my editors at Privateer Press about first person present tense, where I said, “You know, I love first person present tense because of the way it’s worded. You have no idea whether or not this voice is going to survive to the end of the story. The story could just end.” He said, “No. That’s exactly the opposite. If it’s being told in first person, I know they’re going to live to the end.” I had to ask, “Well, why do you know that?” He said, “Well, how else did I get the book?” That idea is weird. Once you start thinking about it, how did I get this book? Who is this narrator? Where is this line between the story universe and the universe in which the story was placed in my hands and my universe in which I’m reading the story. That’s weird to think about. The reason I bring it up is that there are readers for whom that is an actual hurdle. I don’t know how to clear it for them.
[Mary] That, I think, is actually one of the reasons that epistolary tales come in, is because that frame story that goes around it is one of the things that allows you to still wonder if the character is going to survive. It gives you the “Well, this is how I got it,” because they mailed it to someone else. So it was not with them when they died.
[Dan] Now, one of the things that I did with John Cleaver, specifically to avoid the problem that Howard just mentioned is I started, after that one first page concession to a frame story. I started having John address the audience directly. Very rarely, but he does it. Usually, and often when he does it, it’s either for a joke or to tell you that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. So he’ll specifically address uncertainty, to help give you the sense that you’re not reading something he wrote, but that he’s speaking to you right now.
[Brandon] Awesome. So, as I said, there’s a lot of depth to exploring even within first person. I wanted to assign you some homework. Which is to take the same idea, a writing prompt you’ve had, and write a short narrative based on it in one of these three first person formats. Either epistolary, reflective narrator, or first person immediate. Then, I want you to try it in the other two. So that you can personally explore how these three different forms of first person are different tools that achieve different things. Just do a short narrative. Whatever it is. You could even take something you’ve already written in one and change it into the other two. But until you’ve tried all three, until you’ve tried doing a piece of them, I don’t think it’ll really pop out at you how this all works.
[Brandon] Now, we will be back next week with the Chicago team, where we’ll be talking about how to specifically create a powerful first person voice. I wanted to give you a warning that the week after that, we’re going to be doing a wildcard. The four of us will be back together and we’ll be talking about Risk Assessment, which is the bonus story in the Schlock Mercenary volume Force Multiplication. So this is your spoiler warning. If you want to get that and read it before we talk, we’ll be having Sandra Tayler on as a guest because she was the author of it. We will discuss in depth with no holds barred spoilers about that bonus story.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you guys so much. We are excited to have you in season 12 of Writing Excuses. This has been Writing Excuses, and you’re out of excuses. Now go write.
[Mary] Writing Excuses is a Dragon Steel production, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler. This episode was mastered by Alex Jackson.