First person, second person, third person…

Hey, you can tell that this is a British blog – even the titles queue.

No, this is actually me being opinionated about writing again. To summarise… first person is when the narrator of the book uses ‘I’, second person is when it’s ‘you’, and third person is ‘he/she/they’. Of course, you all know that, but I thought I’d say it anyway.

Second person is really rare, except for those ‘choose your own adventure’ books. I read a couple when I was a kid, and they were pretty fun then. Not so much now, I don’t think, but I haven’t seen any around lately. I don’t know whether that’s because they’ve gone out of fashion or because I just don’t browse the shelves where they live. It’s quite a strange narrative device, because it puts the reader directly into the action (You’re standing at a bus stop, and you see….). I can imagine that it would be very difficult to write successfully because it’s even more demanding than first-person. At least with first-person, the author gets to construct the narrator from the ground up. With second-person, the poor author doesn’t even have that luxury. You can just imagine it:

Book: You reach out and lift the beautiful pink lace ball gown from the hanger and hold it up against your body, posing in front of the floor-length mirror…
Reader (a): “No I bloody don’t! Not in public. The other lads on the rugby team would never let me hear the last of it.”
Reader (b): “No freaking way. Pink with my skin tone? You’ve got to be joking.”

That’s probably why you hardly ever see it.

First and third person, therefore, are the common narrative styles. Personally, I’ve always preferred third person. I like getting different characters’ points of view on the same scene – it’s always interesting to see how different characters interpret exactly the same events, and can be pretty entertaining. It’s also the easy way to character development: because the author can change the point of view at will, the reader gets to listen in to different characters’ thoughts. Sometimes, seeing a character from the inside is the quickest way to demonstrate that they are ‘more than they seem’. The tough macho guy has a soft centre, the character you thought was a good friend is actually a nasty little back-stabber… This can ratchet up the tension, because you know something about the other characters that the protagonist doesn’t. You can also observe events happening at widely different locations, giving you a god’s eye view of the whole thing. You can see disaster approaching, and you can’t see how the hero is going to avoid a horrible death, and he can’t see it coming… With third person, the scope of the narrative is infinite – you can really do cast-of-thousands. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series takes third person all the way. Not only does the action range across star systems, but Weber manages to have several plot threads running at once in different places – and even in different books. Some books overlap, so you get the same event from a previous book described in the new book, but from a different perspective. Some readers don’t like this, but I don’t mind it – I think it’s interesting. And given the size of canvas he’s using, it’s the only way he can get all the bits painted in.

I suppose you could say that Weber has taken his series to the logical conclusion of third person narrative, in that it’s more the story of a civilisation rather than a person, or a set of people. The scope is just that large; the plot (or plots) is just that complex. I don’t think that you could do it with first-person narrative.

First person narrative is, I think, more difficult to write well than third-person. Third person is pretty forgiving, because, being godlike, the disembodied narrator can see all and know all. With first-person, the narrative is restricted to the perceptions of one character (unless the author is doing multiple-viewpoint first person, which can be very confusing if done carelessly). The limitations are obvious: if it happens outside the narrator’s immediate vicinity, they don’t know about it until someone or something tells them. Clumsily done, this can result in a lot of unnecessary and clunky conversation (“Oh, did I mention to you that…”). The other problem is that to do first-person narrative really well, the author has to be really good at writing character.

The thing is, the reader only sees the story, and the other characters, through the eyes of the narrator. This means that not only does the narrator have to be well-written enough to be an interesting person in his own right (since the reader is going to have to spend the whole book in his head), but also he has to be complex enough to be able to make complex observations on the other characters. The reason, of course, is that the reader only experiences the other characters through the narrator. If the narrator is not high-res enough to think in a complex way, then his observations of the other characters will be equally low-res – and so you will have a whole book of flat-appearing characters. And there is no way, as an author, you can rescue the book – if you have a weak first-person narrator, you are, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed.

A good example of this, which I alluded to yesterday, is the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. When I bought Storm Front, the first book in the series, and discovered that it was written in the first person, my heart sank. But, having paid out good money for the book, I read it anyway. And really, really enjoyed it. And I found that first-person did not have to be restrictive; Harry Dresden is an excellent narrator – intelligent (although not always terribly sensible), articulate, and with a dry and self-deprecating wit. He is an excellent (high-resolution) lens through which to see all the other characters; his commentary not only serves to illuminate the other characters but also reflects back on him, so we become aware of Harry’s own prejudices – that Harry himself might not be aware of. Like I say, this is first-person narrative done well; as a narrator Harry adds a certain verve and immediacy to the story that would be lost if the books were to be written in the third person. As a reader, I never feel that I miss the other viewpoints; Harry is very much the main character in the Dresden Files, so it’s natural that the action should revolve around him. Butcher has, however, redressed the balance somewhat by writing short stories from other points of view, thus allowing readers to get glimpses of the Dresdenverse that are closed to Harry, such as other characters’ homes, places of business, and the inside of their heads.

This, I suppose, comes back to demonstrating that first-person is inherently more restrictive than third-person – even though the Dresden Files books are very, very successful written in the first-person, Butcher feels that he has stories to tell in the Dresdenverse that cannot be told by Harry.

The choice of narrative voice, therefore, is not a case of one being inherently better than another; it all comes down to the writer’s skill and the type of story they are trying to tell. Second person is so difficult and potentially restrictive that it’s hardly used at all. First person is great for giving a story immediacy, but depends on a strong narrator and mostly narrator-centric action. Third person can be impersonal, but has the advantage of being infinitely flexible and rather more forgiving.

It would be an interesting exercise, I think, to try to write the same scene, or the same story, in all three narrative voices, and see how they come out. Has anyone ever done that?

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7 thoughts on “First person, second person, third person…

  1. The Table of Zekki

    I think Helen Dunmore wrote a novel in second person, which was weird to read. I couldn’t finish it. I have written a couple of chapters of a novel in both – started in first, then felt it would free me up to not have it feel so personal. Now I have to go back and change the lot!

      1. Theophania Elliott

        No worries… One for each eye!

        I think second-person viewpoint is something Helen Dunmore likes; she’s done it in at least two novels (The Siege and Counting the Stars). It’s probably one of those Marmite things: you know, people either love it or hate it.

        Looking on the bright side, at least you decided first-person voice wasn’t right for your novel after only two chapters. Soul-destroying to have to rewrite a whole novel. 🙁

        Did changing to third-person do what you wanted it to?

        1. The Table of Zekki

          Yep, I think so, in that it made me less self-conscious. But the book is still unfinished. Supposed to be working on it this week, but procrastinating by writing Tim’s food blog instead!

          1. Theophania Elliott

            Oh, if you’re doing something useful it doesn’t count as procrastination. 🙂

            I, for example, am doing all the ironing instead of writing out my dissertation proposal.

            Sometimes I think leaving writing to sort of marinate is a good thing. You come back to it with more ideas, or you realise that what you’ve already written is utter crap and you need to rewrite it. Besides, if you’re not in the right headspace for creative writing, you might as well not bother, unless you’ve got a deadline to make. I’ve tried writing when I’m not in the mood, and quite often what I end up with is stiff and pointless and I end up deleting it anyway.

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