Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Picasso Syndrome and the First Person

I'm jumping back again to an older post I hadn't gotten around to finishing, but, since I was just talking about Picasso here, I figured I'd go back to the post that inspired the Picasso comment and finish it up.

But let's get into some history, first:

Picasso showed skill and interest in art at an early age, so much so that his father started him on formal training at age seven, much to the detriment of his regular school work. Picasso was admitted into the advanced class at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona at just 13. Not only was he much younger than the average student of that level, but he completed the entrance exam in just one week, a process that usually took an entire month. At 16, Picasso was admitted into Madrid's Royal Academy of San Fernando, Italy's most prestigious art school.

All of that to say that Picasso was no slouch in the art department. He was classically trained and, possibly, the greatest classical artist of his day. The problem was that it bored him. He wanted to do something new and different, and that lead to experimentation and the development of many new art styles, especially Cubism. Cubism was born from a desire to go where no other artist had gone before not because Picasso couldn't draw. So to speak.

Of course, there were two responses to Cubism:
1. People hated it. Especially traditionalists. It was viewed as trash that no "respectable" artist would even deign to recognize. They didn't understand it.
2. People loved it. It was new and exciting, something that had never been done before. They didn't understand it, either, but they tried to. People are still arguing over what Picasso's paintings mean.

Of course, the most important response to Picasso, other than the group trying to ignore he existed, was to imitate him. After all, it looked easy enough. Just paint some weird stuff that people couldn't understand, and you had it, right? No, not really. Most of what ended up happening was people painting weird crap that was just crap. Some of the crap was good enough, though, especially when it was all new and exciting, that it got elevated to art status, too.

Sometimes, the imitation was from people that could actually do "real" art ("real" art being art that's not just weird stuff that no one understands because it really has no meaning). These were people that saw Picasso as a visionary and wanted to follow after him. There is, after all, skill involved, even if the result is something that's weird. However, some of the imitation was by people that used Picasso as their reason to not bother to know how to do "real" art at all. They saw Picasso as the short cut. Basically, these are the people that were looking at Picasso and thinking, "That's crap. I can do that. And look at how much money that guy's making!" And they went about making crap and trying to get rich from it. Some of them did, of course. Most of them did not.

Which brings me to writing and the cult of 1st Person that's going on these days.

Over the centuries, fiction writing has mostly happened in 3rd person. I suppose it developed that way because it seems more logical. You're telling a story about someone that's not you, so you tell it that way, "that way" being 3rd person. [Interestingly enough, the book that's most widely considered the first (Western) novel, Pamela, is written in 1st person.] From that perspective (the centuries of 3rd person writing perspective), I can understand the attraction to writing in 1st person, especially 1st person present; it feels new and exciting!

However, 1st Person is the new Cubism in that people are using it as a short cut to actually knowing how to write. The idea that you can write it from the perspective of your character is very attractive, because, if you make mistakes, you can chalk it up to being "the way the character talks." And, since it's 1st person, the whole thing is "the way the character talks." It's a nice bit of sleight-of-hand, and other people who don't know the rules (the readers) often fall for it.

I didn't really really become aware of this issue until I started teaching the creative writing class that lead to this (yes, go back and read that post if you haven't already). Their very first assignment was to introduce me to a character. I used the first of my Tib stories, "The Tunnel" (hopefully, this will be available again soon (I'm waiting for art)), as my example of character introduction. "The Tunnel" is written in 3rd person; everything I got back was 1st person (which wasn't a problem in and of itself). But that's not what did it. One of the stories I got back introduced about five different characters, and they were all written in 1st person, and the author hadn't included any cues in the story to let the reader know that we'd switched to some other character. Much discussion followed.

And this is when I became aware that everything they (they being the kids in my class (minus my son, because he's reading a different class of books)) were reading was YA stuff written in 1st person. But it was really through blog interactions that I realized that the reason everything they were reading was in 1st person was because it's just all in 1st person these days. And 1st person present on top of everything else. And that's when I started understanding why I kept coming across comments like, "That's just how my character talks" on various blogs.

It really hit me, though, when I looked at a couple of writing samples from a couple of people. Both were written 1st person present, and both were full of grammar and punctuation errors, and, when I pointed them out, I got the "that's the way my character talks" response, but, when I looked at their blogs, I found out, no, that's just the way they wrote, and neither of them were interested in fixing the mistakes or learning how to not make those mistakes. Neither of those are blogs I follow anymore, because, really, I don't have time for people that are bad writers and blow it off as being the character, especially when their characters were not writing their blogs.

Personal responsibility, people!

And this is where it gets difficult. I don't actually have anything against 1st person writing. I mean, I wrote The House on the Corner (mostly) in 1st person. Of course, at the time, if I'd realized how endemic 1st person had become, I wouldn't have done it that way, but I was experimenting with what I remembered about The Pigman (you can read all about that here) and didn't realize that 1st person writing was taking hold of the marketplace. Which is why I have such an issue with 1st person writing.

No, not because it's everywhere; however, because it's everywhere, I see, more and more, how many people are using it as an excuse to allow sloppy writing and brushing it off as just being the character. And I'm not just  talking about independently published works, because the problem is rampant in traditionally published works, too.

For example:

Percy Jackson: I only read the first one of these, but there's very little chance I'll go back and read anymore of them. Riordan used the fact that it was 1st person to have his character tell us what we should believe about him as a person but used the action to tell us a different story about the character. The two things were at odds with each other, yet we were supposed to believe what the character said about himself for no better reason than he said to.

Miss Peregrine (which I reviewed here) also does the same thing with the character telling us what to believe even when his actions don't support those things. It's just sloppy, lazy writing.

I'd give more examples, but I have not been overly inclined to read any more of the current generation of 1st person YA books coming out. My experience, thus far, has not been a positive one. Add to that the fact that people want to use their 1st person storytelling as an excuse for bad grammar (and I'm sure I'm gaining a reputation for my stance on grammar and punctuation), and I'm not in favor of 1st person writing. It's just not where people should start their writing careers.

I understand the attraction. I do. It's so easy to just write away and believe that you're writing from the standpoint of your character rather than yourself; it's a problem in 3rd person, too (in fact, I'm reading a book in 3rd person, right now, in which none of the characters are distinguishable from each other), but the temptation is so much stronger in 1st, because everything you write is that one character, and it's easy to fall into the trap that that voice you're writing in is your character's instead of your own. At least, with 3rd person, you have the ability to distinguish between the narration and the dialogue.

At any rate, I'm ready for the fad of lazy 1st person writing to slip past us. I'm also waiting for editing to make a comeback. Seriously. I was just reading an article on CNN last week about how copy editing is one of the quickest shrinking fields, right now. Properly edited work is considered "too expensive," so publishers are cutting costs by letting their editors go.

But that's not an excuse for those of us in the "indie" publishing world to do the same. In fact, it's every reason to rise above the mainstream. Show you care enough about your writing to know how to do it. And, if you don't know how to do it, get help from someone that does. Don't let your 1st person writing be your excuse for bad grammar and lousy punctuation.


  1. I'm always surprised at how many people seem to love the Percy Jackson series, but it was barely mediocre to me. Fun general idea, lame and uninteresting style and product. Harry Potter was great - not amazing, but really above average. Artemis Fowl, a tier lower, but still far superior to Riordan's series. I could go on, but I just really thought the Percy Jackson stuff was pretty poor material for everyone to get excited about.

  2. Also, the 1st Person in the Hunger Games? Boring and uninteresting voice as well.

    Salinger did it well in Catcher in the Rye.

  3. I don't read young adult, but I started noticing that most of the books were in first person almost two years ago. I also remember reading a long article that first person was actually more difficult than third and that most writers tend to stick to third because it's easier. (Ironic, huh?)
    I guess first person appeals to the teens because they can put themselves in the main character's position. Doesn't excuse bad writing though.
    I'll stick to my third person perspective, thanks.

  4. Like most things, if first person is done well it works fine. Same for third. I found I liked John Irving's third-person novels a lot better than the ones in first person because the narrators in the first person ones were so boring. When I wrote "Where You Belong" I did the first draft in third and then the second draft in first person. I liked the first person version better.

  5. I wrote a chapter in the first person just to see what it would be like, It just didn't flow. So I remained in the third person. Personally, I don't care much for the first person.

  6. Janet Evanovich (author of the hugely popular Stephanie Plum series) has said she writes in first person because she doesn't know all that proper grammar and stuff and figures she can get away with it in the 1st POV. It makes me nuts.

    When I start a new book, I'll write a scene in first person and then write the same scene in third person to see which one I like better.

  7. I don't think that first-person popularity is a fad. I think that it's here to stay. The popularity of it in YA is driven by the ease in which someone can slip into the protagonist's head and become a part of the story, although there is definitely a money component because so many successful YA books feature this kind of writing. It's a circular argument really, but I love your approach to it. As for myself, I prefer third person omniscient. It's just what I grew up on reading.

  8. I've never cared much for reading or writing in the first person and especially in first person present. Often that latter style comes off as sounding too much like bad film noir narrative but without the campy schlock.

    Most of my reading consists of older literature or current books I've been asked to review and few of those have been in first person.

    I think your point of lazy readers is reflected in the way people talk these days, and for the ones who write, like you point out about those poorly written blogs you stopped reading, in their poor writing skills.

    One comparison I can think of is in some of the letters I've read from essentially common people in the 19th century, such as soldiers during the Civil War for example. Some of the writing of these non-writers by trade is far more expressive, eloquent, and well-crafted than much modern literature that I've read.

    Many of today's pop writers are mere literary Madonnas and Lady Gagas who cater to an audience that does not esteem thoughtfulness and well-crafted writing and would prefer to inject some mindless entertainment into their brains for a temporal experience and call it depth.

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    Tossing It Out

  9. neal: It was a good idea, and I think that's what really attracts teens to it. And they, usually, can't tell that the actual writing isn't quality. Adult readers, though, they -should- know better.
    I did like the movie, though.

    Alex: And that's the thing, doing 1st person well is harder. But it -seems- easier. Which lead to all the bad 1st person crap on the market.

    Grumpy: True. But the trend is to not do it well.

    Stephen: 3rd is more versatile.

    M.J.: See! That's exactly what I'm talking about. It's just not okay. And it's lazy.

    Michael: I don't think it's necessarily a short-lived fad. At some point, we'll get back to where 3rd person is, again, the "new" thing, and it will switch back.

    Lee: I'm not into present tense. I think it's also a gimmick that people use to increase tension, because they don't know any other way to do it. Again, lazy writing.

    And I agree with you about the decline in eloquence of the "common" man over the last century.

  10. Fascinating thoughts. I knew when you opened with Picasso that this was going to be related to breaking writing rules. (I wrote a piece about punctuation last year where I took the position that people should learn to use the rules before breaking them because not everybody is "Picasso with a pencil.") I wasn't expecting the first person, though. (Obviously I didn't actually read the title. Whoops.) Now that you point it out, I have seen rather a lot of first person the past few years.

    I've been experimenting with first person but mostly in short stories. For some reason, writing in first person (when *I* am not the person, but the person is rather a fictional character) rubs me the wrong way. In general, I prefer third person limited.

    I think perspective is something that should be carefully considered. First person may be right for a story. But not if it's used as an excuse for shoddy writing.

  11. How you present your character (and the point of view you write from) should be driven by the story, and what you're trying to convey. I use a variety of points of view. Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World! is written in first-person, because I wanted the reader to see it from the perspective of the protagonist, who'd just woken up and was trying to discover the world around her, where everyone knows more than her.

    Other stories are third person, but third person itself presents some interesting variations. You could use "third person limited," which I find the easiest, where you only see in the heads of a few (or one) character-- almost first person. Or third person omniscient, where everyone's thoughts are revealed.

    Or you could write in a modified third person: in "Santa, Godzilla & Jesus Walk Into A Bar" (these aren't purely plugs because I'm not linking to them and I'm hardly even mentioning that the latter is available on Kindle for $0.99), I used a sort of first-third person: a narrator telling the story but the narrator was ALMOST a person; if you read that and the follow up "This Stupid Pineapple Is..." you'll see that the narrator is almost a character but not quite. That's tough for me to write like that... so I like it.

    Anyway, I think somewhere between your laziness argument and Michael's "it's easier for kids to follow" argument lies the truth: Writing in first person is supereasy and it makes for a more immediate experience for kids, because they're part of the action.

    I liked the Picasso stuff. You do a good job of tying in disparate ideas.

  12. I just went and read your review of "Peregrine" and I share your disappointment. I was REALLY excited about that book and then just DID NOT like it. So much potential, thrown away.

    I thought a really big problem was his "writing to the pictures" -- he REALLY bent the story to make those pictures work, and it would've been better if he'd just left the pictures out and focused on the story.

    Like you, I disliked "I must be crazy" and I don't like that as a device. It's tough to know what to do with a character who's experiencing something unbelievable -- but one way to have them go through it is look at real life examples. When I have a character go through an incredible experience, I think of the time I nearly died twice in one week. I didn't sit around saying "It's impossible that there were that many bees! I must be crazy!"

    So initially not wanting to believe something weird is happening is all right, but after a while, you've got to say "Yeah, the bees are here."

    The worst part, though, was breaking his own rules. You've hit the nail on the head, there: When you set up a set of rules for your world, DO NOT BREAK THEM. If dragons exist and breathe fire, okay, that's what happens. But don't then have the dragons unable to breathe fire at a critical point.

    I thought it was unforgiveable that he would set up all that time saying that the talents don't repeat, only to in the end say "Oh, and a talent repeated, as it turns out!" Nice.

    As I said, and you said: so much potential, so much that could've been good.

  13. It's definitely a trend that's been inscreasing all over the place. Speaking to middle grade, I think a lot of people may see 3rd person as boring, traditional story telling. I miss stories like that. Not to say 3rd person isn't out there~ it definitely is, and there are still great books being published in third. When it comes to published authors who are clearly good writers, I think you have to be careful about calling it a sloppy or lazy choice to do 1st person. 1st person PRESENT, however, makes me dizzy if I read it for more than a couple of books in a row.

    I replied to your comment on my blog~ my stepson took my copy of Chapter Shorts and has it up at his mom's house...guess I should have gotten 2 copies :)

  14. Callie: "Picasso with a pencil," I like that.
    1st person should never be a fall back because you don't know what you're doing. Make the effort and learn the rules, right?

    Briane: I agree that it should be determined by the story you want to tell. However, I don't think it's any easier for kids to understand 1st than 3rd. I mean, kids grew up reading pretty much only 3rd person for decades and decades, and they don't seem to have had any problem with it.

    And, thanks :)

    Briane (again): I know! It was so disappointing. My wife kept telling me I was being "too hard" on it, especially after she was liking it when she first started reading it. But, by the time she got to the end of it, she felt the same as me.
    And, yeah, don't break your own freaking rules! Why bother with them if you're just going to do whatever you want anyway?

    Jess: I don't know, just because you're published doesn't mean you're not lazy, and Riordan work strikes me as distinctly lazy. Constant short cuts that undermine the action. At least in Lightning Thief. I can't speak about anything else. But, well, maybe it wasn't -him- being lazy; maybe he just didn't have anyone to say "dude!" to him, which makes it lazy editing at the publisher level. Somewhere, it was lazy.

    Oh, and, you know, if you need another copy, don't let me stand in your way :) I hope he enjoys it!

  15. My first novel (middle grade) was in third and my current trilogy (adult) is in first. I have to say first person is a much more difficult voice for ME to write. I have to be much more creative when determining how to tell the story, because I can't just describe everything from an omniscient perspective. I'm limited to my main character's POV and so I have to come at things sideways sometimes to convey all the aspects of the plot, which I kind of enjoy.

    As far as reading, I've never really had a preference for first or third. I'll take either as long as it's written well and the story has an interesting plot. I think you're a little worked up over the wrong thing. I think it's just plain old poor writing that has you riled.

  16. L.G.: See, I've seen a lot (a LOT) of 1st person stories written from an omniscient view, and that's just wrong. I mean, unless your MC is God. Or, maybe, Professor X.

    But, yeah, I am riled about bad writing; it's just that 1st person has given people an excuse to write badly.

    It's like this:
    Before Picasso, if someone wanted to be an artist, they believed they needed to be trained. After Picasso, not so much.

    The same idea is going on with writing, right now. "Oh, I don't need to know how to write, I can just do it in 1st."

  17. This is well said. Like you, I'm not opposed to 1st person, just lazy 1st person. The only thing I've ever written 1st person is Slim, just mainly because it helps show his naive charm more than third person could. Otherwise... I'm a bigger fan of 3rd person. Feels more like a real 'story' to me.

  18. ABftS: I love the Slim stories so far. They're definitely a 1st person kind of thing.