Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Intimacy of First Person by John Marco

Back when I started writing seriously, I was convinced that a “real” epic fantasy novel had to be written in third-person.  I had read THE MISTS OF AVALON, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and other classic, epic tales, and was certain that I wanted to follow their lead.  I wanted to write a book with lots of characters, following them where they went and weaving their individual stories into one big tapestry, pulling together all the threads by the story’s end.  That was “bigness,” I figured.  That was how to create the heft and scale I wanted in my books.

Eventually, I did finish that first book.  THE JACKAL OF NAR came out in 1999, a third-person narrative with a “main” character and a constellation of other, somewhat lesser characters to support the central protagonist’s journey and to give the book the kind of moral ambiguity I figured could only come from different viewpoints.  The story was long, complex, and by the time I wrote the third book in the series, difficult for even me to remember completely!  But I was proud of what I’d written.  I’d kept all the pieces of the story moving in my mind like a deep game of chess.  I wrote three books in that first series, and then went on to write another trilogy, also featuring lots of characters and third-person narratives.  I even wrote a YA novel.  Shorter than all the other books I’d written, yes, but still in that third-person viewpoint I’d gotten so comfortable with.
And then, something happened.  I don’t know what it was that made me want to do it, but I suddenly really wanted to write a first-person story.  I wanted to more deeply explore the main character in my second trilogy, a troubled knight named Lukien who had already been through a ton of trials in the earlier books.  Lukien was, unquestionably, the heart and soul of the books I’d written, and yet I felt that his story had gotten muddled somehow, lost in a sea of sub-plots that had been meant to bolster his story but instead weighed it down.  I wanted to revisit Lukien.  I wanted to know him.
A lot of new writers think it’s easier to write a first-person book than one written in third-person.  With only one main character and viewpoint to contend with, there’s only one timeline that matters, one central thread for the writer to follow to the end of the story.  Before I actually started writing seriously, I was one of those writers that thought of first-person as “easy.”  To be completely honest, I even considered it something of a copout.
But of course I was very wrong.

After writing seven books with lots of different viewpoint characters, I stared at the computer screen a long time before the first words of Lukien’s new story came to me, the story that would eventually become THE FOREVER KNIGHT.  I had spent years writing in my own voice, and it took me time to realize that now I had to write in Lukien’s voice.  It was his story, after all.  I needed to hear his voice in my head.

It took some time.  I went back to reading some first-person narratives to get the feel for how it’s done.  I remembered some of my own favorite first-person stories, like Charles Portis’ TRUE GRIT, an absolutely fantastic example of first-person writing and that elusive thing called “voice.”  Reading TRUE GRIT, I could feel that character of Mattie Ross—she was alive on those pages.  She supplanted the author’s voice entirely.  That’s what a great first person story does.  Above all, it’s a character study.  It’s an intimate conversation between the narrator and the reader. 

Eventually, Lukien’s voice came to me.  I felt his bitterness and rage and all the things that had gone wrong in his life.   More importantly, I knew that he was a good man, frustrated by his inability to do good things.  After spending years writing about him in previous books, I finally got to know him.  Some who have read THE EYES OF GOD and the other Lukien books don’t think of him as good.  I used to be able to understand that, because previously I was like an outsider looking in, spying on Lukien and the other characters but never really getting to know them intimately.

That’s no longer true.  I’ve created lots of characters over the years.  Readers sometimes ask me if I have a favorite.  I used to dodge that question because I really didn’t have a favorite.  But that’s not true anymore.  Hands down, Lukien is my most favorite character of all those I’ve created.  It’s not even close.  He’s like a close friend now. 

If hearing that makes you roll your eyes, that’s okay.  I know it sounds odd.  Writers are an eccentric bunch.  We talk to our characters, we act out scenes, and we immerse ourselves as deeply as we can in the worlds we create.  Sometimes we prefer them to the real world.  I don’t know how much I’d like Lukien in the real world.  I don’t think I’d ever be friends with him because we’re such different types of people.  But I have gotten to know him by writing in first-person, in ways I’m sure I never would have otherwise.

John Marco is the author of seven books, including the bestselling Tyrants and Kings trilogy and the books of the Bronze Knight, Lukien.  His next novel, THE FOREVER KNIGHT, will be published by DAW books in April 2013 and is available now for preordering.  To find out more about John and to read his ramblings about nerdy things, please visit his website at

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post, John. I love hearing about your process and learning from your insights. Looking forward to The Forever Knight!

    Thanks Debra and David for having John as a guest!


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