Monday, 28 March 2016

Writing 101: First Person v. Third Person


The first novel I ever wrote, Lucid, was written in third person. I think the reason for this was that pretty much every novel I remember reading as a kid was written in third person. I just assumed that's how you did it. 

Lucid was the first written, but the third published. Angorichina became my debut novel. It was a story I had long wanted to tell, about a TB sanatorium in 1930s South Australia. Somewhere I had passed through, and whose ghosts still haunted me.

I tried several times to write that novel, but it just wouldn't come. Not until I switched to first person one night, and suddenly it was as though all of the characters had turned up to tell me their stories. 

This started a trend: Georg[i]e, Splintered DoorThose Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, The Children of Lir and my nemesis novel (the one in a draw, that will never see the light of day), were all written as first person, and it's only with my most recent endeavour, The Secret Order of the Literati, that I've switched back to third. 

Before I go any further, let me just clarify these terms so that we're all on the same page:

First Person: I

Example 1: I saw him approaching across the room.
Example 2: Those were mine and I wanted them.


Third Person: She/He

Example 1: She watched him approaching across the room. 
Or: Sarah watched him approaching across the room
Example 2: She looked at him as though she didn't know him.
Or: James's wife looked at him as though she didn't know him.


So, what happened to second person?


Second Person: You

Example: You are walking down the street when you are approached by a strange man. You look at him, but you do not recognise him.

This doesn't sit so comfortably in fiction, so we ignore it unless we're writing Fighting Fantasy or Choose Yours Own Adventure books.


Whether you're going to tell your story from first or third person is one of those important details you really ought to figure out before you start writing - even if you're not a planner. 

You should know by the end of the first page which perspective you're going to use, because - like tense - it's a total bugger to change later on. Every single line on every page reinforces the perspective you've chosen, so to switch from one to another is going to require editing every single line on every single page. A problem best avoided with a few moments' forethought.

A quick test is to think of a scene in your novel. Even if you haven't thought out the entire thing yet, there must be a small idea, a scene, a character rattling around at the back of your mind - something that typifies the tale you wish to tell.

Write it down - just a couple of paragraphs.

Have you written it in first or third person?

You have probably already gravitated towards one or the other. If it reads well, and you're happy with it, that's probably the perspective to stick with. If you're uncertain, then just try rewriting that paragraph from the other perspective and see if it reads any better.

Here's an example from Rosy Hours, which was written in first person:

Dignitaries from around the world had gathered at the Rose Palace that night. I heard accents from Turkey, Russia, England, and many more that Eirik had to whisper the history of. The costumes were like nothing I had seen: charmeuse satin, shot silk, ciselé velvet and chiffon. The women wore dresses much like mine, their bosoms prominent, their backsides angled like the billowing sails of a ship, which gave them the impression of gliding across the floor. I came to see that I was an anomaly. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman in a sea of milk and honey.

This is how it would have read in third person:

Dignitaries from around the world had gathered at the Rose Palace that night. Afsar heard accents from Turkey, Russia, England, and many more that Eirik had to whisper the history of. The costumes were like nothing she had seen: charmeuse satin, shot silk, ciselé velvet and chiffon. The women wore dresses much like her own, their bosoms prominent, their backsides angled like the billowing sails of a ship, which gave them the impression of gliding across the floor. She came to see that she was an anomaly. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman in a sea of milk and honey.

It's a subtle change, but it can make a big difference to your story.

To understand why, it's worth exploring some of the pros and cons of each perspective:

First Person

Pros:

  • It is very immediate. This will engage your readers quickly.
  • The reader feels as though they are living the story through the eyes of the character.
  • It allows you to explore a character's thoughts and feelings in depth.
  • It's easy to mislead a reader, or direct their attention, when they only receive the story from one perspective.
  • It's easy to show a situation from two completely different angles if you use multiple first person. For example, two characters witnessing a car crash - one by the side of the road, another from the passenger seat. The reader thinks they understand what happened, until they get the other side of the story.


Cons

  • If the reader doesn't like the character, they may disengage sooner.
  • You can't explore the thoughts and feelings of other characters with such intimacy. You can only observe their expressions or speculate on their inner thoughts based on what your main character can see and hear.
  • You are tied to the location of your main character, unless they're having an out of body experience. 
  • The reader can't easily know something the character does not, unless they've pieced together clues the character appears blind to.
  • If you have multiple first person characters, they can start to sound like the same person unless you give them very distinct voices.


Third Person

Pros

  • The reader can view the story from an observational stance, like looking through a window. They pick up pieces of the story from many different locations and characters, rather than just what they're told by the narrating character.
  • You can flit between characters easily because you're not tied to the location, observations and emotions of one character. The narrator is omnipresent.
  • It's easier to fool about with time frames and chronology when you're not rooted to one character's experiences.
  • The narrator can comment freely on what is going on without having to maintain character at all times. Something can happen, and the author can make a quip or a judgement in the text without it having to be spoken or felt by a specific character.


Cons

  • It is less intimate than first person, so may take a little longer for people to get into the story. The author acts as a middle wo/man between the reader and the characters.
  • You may have to work harder at building an emotional attachment between reader and character, and readers may forget minor characters quicker, or become more easily confused, because of that lack of first person emotional anchor, and the increased speed of plot that omnipresence affords.



Everybody will have their own opinions on this, but a general rule of thumb might be:


First Person When:

  • You are telling a story that is strongly rooted in emotions and emotional reactions.
  • Your story centres on one main character or a small number of main characters.
  • Your story relies on the difference of perspective between characters (i.e. what really happened that night at the party).
  • You want the reader to see the storythrough your characters' eyes.


Third Person When:

  • You are telling a story that is strongly rooted in action.
  • You have multiple characters.
  • Your story relies strongly on the interaction of those characters, and the consequences of those actions, across multiple locations.
  • You want your reader to journey with the narrator, and see the big picture.

Most writers have an instinctive feel for the perspective of their story at the outset, but it really is worth playing before you commit.

If I've missed anything out, do drop a comment below.

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