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New Serfdom — First Person?

You never know what will trigger a new idea. Today, the mailman brought me a book I’ve been looking forward to reading, a collection of SF stories by women. The gimmick is that all the stories are written from the male point of view. I hadn’t thought about the implications when I ordered the book, but browsing through for a first look-see, I realized that every story is in the first person. Now it isn’t necessary that such a story be written in the first person, but it’s probably the best way, the most convincing way, because the emphasis is on voice. If you’re a woman writing as a man and your character sounds like a woman, then you might just as well have made him a woman.

I’ve written one short story in first person, from a male POV, but for some reason, it never occurred to me to try it with a novel. A novella that I’m working on is first person, male, but that’s because it’s a fictional autobiography.

It’s said that first person fiction is popular with authors because it’s easy to write. New writers do seem to migrate to first person with something like a homing instinct. The truth is that first person isn’t really easy to write unless you’re concerned more with plot than character. You’re looking out at the world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t share your gender. Their voice has to be authentic. Their interpretation of the world has to be authentic. When it’s well-done, it’s a pleasure to read. When it’s badly done, it’s . . . bad.

So, having received this book, which I haven’t even read yet, I’m looking at The New Serfdom in an entirely new light. The latest turn of the novel’s development has made Gil almost Nolan’s equal in importance. The possibility of seeing Nolan entirely through Gil’s eyes is intriguing. But if I go from third person, limited omniscient, with first person flashbacks, to Gil’s first person POV, the whole story is going to change. The question is whether that change would be for the better.

Gil can talk about only what he’s seen, heard, experienced, or learned at second-hand. Are there parts of the story that would have to be left out? Are they important enough that their omission would hurt the story? Are there things that the omniscient POV can deal with, but not as well as from a witness’s POV? Omniscient creates distance. First person brings the reader closer to the characters. Do I want readers to stay somewhat aloof or do I want them to become emotionally involved? Omniscient can maintain a balance, but the book may be better served by letting it swing to one side.

All this is just first thoughts. I’ll have to work through the whole story, seeing it through Gil’s eyes before I make a final decision.

Note: The SF collection is Women Writing Science Fiction as Men, edited by Mike Resnick.

14 Comments

  1. I went through this with the Brisbane novel, which I won’t be putting out for a few years yet. I wrote it all in 3rd persn, omniscient, then when I decided to rewrite, a couple of years ago, in 1st, I was faced with the problem you talk about: the narrator can’t describe scenes s/he wasn’t present for, unless they are relayed to him/her in dialogue, letters, etc. and I really hate letters in novels. Well, I did it, but I’m still uncertain. Plenty of time yet to make up my mind, but it does open a can of worms if you’re a long way along when you decide to switch POVs.

    • I doubt that I’ve have the courage to make such a change in something that’s already written. What a nightmare! But at least it’s still in the planning stages.

  2. pigeonweather

     /  September 27, 2012

    Tyrant or benevolent dictator. Those are usually your only options in these situations. Both tend to attract unhappy endings for themselves. Good luck with it!

    • Sounds as if you read some of the previous posts — or are a good guesser. Nolan is functionally a benevolent dictator, a position he’s not happy with, but can’t escape. So the ending is wide open, for now.

      • yes I was perusing and like the concept, especially the roots in gated communities. nice touch! my initial thoughts were about the means of social control, or how mono-rulers keep in power (through fear and coercion or through love and rewards or the combination of those). i hope you enjoy the thinking about it all – i often find it at least as enjoyable as the actual writing!

        • I love the planning period. It’s always exciting when new ideas just seem to come out of nowhere. And it’s usually easier than the actual writing. This particular barony, or holding, originates with the gated community, but I mention that there are other kinds. And the issue of how to rule is central to the story.

  3. eleniaturner

     /  September 28, 2012

    Flaubert seems to have done a shift from first person plural at the start of ‘Madame Bovary’ to omniscient third person. While that has confused me somewhat, and has probably confused others in the past, it’s nothing that turns anyone off from the story (clearly.)

    You don’t have to stick to one person. If there are a few important events that Gil would not know about, you can insert them periodically as intermissions from a third person perspective, à la Murakami in ‘Kafka on the Shore’. Or maybe have him discover them throughout the narrative – maybe there are records of events that he uncovers, or he talks to someone who bore witness (kind of like Lockwood talking to Nelly in ‘Wuthering Heights’.)

    Then again, having only Gil’s limited point of view would add an element of intrigue to your narrative. Something a little like ‘The Great Gatsby’ :)

    • Thanks, Elenia, I’ll check that out. It’s been so long since I read Madame Bovary that I barely remember it — 30 years or more. Oddly, I thought about it recently, in one of my “reread the classics” moments.

      Ack! Seems that I inadvertently skipped some of your comment. Replying on the dashboard isn’t a good idea. You’ve given me a lot to explore, but thank goodness I still have a month and I’m a fast reader.

      • I’m reading it now for the first time, so it’s still pretty fresh in my mind – otherwise I think I would have forgotten. Glad to have been of some (?) use :) Don’t know if I’ve said this before, but your novel idea is brilliant – and I’m glad your letting us watch it grow :) can’t wait until November!

        • Yes, yes, it was very useful. When you’re doing something new (for you), it helps to see how others have done it. Not to imitate, but to understand how it was done successfully.

          Thanks so much for the compliment. My mind is always off somewhere in strange territory. Plus, I love SF as a genre and have been reading quite a bit lately about the lack of originality in current SF, so that’s an inspiration to try to go where no one else has.

  4. One of your earlier commenters makes a good point. The difference between omniscient third and close third raises its ugly head. I’m going through a process with FIVE where I must fake out the reader, making them (hopefully) believe they are seeing omniscient third when actually writing close. Now I say that, it probably doesn’t make sense. Still, that’s the task.

    • Is close third the same as limited? I never even learned most of those terms until I started writing and needed to learn more about POV. Elenia mentioned, above, the strange shift in Madame Bovary, and it is, indeed strange. It starts out in first person and quickly shifts to third. I skimmed through, and even looked at the end to see if there was really any reason for the first person POV. It didn’t come up again, and the shift was somewhat confusing because I expected it to change back and forth.

      I’ve seen comments here and there that, as writers, we may be more concerned with certain aspects of style than the readers are. I know I read books very differently now than I used to, and I notice craft details that I was completely unaware of when I was just a reader. Maybe we’re too critical. The bottom line that we need to pay attention to is whether the reader is able to follow the story without getting confused about who’s talking.

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