Monday, June 9, 2008

Deep Thoughts in First Person

First Person and Internal Thought

First person IS internal thought, right? I mean, everything that is on the page is coming out of your mc’s head. But there are (probably) a lot of things bouncing around in your mc’s head.

Your mc is passing along what he or she (from now on I’m calling her she. You don’t like it, leave me a nasty comment) sees which creates the setting and the atmosphere and their general surroundings.

Your mc is recording dialogue in conversations they take part in and conversations they witness.

Your mc is sharing their voice through the way they relate what she sees and what she hears.

But what about what she thinks?

Your mc needs to tell us what she is thinking. Yes, tell. And that’s where we as writers get all tied into knots. We’re supposed to SHOW, not TELL. And it’s fine to show your character’s feelings (particularly the secondary characters but also your mc) through showing. Like they roll their eyes, they throw their books against the wall, the grab the hot guy and ….whatever.

But it’s also okay to tell every once in awhile (or as my editor made me do- like three times per page) what the character is feeling. I was mad. I was mad as hell. I was pissed. I’ve never felt so angry in my life, I felt like my brain would explode from furious steam pouring out my ears. It’s all in your mc’s voice, and it helps the reader get to know them better. A good combination of showing and telling creates a more rounded character that the reader can relate to. And keeps them from those what the hell moments when they can’t figure out WHY your character is doing whatever they’re doing.

In my first editorial letter (which obviously contains only Biblical truth and which I have memorized for posterity) my editor (who is obviously a genius because she loved and bought my book) said that the difference between a good book and a great book is internal thought.

So what do you guys think? Is this easy or hard for you? What balance to do go for? If you write third person (which I don’t ever do) what is the difference?


Sophie W. said...

I usually write in third person. It's easier to write thoughts in third person for one reason and one reason only: italics.

Love them, use them, embrace them.

Sophie, who likes to cheat.

cindy said...

i write in close third and really getting into my heroine's head is probably my biggest weakeness. sometimes, it's because i already know what she is thinking and forget to share. other times, it's because i am remote from her. maybe one day, i'll write an entire novel in first person--i consider it a much bigger challenge.

bethany said...

You guys, I can't imagine writing in 3rd. I just can't do it. First present or first past, that's all I've got.

SuzanneYoung said...

I'm with you on this, Bethany. For some reason, I am completely unable to write in 3rd. I love first. I love writing and reading it.

And most of my MC's internal dialogue is a sarcastic comment here and there. Just like in real life!

Meggy said...

I am notorious for overdoing the internal thought. It's one of the areas where I need some major cutting in the book I'm revising!

hannah said...

I fail at writing in third person. fail fail fail.

Catherine said...

Third and first are such very different beasties, I find it's difficult to make the switch.

I started off in tight third past and about five books later, switched to first present, because I was told that no-one likes to read first person - heh, can you tell I'm contrary?

Anyway, now I find it really hard to make the switch back. First present is so immediate, but at the same time, it's really limited - you're stuck observing only what it would be natural for your character to notice. I think that's my biggest problem with writing in first; deep thought, not so much.

So, yeah, I need to shake the habit sharp-sharp.

Jordan said...

Writing internal thoughts is easy for me *only if* the character has a really strong voice. First, third, doesn't matter. If the character is a personality then I don't even have to think about adding thought. It just happens.

Some of my other characters are harder, because they're more subdued and passive, and their personality doesn't burn bright in every word. First person is too strong for them, because all those internal thoughts the reader needs to understand them would be things they wouldn't necessarily think. It's tricky. Third works better for them, a distant third. I'm still trying to get the balance right.

And I really really don't like italics or "blah blah blah," she thought. It makes me feel icky to write. I have to come up with other ways of conveying thought, and so my personal author/narrator voice often takes on characteristics of the MC.

Or the MC takes on characteristics of the author....hmm.

Penelope Gray said...

internal thought.

internal thought.


as some of you may or may not know...I am currently writing a novel in which a 3rd-person MC occasionally delves into another MC's brain and pokes around, following MC2's thoughts as though we were in his mind 1st-person. (still with me?) it is driving me batty trying to balance Loki's almost-first-personness with Elspeth's 3rd-personness in two different storylines and--

now I have confused myself.

usually I write close 3rd. Loki and Ells are going to be the death of me.

<3 AG

Sasha said...

I would love to see some examples of the places where internal thought makes the difference between good and great. Lots of internal thought usually makes for easier reading in that it requires less effort from the reader, less work at filling in gaps and understanding. But literary writing is often considered great precisely because it manages to convey lots of information without explicitly stating internal thought. For instance we pick up in context that the MC loves the hero and she never has to tell us, "At that moment, I knew I loved him." On the other hand, in much of my writing, I use that sort of internal thought because it's fun. I think it's all a matter of what sort of tone you like in the books you read or write.

Jordan said...

Sasha I think you nailed it expertly. Right now I'm struggling with this same thing, especially in editing. I have given lots of external clues as to the internal landscape of my character, but in YA especially...people expect more internalization. It's easier to read. It's often more fun. However, I like to think I'm better than blatantly stating what my characters think about something when it's just as easy to convey it in more artful terms. It's what I prefer to read and write, but sometimes I think I'm just crazy.

Vanessa Concannon said...

For now anyway, I write in first person pretty exclusively. It comes most naturally to me.

I think Sasha makes a good point. The more literary the work, the more assumptions the reader has to make--even if it'd be more fun to come out and say "I'm pissed" creatively.

I tend to err on the side of subtlety, I think, especially for a reserved MC, like Jordan said. I also prefer the more subtle literary stuff to it's what I like to write, too.

Donna said...

I'm flexible. I write the POV the story dictates. The only time I see it as hard is when the story is dictating I change the POV and then I start to get stuck if I ignore it. I'm writing something now (a just for fun, lets see where this goes piece) that started in first but it's starting to beat me about the head to write third limited, which is what I normally write.

I just listen to the story. I don't find any POV particularly hard, unless it's second or something like that.