Getting Off On a Technicality: First Person v. Third Person

JournalI’ve had a couple of recent queries about first person v. third person. Maybe I’ll tackle them in my blog. I’d bloody well do something in my blog if I’m to hold up my head as a content creator. And what, after all, was a writer if not the ur-content creator?

She’d had a couple of recent queries about first person v. third person. Maybe she would tackle them in her blog. She’d bloody well do something in her blog if she was to hold up her head as a content creator. And what, after all, was a writer if not the ur-content creator?

I am not too impressed with the finer points of first v. third person in terms of voice, interiority, exteriority, character development, the necessity of plot . . . Third person limited and first person are much the same creature. Sure, you can attribute language idiosyncrasies to your character in first person, but the truth is, you can do it in close third as well. See the second example above: the voice, the language, the thoughts are all, without attribution, clearly those of the third person character, yes?

In first person, you still cannot tell everything rather than showing it. There is little to trust about a first person confession: even with our best friends, we want the juicy details, the scene and interactions, not just the ideas and conclusions.

The key differences come about when you consider the powers of an omniscient third. Now you have the possibility of a storyteller and the option to dip into the thoughts and experiences of many characters.

Of course, you can alternate between two (or more) first person perspectives, but after a while, it can start to sound like a support group or literary experiment. Still, the bottom line rule for writing is, always and ever: whatever works.

Questions to ask yourself: Does this story belong to one main person? Is there someone whose perspective is engaging enough (sometimes because of its limits, as with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), to carry the whole? Do I want access to many points of view, to scenes outside of what my potential narrator has witnessed?

Then again, Madame Bovary was actually written in first person, the narrator a classmate’s of M. Bovary, and yet he has access to the intimacies of Madame’s boudoir. So I refer you, once again, to the bottom line for writing (above).

Finally, do not get hung up on the mechanics. You pick your strictures and your structures and they are the net that Frost insisted on for poets playing tennis: they make the game worthwhile. (Frost said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net.) You use what your choices have to offer, stick to the promises you set up in establishing those rules for your book, and then tell story, Baby!

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