I recently finished writing a literary novel, which I wrote in first person, present tense. I can already hear some of you wincing. So before we look at first person, present tense (let’s call it FPPT), I would like to explain why I chose to write in that way:
My main character is a five year old girl. The only authentic way to view the world as she sees it is in the first person. This is critical to the plot, to the characterisation and everything about the book. There was no debate about that.
I chose present tense, rather than past tense, because although I have heard the opinion expressed that FPPT is often difficult both to write and to read, every moment is important to this little girl. Five year olds usually dwell very little on the past and rarely consider the future. Everything is about what is happening right now. The fly that has landed on your arm. The smells coming from the kitchen. The narrator is purely in the moment the action is talking place, not not weighed down with hindsight or reflections.
However, even in the last couple of weeks I have seen a proliferation of blog posts and tweets saying ‘agents hate FPPT, publishers hate FPPT, readers hate FPPT – don’t write it, you’re wasting your time’.
OK, many of the posts are less black and white than that. Here is the general concensus:
Where FPPT is “acceptable” - Young Adult Fiction (egos, urgency); Short stories (less need for reader stamina); Blogs.
Where FPPT is considered wrong, usually - Adult novels.
But there are exceptions of course. Do they prove the rule?
One of my favourite contemporary books, Audrey Niffeneggers ‘The Time Travellers Wife’, is written in FPPT. It found an agent, a publisher and a very wide readership.
I am currently reading ‘Room‘ by Emma Donoghue. It was published just after I began submitting my MS to agents and I bought it out of morbid curiosity – would reading this Booker shortlisted book, not only written in FPPT but from the point of view of a five year old child, show up fundamental problems with the way I used FPPT? Was I going to be encouraged, or shown up?
The answer is that I have been encouraged. I found the voice of Jack in ‘Room’ quite hard work to begin with. This worried me, because you really do need an engaging narrative voice if FPPT is going to be successfully used. In novel length fiction the reader has to want to spend a lot of time with this character. But as the relationship grows between reader and narrator, which Donoghue manages swiftly and skilfully, the book flows perfectly. FPPT gives a sense of intimacy and urgency to her excellent novel.
Another argument is that using FPPT is that it limits your POV – you can’t observe things that the narrator doesn’t know or can’t experience; you have to tell the story entirely from his or her POV. But this can work to your advantage if you want to keep certain things hidden from the reader or to examine a subject from an unusual vantage point. In the case of ‘Room’ it is used to throw the spotlight on the behaviour of adults as seen from the point of view of someone who has never been one, and up until his sixth year had only ever known two of them.
What is your experience of first person, present tense? Do you avoid books written that way? Do you even notice? If you are a writer how do you choose to use it, or do you follow the bulk of advice and avoid it altogether?