Thursday, August 9, 2012

First Person World-Building

Most people already know that the term first-person narrative means a story is told through the voice of the main character. For some beginning writers this voice may seem appealing. After all, they don't have to figure out what everyone else is doing and thinking; just what's going in the main character's head! Easy enough, right?


There are many downfalls to writing in first person, the most prominent being voice. Coffee shops all over the world are filled with aspiring writers talking about how they're trying to find their voice. For some of them, they're only making things harder. Anyone who spends a great deal of time and energy developing a unique voice is going to want to use that voice when they start writing. The problem is, that voice will tend to come out when your characters are speaking, and characters shouldn't do that. Every character should have his or her own voice.

Here's an example from my Hank Mossberg Character:

"The hobgoblin shook off his confusion and came back at me with a wide right hook. I blocked it and caught him by the arm. I could’ve punched him again, but I had something more spectacular in mind. I gave him a hard push, throwing him off balance. He staggered back a few steps and then regained his balance, just as I tackled him. We went down in a heap, crashing through a roulette table like it was made of popsicle sticks. We instantly reduced the thing to kindling."

Notice the short sentences, the punchy rhythm? Hank's a big, tough private eye. He doesn't use much florid language, even if he is smart enough to know what those big words mean. And he doesn't stop to tell you about how he feels very often, either. On the other hand, take a look at Breeze, the young girl in The Tinkerer's Daughter:

"I could see my father at the far end of the valley below, heading out across the plains. I fell to my knees and started sobbing. I called out to him, but he didn’t come back. I struggled to understand this unforgivable turn of events. He had abandoned me. I couldn’t have understood that he was a soldier and that he had been called back to war. It wouldn’t have meant anything to me, even if they had tried to explain it. All I knew was that my father had gone, that he had left me.I called out to him, choking through my tears, straining my voice with volume. He never glanced back. I told myself that he couldn’t hear me even though I knew it wasn’t true."

Ah, Breeze. Her voice is so different from Hank's that they might as well be a different species (They are). She's articulate and emotional. She describes every detail of everything she observes and she reflects on how these things affect her, both emotionally and spiritually. You may attribute this to the fact that she's female, and that Hank is a male. That's partly correct, but there's more. I'm not just talking about the difference in IQ or education, either. Breeze is writing about herself as a child, but Breeze -the child- is not doing the writing. An older, more mature Breeze is doing the writing. That allows her to speak in the voice of a full-grown and well-educated woman, even though she's telling us what happened to her as a child. 

This approach has one more advantage. Let's move on to the second most common problem with first-person narratives: world building. 

World building is what writers do when they define the setting of the story. In fantasy or science fiction, this often means developing a set of rules in regards to physics, science, and magic. It also means figuring out the geography of the world, the landscape. It's naming mountains and rivers, villages and cities, and figuring out how long they've been there and how they contributed to the anthropology of the local cultures (and yes, that's another big aspect of world building).

So now the writer has done months of preparation, building a massive world right down to the most minute details, and he's especially excited to show it all off. Only he can't, because he chose a main character who's a teenage girl living in a secluded valley at the very edges of civilization. All she knows about the world is what she may (or may not) have read in a book. So she can't very well describe something she's never seen before. Unless an older, smarter version is doing the writing. That allows the narrator to describe situations she didn't understand at the time, but she does now. This usually works, as long as she makes the distinction between now and then. But it doesn't always work. 

A book reviewer, Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, had some trouble with a recent first-person novel:
"Interestingly enough, there is virtually no worldbuilding to speak of throughout the novel. Other than a few brief revelations regarding the Syldoon toward the end, Salyards introduces a number of what appears to be fascinating concepts and ideas, but he never follows through and elaborate on any of them. This could be construed as a major flaw, but I reckon it has more to do with the fact that the tale is told through the first person narrative of Arkamondos, a cowardly scribe who has seldom been out and about, and who seems to have little knowledge of the world around him."

The reviewer was clever or kind enough to give the author the benefit of the doubt with his world-building, but we can't always count on that. Here's another example: 

In The Tinkerer's Daughter, the entire kingdom of Astatia is on the edge of an industrial revolution. They're just beginning to discover things like steam engines and springs. Now, in our reality, spring engines aren't very practical. They need to be wound by hand or machine and they can't store huge amounts of energy. The more they store, the bigger and heavier they are, and the harder to rewind. So in our world, they're not practical. But Astatia isn't our world (not exactly, anyway) and the same principles don't apply (not exactly, anyway). -Yes I said that twice... hmm. Guess you'll have to read the books and figure out what I'm talking about, huh?-

Sorry. Back on point: Spring engines work great in Astatia. They're extremely powerful and very efficient, particularly when they're made out of the special steel that comes from the Blackrock Mountains. And therein lies the problem. Breeze and the other characters in Book One of that series didn't even know there was a difference. They had never experienced one of our spring engines, so they couldn't compare them. I, as the writer, couldn't relay this information to my readers without giving up the secrets to come in later sequels, and without destroying the credibility of my characters who didn't have this knowledge yet.

One way of dealing with a situation is to have your first-person narrator say something like this: "We didn't know it at the time, but we later learned..." 

You can get away with that once or twice in a book, especially when it comes to naming a foreign piece of machinery or something about another culture. But that trick wears out quick, so you have to use it sparingly. Unfortunately, a handful of readers took my Blackrock Steel evolution as a lack of world-building or a naive physics faux pas. Most were willing to take the story with a grain of salt; to accept it as fantasy and temporarily suspend disbelief, but a few were not, and this showed up in a few reviews. What could I have done differently? Well, I could have used the above trick. Except that I had already used it, and I really didn't want to start giving away secrets that I had planned to reveal later.  I decided to let the world reveal itself in the way I had planned. 

That's another risk you take with first person. How much can you reveal? How much should you reveal? If you make the wrong choice, you'll hear about it. You might hear about it even if you made the right choice. Ultimately, I don't know if I made the right decision or not. I can tell you, sitting here right now, that I have more secrets that won't be revealed until Book Three. Should I change that? I don't think so... but then again I'm just the writer. I'll have to wait to find out what my readers think. This is one more thing to consider when getting ready to write your next first person.