Friday, 6 July 2012

Writing in First Person

When you begin writing, using first person often seems natural.  I struggled for a little while to get used to writing in the third person, but it's now my preferred form.  I wanted to write in third because I found it harder to write characters who weren't me when I wrote 'I did this', or 'I did that'.  I later found out that third person is more popular with readers and it's the most flexible form to use, so there are practical reasons for choosing third.

But there are plenty of reasons for choosing first too.  It's easier to capture a character's voice when you're writing in first, as everything has to be from their point of view.  Voice is particularly important in children and young adult fiction, where readers are less interested in areas such as style.  They want to feel that they are experiencing those things, living that life.  Having said that, many favourite characters, including Harry Potter, are written in third.

First person means that the reader only knows what the narrator chooses to tell them.  This allows scope for writing unreliable narrators, where part of the pleasure for readers is discovering that the narrator is fooling them (and also sometimes themselves).

Someone was recently quoted on radio as saying first person is essentially a lie as the narrator, by definition, has already experienced those events.  That can be part of the unreliable narrator, but sometimes the sense that the character is telling their story to the reader is part of the pleasure - I love the Mary Stewart trilogy about King Arthur which is narrated by Merlin.  Part of my enjoyment is in the way Merlin explains what's going on, and gives background that would be otherwise be hard to digest.  The books simply wouldn't be as good in the third person.

First person is also useful when there's an outsider narrator - Dr Watson, for example, or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  Dr Watson allows Sherlock Holmes to be inscrutable and brilliant without alienating readers by his arrogance, Nick Carraway observes the entwined relationships between Daisy, Gatsby and Tom in a dispassionate way that would be impossible to write about from any of the main characters view point.

So there are lots of reasons why you might choose first person.  I'm sticking to third - I don't want to slip into autobiography.  But that's my point of view.  What's yours?

7 comments:

Jean Bull said...

Hi Sarah, I found it easier to get into the emotions of Kathy in my first book by writing in the first person. However in my new book, I'm trying third person, and getting on all right so far . . .

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight!
Funny that you're mentioning this right now since I was kind of struggling about the POV a couple of days ago.. However, I already decided that I was going to go with the (close/limited) third person, and probably going to incorporate some POV of my hero too!
More over, writing in third person feels right to me and I think that's what should be really important. It should come natural...

womagwriter said...

I've got a mix in my WIP - the contemporary parts of the story are in 1st, and the historical in 3rd, from two characters' POVs. Hope this is going to work!

Anonymous said...

Have to say, I feel more comfortable in the first person. And my narrator is not always rational...

(Blimey! That captcha code's a real swine today. Hope I get through it)

Alison Morton said...

Sorry, Sarah, forgot to put my name to my comment in the anxiety to beat the captcha code. Here it is again:

Have to say, I feel more comfortable in the first person. And my narrator is not always rational...

Sarah Duncan said...

Jean, that's interesting - are you finding it easier in 3rd?

Anon, I find third is more natural now for me too.

Womag, I think mixing it up often makes for more interest, so long as there's also consistency.

Alison, I like a non-rational character, but they can be hard to pull off! Sorry about the captcha codes, I don't know why they're so hard sometimes.

Shauna said...

I'm a bit late on blog reading this week, but I found this one interesting and it reminded me of a short story I wrote a few years ago. It didn't work in third, and so I tried rewriting in first, but the character was so full of self-loathing I just couldn't write it in first and so as an experiment I tried second, which to my surprise, worked well.

That's one of the reasons I love writing short stories, as you can try something very different to your usual style. Also, while I think something like second can work for a short story, it would be difficult to write for a novel, and I'm not sure how easy it would be to read for an extended time, though I know there are a few novels written in second person.