First or third person? To I or not to I?

One of the questions a beginning writer struggles with is: which person to write?

It’s also a subject that some writers are very passionate about. My Beautiful But Evil Space Mistress™, for instance, describes how she was taught one can only write “real literature” in the third person — and in response embraced first-person with a vengeance. (She does, however, state pros and cons in her article.)

You will have people arguing that first-person is only for beginners, because it looks easy. (“Play bass, because it’s the easiest instrument” comes to mind — not so, if you want to play like Geddy Lee, John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Jack Bruce, or any other bass virtuoso.) On the other hand, others argue third person is easier for a beginning writer, as you’re not tied to a single character’s POV (point of view, perspective) and there’s the largest variety of classic examples to ‘learn from by osmosis’.

Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The choice between third person and first person reminds me a bit of learning English vs. learning a “strong grammar” language like German, Russian, or Hebrew. English is much easier to learn than those, but paradoxically more difficult to master. As a beginning writer, I wrote my debut novel, On Different Strings, in third person omniscient because I basically couldn’t imagine how to tell this tale otherwise.

First, a couple more definitions:

  • grammatical person (which I prefer over the ambiguous ‘viewpoint’) refers to whether one writes as “I”, “He”/”She”, or (quite rare) “You”.
  • POV (point of view) is exactly that, POV. True, in first person you substantially have just one POV, except by stratagems such as included letters, reports, … or a telepathic protagonist. But in third person, the ‘camera’ can switch angles many times in a book. Doing so too abruptly may be disorienting, hence the oft-quoted rule: ‘no more than one POV per scene’.
  • as ‘voice‘ I would define the idiolect — the specific way of speaking — of each character, as well as (in third person) of the narrator. If one does not give them distinct voices, everything will merge into one ‘glop’.

First-person definitely complicates plotting and character description — I see it almost as a form of constrained writing. On the other hand, you do not have to worry about the mechanics of “proper” viewpoint switching as there is none. Also, it simplifies character “voicing”  — the narrator and the viewpoint character are one and the same. Also, it becomes more natural to hold back information from the reader and not give the plot away.

The first time I wrote anything in first person — which was The Tenth Righteous Man for the CLFA Anthology “Freedom’s Light” (the story appears in full in the “Free Preview” of the book on Amazon) — the people I sent it to all remarked on how “immediate” the writing was. (That it was based on truly mind-boggling actual events did not hurt.) Note that I did not write in a chatty contemporary American idiom: the character spoke in my head in his mother tongue, with the formality befitting his social status, and I tried to capture the cadence of that speech in the English prose I wrote.

Encouraged by the response, I wrote the psychological romance Winter Into Spring likewise in first person, but now in the American idiom of its Midwestern viewpoint character. Unlike in The Tenth Righteous Man, where substantially only a single ‘voice’ is heard, the second protagonist and their antagonist needed distinct speaking voices—the limited parts of the supporting characters less so.

In third person, as already mentioned, you can “switch camera angles”, you can get in multiple character’s heads (which is only possible in first person if the protagonist is a telepath), and you must have a distinctive narrator voice aside from the character voices. The narrator voice seems like a natural outlet for those who like to write more formal, literary language — this is a bug to some who want to read/write a whole book  ‘written the way people talk’, and a feature to the rest of us. In the case of On Different Strings, since one of the two protagonists is an academic of upper-class British background with a neo-Victorian outlook on life, his voice is the most formal and literary in the book, while the narration is more informal, though less so than the plain speech of his best friend and eventual soulmate, a rural Texan woman with limited education but immense musical talent.

Little did I know there’s more than one kind of ‘third person’. Pat Wrede distinguishes between three subtypes, for which I will quote her figurative descriptions (highlights mine):

  1. Tight third person (also known as intimate third-person, third-person-personal, limited third person, third person subjective, etc.) This is the viewpoint where the writer sticks with a single viewpoint character, providing his/her thoughts and emotions directly. The only way for the reader to find out the other characters’ emotions is for the viewpoint character to guess or infer them from what those characters say and do.
    [Wikipedia uses the term “third person subjective” for alternating single viewpoint characters.]

  2. Camera-eye third person (also known as third-person objective, observer-in-the-corner, third-person-impersonal, fly-on-the-wall, third person indirect, camera-on-the-shoulder, [third person dramatic], etc.). In camera-eye third person, the narrator does not give the reader anyone’s thoughts or emotions. The writer just describes expressions and actions, provides dialog and tone of voice – the stuff that a camera or observer could see, and nothing more. Sometimes the writer’s “camera” sits on one particular viewpoint character’s shoulder; sometimes it’s further away, or changes focus; but it always shows only what is happening from the outside.

  3. Third person omniscient [a.k.a. “all-knowing narrator”, a.k.a. just “omniscient” — what one might irreverently call “G-d perspective”, Ed.], in which the narrator is an invisible character who knows everything that has ever happened or will ever happen and everything that anyone is thinking or feeling, and who can report as much or as little of this as seems appropriate.

In case this wasn’t obvious, most classic works of literature were historically written in third person omniscient. And in fact it is still widely used to great effect. But yes, there is intrinsically a bit more ‘distance’ from the characters — which may be a bug or a feature, depending.

And then there’s alternating persons. One variant, alternating first person, is fairly common in genre romances: the narrator voice switches back and forth between the two sides of the relationship, usually at chapter breaks or at most at scene breaks. Some indication is needed to see which character’s side of the tale we are told: simply putting their name in italics atop the chapter/scene seems to work reasonably well.

Rarer, and to many readers disorienting, is alternation between first persons and a third-person narrator. I have seen this used to great effect, but it strikes me as the literary equivalent of a Jack Russell Terrier (or its American cousin, the Rat Terrier): I couldn’t imagine a better dog than mine, but they are not for first-time dog owners.

There are additional modes of telling a story. A fairly old one is the epistolary novel, which first became popular in the 18th century — Dangerous Liaisons and The Sorrows of Young Werther come to mind. The tale is told through a sequence of letters, documents, newspaper articles… sometimes interspersed with small connecting passages. In a contemporary or futuristic novel, Email messages, blog posts, instant messaging chats,… can be used in a similar fashion. In fact, limited inclusion of epistolary material can greatly enrich a first-person or third-person tale: consider, for instance, the quotes from the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, or the ‘book within a book’ The Theory And Practice Of Oligarchic Collectivism  inside Orwell’s immortal Nineteen Eighty-Four.

At the end of the day, of course, there is no single answer: whatever gets the tale told most compellingly works.