Originally posted July 9, 2007, revised with some updates
First person or third person? Ah, the great debate that begins before a writer types their first “Once upon a time.” Thousands of virtual trees have been felled for all of the pages and pages of debates on Internet writing message boards about this very topic. So which should you choose to write that novel??
Only you can answer that. Ha! You probably thought this was going to be easy. Twenty pushups, on your knuckles.
Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts that you might keep in mind as you’re both making this decision and then putting it into practice.
The absolute most important thing to keep in mind as you’re crafting a first person narrative is that everything that occurs has to be filtered through your narrator’s perspective. Everything the reader sees is therefore infused with the narrator’s personality and pathos. Things don’t just happen in a first person narrative, they happen through the narrator’s perspective.
The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it’s clear to the reader that it’s not the whole story. You’re getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative.
Think about it like this:
reality (slightly hidden) -> || prism || -> the narrator’s perspective and thoughts (what the reader sees)
One of the great tensions in a first person narrative, then, is between what the narrator is saying and what the reader senses is really happening beyond the narrator’s perspective. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the narrator is unreliable, it just means that we’re seeing the world through a very unique character’s eyes — and only through that character’s eyes.
A protagonist might really convince herself, for instance, that she isn’t sad that her mother died, but the reader senses that there’s more to the story. Not necessarily unreliable, but it’s also not the whole picture.
The other great essential element of a first person narrative is that the narrator has to be compelling and likeable (and redeemable). I may get a lot of grief for the “likeable” part, but hear me out. Nothing will kill a first person narrative quicker than an annoying narrator.
Now, this doesn’t mean the narrator has to be a good person, and hopefully the narrator is well-rounded enough to be a complex character. But the narrator has to pass the “stuck in an elevator” test. Would you want to be stuck in a room with this person for six hours? Would you want to listen to this person give a speech for six hours? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider.
There are many different ways to craft a third-person narrative, and perhaps the hardest part is deciding how far you want to get inside your characters’ heads. Do you want to use that god-like ability to really show the reader every single thought? Or do you want to keep their thoughts slightly hidden?
I tend to believe that the most interesting third person narratives jump into character’s heads to show their thought processes but leave some distance between what is happening on the outside and what the characters are thinking. This way, to take the example of a character’s mother dying, rather than knowing exactly what the character is thinking, the reader does the work to try and empathize with what the character is feeling in that moment and based upon a character’s actions.
Think about it this way. The diagram for first person is reversed for third person:
reality (what the reader sees) -> || prism || -> what the characters are thinking (slightly hidden)
The tension, then, is still between what’s really happening and what the reader gets to see, but in this case we’re using our reading ability and natural empathy to deduce the character’s motivations and feelings based on the god-like narration of what’s really happening in the world of the book. In other words, we see the outside world, but the inside is slightly hidden.
One of the very most common mistakes writers make in third person narration is doing too much work for the reader — using the omniscient perspective to tell the reader what the characters are thinking and how they’re reacting, rather than trusting the readers to do that job. Show not tell is the cardinal rule of third person — show the characters acting upon their emotions rather than telling us how they feel. This keeps up that really fascinating barrier between what we’re reading and what we sense is happening behind the prism.
Wrapping It Up
So, to boil all this down:
The tension in first person is between a character’s unique perspective and what is actually happening in the outside world.
The tension in third person is between what the reader sees in the outside world and what is actually happening from the characters’ perspectives.
Now, there are many more distinctions between first and third person, so that’s where you come in — please add your two cents in the comments section. First person or third person? How should we further distinguish them? What are your tips for both?
Photo by Spigget via Creative Commons