First Person versus Third Person

Since I started writing, the only narrative voice that seemed natural to use was third person. This, I credit mostly to the fact that I took a great deal of influence from the Harry Potter books at the time. No, not to the point that I wrote about a boy wizard, but the style was undoubtedly similar, as you might expect for a twelve-year-old. Since then, it has only periodically occurred to me to step outside of this comfort zone, and my reasoning has never quite seemed powerful enough to warrant such an immediate shift.

Over the years, I have come to realize an almost certain danger when writing in third person. Purple prose, flowery language, or over indulgence. Virtually none of my narratives have a sense of clarity, or of brutal honesty, amidst the long, flowing descriptions of Bryson’s pain, of Jannah’s cruelty of or Daryl’s strength. While I do believe that this is necessary in some places, it is not necessary to the extent I used it. Bearing that in mind, this may well be more to my own shortcomings as a writer, as opposed to a danger of writing in third person as a whole; while I feel the narrative voice tends to call for it, in reality, it does not. This is also, no doubt, a word-padding mechanism I use, and now, it seems implausible for me to be able to write anything that remains direct in message, without digressing every few sentences to the point of the novel itself having no recognizable structure whatsoever.

This, however, may have more to do with holes in what I might have thought was my meticulous plotting and less to do with losing myself in an endless stream of descriptive, flamboyant language. If I sense that I am stuck in a lull, that my characters must wait for time to flow freely, then the first order of the day is a favourite of mine; introspection. My family will tell you that I am forever looking in any mirror or window I may pass – this is not due to vanity, as I can’t stand the way I look, but in my case is the constant paranoia that there is something stuck to the side of my face, that my hair looks stupid or that there is something grotesque about me that people are staring at. I have a long-standing habit of causing my characters to do the same, but not out of irrational paranoia. Mirror sequences are my excuse to do two things simultaneously; the character’s first glance in the mirror will almost always serve to establish their appearance and convey it to the audience (it’s become a cheap trick of mine). Any subsequent scenes of a character staring intently at their reflection are followed by in-depth musings about their lives, their choices, and more often than not, a period of said character berating his or herself. I have come to know my long, pointless descriptions simply as ‘mirror scenes’.

The danger, for me, when writing prose in first person is altogether different, and if I’m honest, I have written little more than short stories, most averaging less than a thousand words, in first person. I have a theory as to why I am unable to sustain writing from this narrative viewpoint; the most obvious is that the track becomes too personal, the characters become a mouthpiece, and not in a positive way. I like to think of myself as having fairly strong opinionswith regards to certain things, and while at one time there was the temptation, this overwhelming urge to use my writing as a political tool (a typical ‘disaffected youth’ kind of scenario), the urge has since subsided enough to allow me to focus at least a little, while simultaneously causing me to reconsider another bane of my writing life that I have never so much migrated from as tried desperately to both forget and deny.

To call it self-insertion would not quite give the right impression. It is not so much this as losing sight of a character’s voice, and I would not go so far to say that I am at all capable of granting an individual voice to each individual character just yet, anyway. The connection is an obvious one. My latest foray is simple enough, and only in its infancy; I think of the passages I have written as test shots or an attempt at getting to know each character. I have already resigned myself that it will be a slow moving project (something I am not used to), if only because of the intent to string together ten different narrative viewpoints; essentially, ten separate lives that may or may not be loosely connected, with each character being drastically different to the last. So how do I prevent Gina from speaking too formally, or Maria from coming off as too masculine? Aside from an awful lot of character exercises, including but not limited to dressing and acting as each in public for at least a week. Actually, that prospect is a lot more tempting than it actually seems.

You and I, I am sure, are both wondering, now, what this has to do with my original point; essentially, first or third person narration? In turn, I have to ask the question whether a writer, at any point during their writing ‘career’ (I’m loathe to call it that if only because not everyone who writes makes a career out of doing so) must choose which style or narration they use for ever more. I am tempted to say no; to submit to the idea, I feel, would be limiting at this stage. I am far more likely to fall for the notion that the voice should be dictated by the story, or instead, by how a writer wishes to tell the story. Personally, I am not yet done experimenting, and thus, am not yet ready to settle. Furthermore, if it is not the done thing, then why not? Other than being confusing for the reader, perhaps.

Which do I prefer? It’s difficult to say. I am not going to make a snap judgment, though have significantly more experience writing in third than first. Does this mean I am not open to change? Of course not. Saying that I will do only what the plot calls for is my ‘get out clause’ if you like.

I doubt anyone will mind as long as I’m not telling them what to think or believe, though.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “First Person versus Third Person

  1. Jack Campbell, Jr.

    Part of finding a voice is experimentation. I don’t think anyone, even those decades into a writing career should ever cease their experimentation. Write in first person, write in third person, write in second person, even. (It sounds weird, but a short short in second person can be very effective if it is a relate-able subject.)

    Try past tense. Try present tense. Try future tense. But, the important thing is to keep writing. Write fast, write from your heart rather than your head. Don’t think about grammar, politics, voice, or anything else until your second draft. Just write it down. 1000 words will soon seem like nothing.

    Keep at it. Your blog shows you are already a good technical writer. I have no doubt you will be a good creative writer, as well.

    • Very true; I’ve found myself experimenting more and more with ideas before actually thinking of putting it towards a long-term project as of late; second person can be really effective, too, I agree … I have the feeling I do it inadvertently sometimes!

      Indeed; this is definitely how I feel more comfortable writing. The less time I have to consider things after the planning stage the better, but maybe I need to … improve my planning as a result.

      I’m glad you think so! Certainly … I love words and language, and the things that can be done with them, and creating; it seems to have paid off in my studies as well! (: Thanks!

  2. Yeah it can be hard to decide. I think third-person is more common, but first-person can be better for character development or in-depth analysis about a character (I recently read “Never Let Me Go”, which is written from the perspective of the main character, which worked extraordinarily well).

  3. Nikki

    I think it comes down to the story you are telling – a very personal journey in which the narrator has a strong voice and their outlook is vital to the story demands first person. I think it was Nathan Bransford who described it as a prism through which the reader sees the story.
    Alternatively, in 3rd person the reader can know things that the character doesn’t and it can be an easier, less personal reading experience. So I think it’s good to practice short pieces in both, then you can think about what suits your story.
    I am definitely starting to see a drawback of nano in prizing word count over everything. It definitely leads to word padding and over-writing.

    • That’s true (: … I think that’s kind of where I’ve been getting it mixed up, to be honest; no matter how hard I try to center my work around plot, it always ends up being very character based, driven, and ultimately central. Something like that … actually could really do with the insight, the accessibility a first person perspective grants.

      I think it’s the less personal part, though, that always entices me to writing in third. xD … in that I’m scared, I think, of some of my characters coming across as one note, without it actually working to effect. I’ve been writing off and on, though things have been crazy – every time I make plans something comes up. x_x – but the shorter pieces have given me a window to contemplate other directions … before I can take them anywhere, though, of course, I need to settle on my narrative. (:

      Indeed. I love doing it, it’s just when I stop, think, and notice that I’ve got maybe 20,000 words that actually go anywhere. xD speaking of which, I’m hoping to try and swing by some of the Camp NaNoWriMo write-ins if I can get into Norwich; it’s been a bit tricky as of late. >_<

      • Jack Campbell, Jr.

        I would love to do NaNoWriMo, but it is scheduled in the worst possible month for my day job. I get a lot of overtime in November.

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