The Truth About First Person Present Tense

Have you ever felt like the little boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes? The truth is right there, as plain to you as the nose on Gerard Depardieu’s face, even though everyone else refuses to see it? Well maybe that’s not a perfect analogy. The grownups in the Hans Christian Andersen fable knew that their narcissistically gullible ruler was parading around with both sceptres on display. They only went along with the charade in order not to upset their meal ticket. I’m talking about selling yourself a bill of goods and believing with every fibre of your being that you made the deal of the century.

There are too many examples of this in contemporary America. Hardline conservatives believe corporations can be trusted to regulate themselves. Liberals believe voters are rational creatures who prefer long-winded policy briefs to emotionally charged slogans and memes. Devout fundamentalist Christians believe dinosaurs are extinct because they were too big to fit on the Ark. Non-believers will froth at the mouth if you so much as hint that atheism is a religion. Science and fantasy fiction fans think… well, you get the point so let’s not go there.

Writers are no different than readers when it comes to misguided beliefs. Accompanying the ongoing trend towards dystopian stories in Youth/Adult fiction is a very heated debate over the use of first person, present tense narration, which is becoming predominant in that particular sub-genre. “The temporal violation is jarring,” say some of the writers in Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors, my favorite Facebook writing group. “It feels like someone is standing in front of me telling a story, which doesn’t allow me to connect with the character. I want to be in the story! Third person, deep past present tense does that best.”

Without belittling people whose opinions I respect and value, I feel the need to call bullshit on such rationalizations. I also feel the need to say that first-person, present tense should be the most effective method of connecting with your reader when written well.  Of course any narrative styling is crap when it’s badly written but I’ll concede that FPPT, as Bill the Cat might call it, is both comparatively rare and difficult to write, making it necessary to preface any remarks.

No one argues that the difference between first and third person, as well as present and past tense, is the level of urgency. The pressure of being in the moment with the outcome uncertain is naturally more intense, more visceral. A detective always wants to question suspects and witnesses as quickly as possible. Not only are the details still fresh in their minds but so is the raw emotion. With the main character relating events as they unfold, as well as sharing his/her thoughts and feelings, you the reader should be much more invested in FPPT than when reading a detached recollection possibly told by someone else, especially considering that your narrator is very much in the dark and concerned about what may happen next.

Third person, be it past or present tense, is more like being a general commanding a force in the field. The battle unfolds at a distance, offering you a wider perspective, but more important to this argument, also a measure of safety. There is a buffer between you and the sight of dead and dismembered bodies, the concussive sounds of mortars followed by screams and moans, and the smell of blood, sweat, and fear. You still feel it, but not with the same intensity.

Unlike readers who shun FPPT, the best generals are ashamed that they must lead from the rearguard. They want to be in the forefront of battle, risking their lives along with their men. Glory means nothing because every victory is tempered by the grief of writing letters to the mothers of the fallen.

It isn’t disconnect but fear that motivates readers to seek the safety of third person, deep past tense.  First person, present tense asks the reader to connect not just with a main character they may despise, but with aspects of their own psyche that they also abhor. Yet we shouldn’t be turning away from the mirror. Uncompromising honesty is what instills individual greatness in both a novel and a person.

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2 thoughts on “The Truth About First Person Present Tense

  1. Dariak says:

    Thanks for the detailed viewpoint. For me, when I read first person, I feel as if I’m the character himself/herself. I then tend to argue with the decisions being made, thinking to myself, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” Or, “No, I don’t see it that way.” Okay, so that’s a little silly.

    More than that is the lack of world presentation. If everything is filtered through the eyes of a single character, I feel there is a loss. True, it depends on how it is written. Some authors can bring in a lot of varied viewpoints even in first person, but it doesn’t always jive for me. It’s hard to change the way a person views a situation, so a first person story is often heavily filtered through that lens, else it isn’t a consistently-told tale. Some days I’m in the mood for the one-sided view of things, but because I already am a person living through my own two eyes, despite having my ears open, I prefer the more expansive descriptions available in third person.

    Then again, playing a video game like Skyrim, I’m a single character experiencing the world as it appears to me, so there’s clearly merit to the style. I guess then, for me, it boils down to my mood.

    Like

    1. Martin Palazzotto says:

      I can understand your perspective because it’s different than rejecting the form out of hand for some irrational reason.

      Yes being in the thick of things presents a narrower view. Sometimes there is more value in limiting the reader’s input. Consider situations in which there is little room for compromise.

      If you wished to explore the mind of a victim of chronic abuse, for instance, is there any need to understand why his/her abusers act as they do? No. There is no excuse for abuse so motive is immaterial. The focus should be solely on the victim and if the reader is left wondering why the protagonist is being subjected to such treatment, all the better. Keeping readers in the dark means they are living in the character’s world, feeling the same emotions. If your knowledge is limited to the victim’s then you understand her better. The connection is stronger because of the narrow perspective.

      I’m not saying that there should be only one way to tell a story. I enjoy touring new worlds as much as any reader, and third person past tense is ideal for painting a broader picture. Society bears examining too. There is an important place in literature for FPPT, however, and it distresses me to see people dismiss it arbitrarily.

      Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back.

      Like

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