Not long ago, a young friend of mine was enthusing to me about Miley Cyrus’s song ‘Wrecking Ball’. She played it to me on her phone, and told me the song was obviously about Liam Hemsworth. Being less up with celebrity gossip than she was, I asked her to explain. “The song’s about a really painful break-up,” she said, “which is what happened with Miley and Liam. It’s obvious this song’s about him.”
Later, I went to my computer, and Googled up the song. And as I suspected, it was written by a team of songwriters, and not one of those was Miley herself. This didn’t surprise me: I write songs as well as novels, and know a bit about how the music industry works. The only way this song could actually be about Miley and Liam was if the songwriting team decided to write a song that resonated with Miley’s personal crisis in the hope that this would give their song an edge with her manager.
My friend’s face fell when I explained this, and I realised that I’d just devalued the song for her. When she thought the song was a tribute to a lost love, she felt like Miley had opened her heart to her fans, and told them about her heartbreak. It felt like a personal connection. Telling my friend that the song was something a faceless team wrote and sold to Miley’s management turned that personal connection into a cynical commercial transaction. I felt a bit bad, and mused that this was why the fact that most pop singers don’t write the songs they sing is kept fairly quiet: people want to believe the emotions and the lyrics are coming from the singer.
After years of writing stories, songs and poems in first person, I invented my own name for this: the first person fallacy. When you write or sing in first person, using “I” and “me”, a lot of readers will assume the narrator is you. That the singer is the person whose lover came in like a wrecking ball, or (in the case of Let Down Your Hair) that the author is the person who was raised by a controlling feminist professor.
It’s not that there’s no truth in that. You do draw on your own inner world when creating one for a fictional character, because your own inner world is the only one you have full access to. There are aspects of Sage’s character and personal history that parallel mine, but Sage isn’t me, any more than Miley is the narrator in ‘Wrecking Ball’.
When I think about it, though, I wonder whether the first person fallacy should actually be taken as a compliment. It means that your listeners or readers feel connected to your main character, and believe her emotions are real.