Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Echoes 19 on FFN, First Person Present

Chapter Nineteen, "Resurrection and Life," on Fanfiction.Net

Something I notice a lot when reading fanfiction is the scarcity of first-person and, strangely, the correlation of first person with present tense.  The first person itself is a deliciously tempting perspective, and it's not one I see done well often.  Just in dialogue, people have to be able to talk in a distinctive manner--word choice and variation of grammatical structure are pivotal to making characters distinct even when you avoid the more obvious means of varying speech patterns, accents in particular.  I dare say it's much stronger to keep the former two effects in mind rather than pepper someone's dialogue with contracted vowels.  There's a great difference between a chair and a recliner or stool.

First person really takes that to another level; everything described and seen has to be filtered through one character's eyes and ears.  It's not easy, and all too often I read what's not filtered through the character but through the author--the vocabulary and focus simply match...well, a teenager.  And that's great for characters that are teenagers, but ironically, there are things about the way teenagers talk that grate after a while and should be avoided.  Like, talking this way is so totally annoying when you do it for page after page and stuff.  One of the examples I remember best is Huckleberry Finn; Twain starts with his accent very heavily shown, but by the end of the book, it's toned down considerably, and I don't think the suggestion was that Huck's speech had improved.  Rather, Twain dials it down after you get the point.  It's intentional, and by being intentional, he can control it finely.

The second aspect of this phenomenon is the present tense.  Often times I see the present used ubiquitously when there's a lot more power to the tense used in scarcity.  Present can be used for a sense of immediacy, for example.  Writing a whole story in present tense just comes off as overly conversant and amateurish.  I personally like to see present used to give a contrast between what the character thought at the time and what they might think now, in hindsight, but that's if you subscribe to the notion of a character actually writing it, I suppose.

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