First person or third?

On the face of it, writing in the third person will be the more attractive option. It gives the writer complete access not only to what his characters do but also what they think. This is the writer as God approach, and it isn’t surprising that the majority of novels and short stories are written in the third person.

Writing in the first person faces the author with a major question at the outset: how does the narrator come by his information? There are two approaches to this. The author might decide that, for his purposes, it will not be an issue and the narrator will know very much more than could happen in real life. For example, he might have astonishing powers of recall, giving us lengthy passages of direct speech as if, between his ears, he had a fully functional tape recorder or digital recording device. This is what Pawel Huelle does in ‘Who Was David Weiser’. He doesn’t care that a reader (me!) might reasonably ask ‘How could your narrator possibly know all this? He decides that the problem isn’t a problem at all – the writer as God again, but by a different route.

But if the question isn’t side-stepped in this way, we will wish to know how the narrator comes by his information. In the old days, a popular approach was, ‘These papers first came into my hands.’ Nowadays, the narrator might come by a stream of emails, texts or voicemails. And other characters, who have observed events which the narrator has not, will pass their information on. When writing in this way it will always be wise for the writer to ask, ‘How does my narrator know this?’ There should be an answer, explicit or implied.

Sometimes, writers – even famous ones – can be indecisive in this matter. When Patricia Cornwell began her Kay Scarpetta series, the novels were written in the first person. However, when she came to write Blow Fly, she changed to the third person. Then, seven years later, she reverted to the first person in Post Mortuary. This wouldn’t call for comment but for the fact that these books are part of the same series and might be expected to conform to one style of writing. (Bear in mind that she has also changed from past to present tense in this series).

Cornwell was sufficiently established to get away with this, but for authors starting out and wanting to build up a readership, conventional wisdom would be as follows. 1) Write within a specific genre 2) Write a series of books within that genre 3) Write the books in your series with a consistent style. (I am not advocating this advice, simply reporting it).

Then there is the interesting case of John Irving. As published, his novel Until I Find You is in the third person. But Irving wrote it in the first. However, on the advice of his wife he changed it to the third. Given that the book is unduly long, this was a major task which took him nine months. (I believe the couple are still married). So getting this decision correct at the outset can save a lot of time and effort. And while it is perfectly possible to change a first person narrative to a third, going in the other direction would be difficult in the extreme.

But writing in the first person isn’t just a matter of information. Since the narrator will be a person, the author must decide how that person speaks and/or writes. The narrator will have a voice and the writer should let us hear it. This is potentially more difficult than adopting a competent, third person prose style which any one of a number of authors might use.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose one person or the other – we can use both. The novel I read most recently, Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, does exactly that. The main character, Lysander Rief, is urged by his shrink to keep a journal as part of his therapy. So, though the book is mainly third person, the narrative is intercut with first person extracts from his journal. Using both first and third persons is not uncommon and can work very well.

6 thoughts on “First person or third?

  1. Pingback: Not all I’s Are Made Equal | Lime Tang

  2. Pingback: Choosing Your Narrative Style | Seventeen 20

  3. The John Irving story is particularly interesting, Rod, as I did something similar myself recently, the other way around. I hadn’t finished the book though, fortunately, before I decided to change from 3rd to 1st person. When I had finished (and after several edits where I kept finding errors because of the change!) I did consider changing it back again to 3rd person, but I like it the way is is. I enjoy writing in a less formal voice than I’d use in 3rd person.

  4. It’s only too easy to give ourselves extra work, as I’m finding right now in the area of hyphens, n-dashes and m-dashes.

    One constraint with writing in the first person is that the narrator must be sufficiently articulate/educated to bring it off. The last novel I read in the first was Canada, by Richard Ford – where the author solved this problem by ensuring his narrator was an English teacher. How sneaky can you get?

    And what happens when we write several books/stories in the first? How do we differentiate the ‘voices’ of our different narrators? Not easy.

    So in your case the question might be, how many informal voices can you create?

Leave a Reply to rod Cancel reply