First vs Third. Perspectives in Fiction.

I – sorry – Rob always seemed to end up writing in first person.  He didn’t think about it too much really, until he was watching a creative-writing class on the internet in which the writer giving the lecture said that it was the easiest perspective to write from: The beginners mode.  Rob supposed that there was some truth in those words, but also felt that writing from the first person was a very good way to really get inside a character’s head and feel what they are feeling.  Rob felt that his work just needed to speak the truth, and that the reader needed to be close to that character’s decision making process, so the  they could clearly see the reasons to their actions.  Some people would argue that if the writing was good enough, the reasons would be clear anyway.  But the level of depth allowed from the first person perspective can take the reader deeper into the character’s world, and even out of their own, meaning they happily ride along with the character even if they wouldn’t in real life.

I (Rob) do think that it suits certain stories a lot more, too.  Obviously, very complex plot lines with many different characters, would be very tricky to write in the first person because you would have to hop from one person’s head to the other and it could get confusing for the reader.  But then I do prefer stories involving fewer main characters anyway; I always feel that the more characters you have, the thinner you spread their personalities and you end up caring about them less.  My least favourite type of scenario in these cases is the dinner-party scene, where all of the characters are happily sitting around one table, so you can flick back to that page when you can’t remember whose narrative you’re supposed to be following: If I have to flick back then the story, to me, has failed – I’ve eaten dinner and I’m full.  I don’t want to go back for more of the same.

No, I like the first person because then, the story is my story.  I… I… I… all the way!  And the fact that you’re reading “I” all the time must have the subliminal effect of drawing the reader in.

But that might be another part of my organic style of writing, less characters, less planning, and I’m not a planner.  Plus, some of the best stories I’ve read have been in the third person.

Rob sighed and asked himself, ‘do I really need to worry about this first and third debate anymore?  It just is what it is.’  He took a deep breath and began to check through the text for typos, missing plenty, and then hit the publish button.

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16 Responses to First vs Third. Perspectives in Fiction.

  1. Great post. I (David) actually take the opposite approach. I seem to write more in Third Person. I like how it gives you the ability to change perspectives, if you want. I end up writing with Third Person Limited more than anything else, because I do find Third Person Omniscient annoying and, at times, hard to follow. That said, I just finished a short story in First Person and enjoyed it quite a bit.

  2. claudsy says:

    Thanks for the pingback, Rob. I think you’re right. Some writers produce more complex and immediate characters in first person. Others couldn’t write in that voice if their hands were threatened with grievous harm. It’s where the narrator feels comfortable in the long run.

    Good post. I enjoyed it.

    • Thanks. And I agree with what you say there. Yours was a good post on the topic.

      • claudsy says:

        Thanks, Rob. Sometimes an angle comes up and slaps you in the face, and you’re just never the same again. That’s probably a good thing. Otherwise, there’s no growth for the writer.

  3. katemsparkes says:

    I think the story should dictate what perspective you use. That, and what you’re comfortable with. I much prefer writing in first person, but it’s not because it’s easier; I prefer reading it, too, because I like seeing the world through the character’s eyes, feeling what they’re feeling. It’s what makes books better (for me) than movies. That’s not to say I never read or write third person; I do, and I often love it. It depends on the story (as you said) and the writer.

    I had a hard time deciding with one novel. I knew first person felt right. It was perfect. The character’s voice was there, and attempts at third person felt flat in comparison. Unfortunately, this protagonist spends a portion of the story unconscious… not so good for first person. I ended up using two first-person narrators. People say it’s overdone these days, but sometimes you have to use what’s best for your story, trends (or people calling first person “easy”) be damned.

    • I think it does depend on the story, and although I jest about it, a current project I’m working on looks like it’ll be from a third person perspective. It just has to be done that way. Perhaps it’s whether the character is similar to me; this one is not, so it’s easier to write from a distance. Maybe that’s it!

      • katemsparkes says:

        I think that does make a difference. After I decided on dual-first person, I had a much harder time getting into the man’s brain than the woman’s. I actually considered doing his parts in 3rd person, but I’ve seen that used elsewhere recently and I’m really glad I didn’t. It has gotten easier, but for sure it’s simpler to see things through eyes that are a bit more similar to your own!

  4. tocksin says:

    What turn me on to the “I modus” was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground.
    It’s like before that book, I did not know the power of I.

  5. I prefer to read and write first person because of how it makes me feel close to the characters. I also prefer first person to read because it usually means I’m only getting one side of the story. Since I tend to choose books with heavy romance elements, I enjoy this POV because I’m right there along with the protagonist wondering what his or her love interest is thinking and feeling. Much of the tension is lost for me when I know how the other person feels because, it’s right there on the page!

    Writing in first person can be challenging because of what it forces you to leave out of the story. I’ve found some aspects of the plots I’m writing are very difficult to integrate because my character isn’t in position to see what’s happened. I’ve painted myself into a corner a couple of times and left myself with only the option of having some other character just tell my MC what happened. Blah. So, then I have to rethink what I had planned.

  6. Steve Freeman says:

    All creative writers write for self-expression, and the form of the novel has held a particular fascination for creative writers for the last three hundred years.The first novels were written in the first person, eg Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. At some point the third person narrative took over and has been dominant ever since – although there seems to be a trend towards more first person narratives nowadays. As we move into the future people will continue to write novels, but there will be an increasing trend towards self-expression that is more direct and autobiographical – and ‘first person’, rather than at one remove. Use of the third person narrative is essentially a dishonest strategy employed to put some distance between the author and his or her work, a way of self-expression at one remove. Some readers prefer this because they find direct self-expression from an author somehow difficult to take. We live in a world where it is normal for writers and readers to create and consume elaborate fictions as a way of escaping from reality or of avoiding the facing of their real lives directly. Of course this is justified in the name of ‘art’, but it could also be said that it points to a weakness in human consciousness in general – the inability to face or express truth directly. The true function of the writer, whether that be as poet or novelist, or even as short story writer, is about getting to the truth of reality, directly and honestly, as it is lived by the writer, and as such it is at odds with the mentation and process of fictionalisation, falsification – and third person narration.

    I disagree with the idea that use of the first person is the ‘easiest perspective’ or ‘beginners mode’. In my first attempt at novel-writing I used the third person, a set of characters and a plot in a fairly conventional way but was unhappy with the end result, which struck me as essentially dishonest in its fabrication of ‘characters’ and ‘plot’. There was a lot that I wanted to say, and I realised that the best way to say it was by speaking more directly to the reader and putting a lot of myself into the voice of the narrator. Some of my favourite writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller also graduated from writing conventional third person narratives to more direct, honest and autobiographical first person narratives, where there is only a thin line between autobiography and fiction.The work is presented as ‘fiction’ as it is about the re-living of one’s life in such a way that is not so much concerned with getting all the facts right in chronological order (even if that was possible) so much as expressing the ideas and spirit and location of one’s life in such a way that is digestible in the form of a book that is categorised as a ‘novel’. One of the difficulties of this sort of writing is that it exposes the author’s life a lot more nakedly than a novel narrated in the third person, where the author transfers aspects of their own life and personality onto invented characters. This exposure of the self (which is often greater than that found in straight ‘autobiography) is no doubt a scary road to go down for many writers as it leaves the writer open to criticism of their self as much as of their work. On the other hand, it is an honest and liberating way to write that is appreciated by readers who value honesty, truth and directness.

    Back in the late nineteenth century Emerson said: ‘These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries and autobiographies – captivating books if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences,and how to record truth truly.’ As we move into the future there is an increasing trend towards the autobiographical novel or non-fiction novel as writers and readers desire ‘the cut of truth’. At the same time there is an opposite movement in the direction of fantasy and escapism, and a clinging to the tired old fictional formulas of plot, characters and third person narration. The very word ‘novel’ implies to most people the use of those formulas, and most readers are comfortable with formulaic writing. At the end of the day the choice of first versus third person depends on what a writer wants to achieve with their writing, which in turn depends on what sort of person they are and their understanding of writing and the creative process. For me it has to be first person narration.I have published three autobiographical novels (‘Black Sail’, ‘The Purple House’ and ‘Down West’) that are presented as ‘fiction’, but am now moving towards writing that is more straightforwardly autobiographical.

  7. sknicholls says:

    Are you familiar with http://www.neverendingstorydespository.wordpress.com? They have fun with exercises in this all of the time. Great group of folk on The Community Storyboard sharing ideas and testing different writing skills,

  8. sknicholls says:

    I hope you got the correction on that link. Charles Yallowitz and ioniamartin are two of the founder s and two of the most helpful people that I know on wordp[ress!

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