Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

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Re: (EE) Q&A Thread - Quick questions go here

Post by Salmoneus » Mon 21 May 2018, 23:22

alynnidalar wrote:
Mon 21 May 2018, 20:41
@Sal - Ha, well, like I said, I was just making up those theories as I went along. Upon reflection, I agree that I was off-base. I'm not even certain I'm convinced about my theory that first person is more "modern" anymore; the more I think about it, the more 19th century novels I can think of in the first person.

Although, I dunno. Maybe I'm not looking back far enough. Isn't older literature mostly third person? (older than 200 or 300 years, that is) The 1800s isn't all that long ago, in terms of fiction-writing.
Modern but old fiction - the novel - was originally all first-person. It began as genuine letters, and developed into epistolary novels and diary novels*. These in turn gave rise to stories in which the putative letter-writer or diarist was mostly telling a story that they weren't involved in, which then gave us stories in which we have a third-person narrator without an explicit frame story but where there narrator is an opinionated, well-rounded character in their own right - as though we were listening to some guy telling the story he'd heard, only we missed the bit where he introduced himself - and generally omniscient (as though he'd learnt all the facts already). These forms competed for a while (eg epistolary Pamela vs third-person Tom Jones), but the omniscient narrator won out. Then, over time, the narrator became less and less of a character and more and more fixed to a single protagonist. In reaction, I think the beginning of the 20th century saw a brief resurgence of 1st persons and frame stories (eg Conrad's stories are usually told through multiple layers of framing).

1st person, or 3rd framed by 1st, have always been more common in genre fiction, to maintain credibility. Ghost stories, for instance, have always tended to have a 1st person element ("no, really, it's true, i was there!").

Even older fiction? I think European epic poetry typically used a frame story of a poet (which in some cases was the REAL story of the poet!), sometimes very minimal (hark to the tale I learnt from my father!) or sometimes very extensive (going into details about where they heard the story, what they thought about it, etc), and then had the main story third-person. The narrators tended to be more opinionated than modern ones (lots of moral judgement and sometimes digressions) but maybe less opinionated than in the 18th/19th century heyday (less impression of the narrator as a character in their own right, outside of the frame).


*and this gave us one of the most extreme forms of 1st person: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
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Re: (EE) Q&A Thread - Quick questions go here

Post by Axiem » Tue 22 May 2018, 05:05

Salmoneus wrote:
Mon 21 May 2018, 19:40
Because there's a difference between an indicator and a guarantor.
Fair. I think the conditional probability is more like "probability that work will be in present tense given that the author is amateurish" rather than "probability that the author is amateurish if the work is in present tense", but I can see where (for the purposes of sifting through submissions) you'd work more with the latter.

I suspect, if publishing houses are, in fact, changing their hard-and-fast rules in that regard, that it's probably because of the rise of present tense in thrillers and YA. Which, of course, becomes a self-feeding cycle.
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Re: (EE) Q&A Thread - Quick questions go here

Post by Axiem » Tue 22 May 2018, 05:17

Salmoneus wrote:
Mon 21 May 2018, 23:06
(camera stuff)
I think this is a reasonable analysis.
No.
Yes. I find it extremely jarring when a book is almost entirely in 1st person, except for small snippets of 3rd person narration (which, in the instances I'm thinking of, are either scenes tacked on to the ends of chapters, or are very short chapters).
Although the bigger the 'section break', the more change in narration you can get away with, in general.
I'd agree with that. And, you can weave multiple persons around in a story, but I think there's also an important element of how much time is spent in each narration mode. In the jarring instances I can think of, it's something like 95% first person, with 5% (or less) in third person.

Interleaving chapters of 1st/3rd person (the Broken Earth trilogy does this, with the last book interleaving 1st person chapters, 2nd person chapters, and 3rd person chapters) is fine, and while there's a little bit of a shift because of the change in narration, it's not jarring.

Small tidbits that are lore/worldbuilding tagged in there are I suppose ostensibly 3rd person, but they're not really a "shift" in my mind; no more than epigraphs at the start of each chapter or something.
But it's also common to get 1st person narrators at the other end of the spectrum: self-conscious storytellers (often, journal-writers) who explicitly conceal from the reader, and even sometimes lie. They can be real manipulative bastards!
Ah, yes. One of the recent Sanderson books uses this trope to good effect, I think I've heard. Apparently the main character is clearly hyperbolizing everything to make himself look more awesome.

I don't, however, think you can get away with that in a present tense sort of situation, because that's kind of implied more transparent. But past tense, especially if it's clear the narrator is telling "you" a story, then totally.
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Re: (EE) Q&A Thread - Quick questions go here

Post by alynnidalar » Tue 22 May 2018, 16:51

Axiem wrote:
Tue 22 May 2018, 05:17
But it's also common to get 1st person narrators at the other end of the spectrum: self-conscious storytellers (often, journal-writers) who explicitly conceal from the reader, and even sometimes lie. They can be real manipulative bastards!
Ah, yes. One of the recent Sanderson books uses this trope to good effect, I think I've heard. Apparently the main character is clearly hyperbolizing everything to make himself look more awesome.

I don't, however, think you can get away with that in a present tense sort of situation, because that's kind of implied more transparent. But past tense, especially if it's clear the narrator is telling "you" a story, then totally.
I think most first-person narration (at least the good stuff) is a little bit this way, but I have a penchant for assuming every narrator is unreliable. (I blame this on reading Wuthering Heights in high school.) To go back to the Dresden Files, I actually think that series goes the opposite way--Harry (the protagonist and narrator) plays down what he does and presents it as him just desperately doing whatever's at hand... but if you step back, what he accomplishes is extremely impressive (and you get snippets of this from how other characters act and what they say about him). I quite like this, as it keeps the main character from getting too insufferable.

(This is getting pretty far afield from the person/tense conversation, but to expand on my thoughts, I think it's important to ensure a cool character's ego doesn't get too big by making sure they fail and do dumb stuff too. It helps avoid the problem of a "cool" character never facing real challenges and makes them a lot more appealing. Most of the "cool" characters I like are portrayed this way--Geralt from the Witcher series is another example, where he's constantly getting himself into dumb situations that could be avoided if he wasn't such an grouchy awkward bastard.)
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Re: (EE) Q&A Thread - Quick questions go here

Post by eldin raigmore » Tue 22 May 2018, 19:16

I think the unreliable narrator idea does fit in the subthread people have started around point o f view and p erson and tense. And I’m enjoying it.
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction

Post by Xonen » Fri 25 May 2018, 14:25

eldin raigmore wrote:
Mon 21 May 2018, 16:06
Well, it says “quick questions“. It doesn’t say “quick answers“!
...well, be that as it may, I do think the resulting discussion in this case is worth its own thread. But carry on. (Or not, in case the discussion is through. Still, worth being archived in a separate thread under its own title, IMO.)
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by Curlyjimsam » Tue 19 Jun 2018, 11:27

The sort of people who use second-person narratives tend to come across as either amateurish or pretentious.

But then so do lots of first- and third-person stories. Given quite a few people have experimented with second-person narratives, you'd expect there to be a good reason why it's never really taken off.

I've read at least one fairly good story in the second person, and based on that one reason I'd suggest is that it's deadly for characterisation. Once you start referring to the main character as "you", you become reluctant to actually say too much about the character because it feels like you're imposing character traits on the reader. So, at least in the story I read, the main character becomes a sort of bland cipher. They do a lot of things, but you never really feel like you get to understand their motivations or background.

But maybe a better writer could work around that. I can imagine a few ways in which the second-person approach might work better (I'm sure they must have been attempted). One is if the "you" character is actually fairly peripheral to the action, and most of the actually interesting stuff involves somebody else. Or if "you" is not the actual reader, but some fleshed-out character who for some reason is being addressed by the narrator, with the reader merely "looking over their shoulder" so to speak. Of course, you would then need some reason for the narrator to address "you" in this way - perhaps "you" is an amnesiac who needs reminding of his/her past adventures? Or a powerful but arrogant king who has commissioned someone to read him a story of his heroic exploits?

I don't think I have ever read a story in the future tense. I think I would like to before trying to comment on why it does or doesn't work.
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by elemtilas » Tue 19 Jun 2018, 11:46

Curlyjimsam wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 11:27
You'd expect there to be a good reason why (2nd pers. narrative) has never really taken off.

I've read at least one fairly good story in the second person, and based on that one reason I'd suggest is that it's deadly for characterisation. Once you start referring to the main character as "you", you become reluctant to actually say too much about the character because it feels like you're imposing character traits on the reader. So, at least in the story I read, the main character becomes a sort of bland cipher. They do a lot of things, but you never really feel like you get to understand their motivations or background.
An interesting analysis!

As a reader, I wouldn't mind having character traits imposed upon me! After all, the writer doesn't know me personally, so there's no reason to take offense. Second, regardless of whether I as reader am observing the narrative from a distance (3rd pers.) or am being immersed into it (2nd person) I still have to learn about the MC, empathise with her and relate to her. This can't even be done in 2nd pers narrative without the author "imposing" upon me my character's traits!

Me I think if a good character writer simply ignored that (perceived?) stigma of insulting the reader, 2nd person could be a very powerful and immersive technique. Readers want to be immersed in the other world, and what could be more natural than taking the helm, so to speak? You know, experience the life and choices and restrictions of the MC; walk in her shoes for a time!
But maybe a better writer could work around that. I can imagine a few ways in which the second-person approach might work better (I'm sure they must have been attempted). One is if the "you" character is actually fairly peripheral to the action, and most of the actually interesting stuff involves somebody else.
True, though I think this is a less powerful modality. The story might as well be written in 3rd person, if the reader is just going to observe from the sidelines anyway.
Or if "you" is not the actual reader, but some fleshed-out character who for some reason is being addressed by the narrator, with the reader merely "looking over their shoulder" so to speak. Of course, you would then need some reason for the narrator to address "you" in this way - perhaps "you" is an amnesiac who needs reminding of his/her past adventures? Or a powerful but arrogant king who has commissioned someone to read him a story of his heroic exploits?
That could work, too, and I think more interestingly.
I don't think I have ever read a story in the future tense. I think I would like to before trying to comment on why it does or doesn't work.
Probably because, semantically, the future hasn't happened yet. So the story hasn't happened yet either. All the men are on the board and the game is motion, but the conclusions have not been reached. There will come a time when Humanity will make a critical choice... I think even a story set in the future but that is one of possibilities, that haven't happened yet, would still be told in non-future tense.
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by gach » Tue 19 Jun 2018, 17:26

elemtilas wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 11:46
Me I think if a good character writer simply ignored that (perceived?) stigma of insulting the reader, 2nd person could be a very powerful and immersive technique.
Is there such a stigma? My thinking is that whether or not you'd take reading a 2nd person narrative as insulting, the major issue is that having emotions imposed on you in the narrative can get really jarring if they don't align with your personal feelings as a reader. That can make the reading experience pretty unenjoyable and might just be the reason why you put the story aside and never bother finishing it.
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by elemtilas » Tue 19 Jun 2018, 18:33

gach wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 17:26
elemtilas wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 11:46
Me I think if a good character writer simply ignored that (perceived?) stigma of insulting the reader, 2nd person could be a very powerful and immersive technique.
Is there such a stigma?
Like I said, could be perceived! But there's clearly something. Curlyjimsam says it feels like authors are imposing traits (and presumably thoughts & beliefs) on the reader. Could be something to it. This article seems to support the hypothesis: how much character you impart to the reader. Embed too little and they become a bland audience surrogate with no development, too much and the reader may fight back. By telling the reader what they are thinking and how they are feeling, you can sometimes alienate them as they rebel against the character you are forcing them to become.

In my opinion, if a reader approaches 2nd person more interested in fighting back, then maybe the problem lies not with the author or the writing but with the reader's lousy attitude! The whole point is to be immersed, to participate in the action. Like an actor getting into character, the reader of such a story has to set his own self aside somewhat. I can see why an author might be put off from the attempt.
My thinking is that whether or not you'd take reading a 2nd person narrative as insulting, the major issue is that having emotions imposed on you in the narrative can get really jarring if they don't align with your personal feelings as a reader. That can make the reading experience pretty unenjoyable and might just be the reason why you put the story aside and never bother finishing it.
Exactly. I don't disagree with you: I think it is a delicate dance the author and reader have to engage in for 2nd person narrative to work. You'd have to be willing to put aside your personal feelings as a reader. Because now you're no longer the disinterested observer: you're the main character!
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by gach » Tue 19 Jun 2018, 21:04

elemtilas wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 18:33
In my opinion, if a reader approaches 2nd person more interested in fighting back, then maybe the problem lies not with the author or the writing but with the reader's lousy attitude! The whole point is to be immersed, to participate in the action. Like an actor getting into character, the reader of such a story has to set his own self aside somewhat. I can see why an author might be put off from the attempt.
It's a tricky game to play. If you try something more experimental but your writing isn't quite up to the task, the text may come out as gimmicky. In that case the reader has of course the right to be a harsh critic and choose not to read your work.
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by LinguistCat » Wed 20 Jun 2018, 07:19

Not a book but definitely a long work of fiction, Homestuck used 2nd person story telling but 1) it was structured like a choose-your-own adventure or text based video game (and in the beginning did in fact ask for audience interaction in the form of people sending in suggestions for the next command), and 2) one of the conceits was that the reader was NOT the various characters in the webcomic, but sometimes controlled their actions and saw from their points of view.

Homestuck definitely isn't everyone's cup of tea but I think it used 2nd person pov to really good effect.
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by elemtilas » Wed 20 Jun 2018, 15:38

gach wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 21:04
elemtilas wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 18:33
In my opinion, if a reader approaches 2nd person more interested in fighting back, then maybe the problem lies not with the author or the writing but with the reader's lousy attitude! The whole point is to be immersed, to participate in the action. Like an actor getting into character, the reader of such a story has to set his own self aside somewhat. I can see why an author might be put off from the attempt.
It's a tricky game to play. If you try something more experimental but your writing isn't quite up to the task, the text may come out as gimmicky. In that case the reader has of course the right to be a harsh critic and choose not to read your work.
True that!

Of course, if an author's writing isn't up to snuff, the reader can toss the work regardless of what person it's written in!
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Re: Person and Tense of the Narrator in Fiction [split]

Post by Axiem » Wed 20 Jun 2018, 15:42

Curlyjimsam wrote:
Tue 19 Jun 2018, 11:27
I've read at least one fairly good story in the second person, and based on that one reason I'd suggest is that it's deadly for characterisation. Once you start referring to the main character as "you", you become reluctant to actually say too much about the character because it feels like you're imposing character traits on the reader.
As a counterexample to this, I point at N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy. (Actually, I think anyone who wants to see how second person can be done effectively should read it; but I also think it's one of the best sets of novels I've ever read, so there's that)
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