This post over at Omnivoracious, by Susan Morris, caught my eye: it’s on using first and third person in the same novel. Morris starts off by saying:
“First person, while seductive in its seeming simplicity, is actually an incredibly difficult technique to master. Similarly, third person, while omnipresent, is far from easy—requiring the mastery of various “narrative distances” to truly work it to its best effect. And using both in the same novel? Adds a whole new level of tricky!”
Which is totally true. Whenever I’m on an appropriate panel, I’m all: Watch out, people, first person is much harder than it looks. And then it just kills me not to provide good examples of authors who really aren’t using first person effectively, by which I guess I mean bad examples. Whatever.
I mean, there’s a reason I haven’t ever written a (published) book in first person, right?
Someday I will try it again as a way to stretch, and at least this time I will really know how important it is to frame the story so I can keep track of who is telling the story to whom and how far after the action the story is being told. This is like what Marie Brennen did in A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, and framing the story makes it MUCH easier to write, and never mind that it also clarifies the story for the reader. Though it does that, too.
Also: Technique aside, notice that if you are telling a story in first person, with the story being told after the fact, then your narrator must be distant in time from the action she is narrating. Right? So that in a peculiar way you are distancing your reader from the story in a way that a third-person narrator doesn’t do. So that a third-person narration may feel closer to the reader and more immediate than the first-person narration, even though it seems like it should be the other way around.
Not that every first person narration has this effect. But you just have to be a better writer on a sentence-by-sentence level to pull that off. DIVERGENT by Roth springs to mind as a book where this worked fine, but then various unbelievable plot elements drove me away and I haven’t ever picked up the second book. But the sentence-by-sentence story telling is really good!
So, anyway: A book that has a good discussion about all this is Orson Scott Card’s CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT. Card also discussing narrative distance, in case that caught your eye in the snippet from Morris’ post: how close to being in your narrator’s head are you, and how and why you move closer and farther away from your narrator when you’re telling the story. All good stuff! Really this is one of the only books on writing that actually seems like it might be helpful rather than purely interesting.
Morris brings in RA Salvatore to explain how he combined first and third person, which he did by adding first-person “journal entries” to a third-person narrative. But you know, I can easily think of an author who combines first and third person seamlessly without resorting to any kind of inserted-journal-entry gimmick. That is Judith Merkle Riley, who in her wonderful trilogy that starts with A VISION OF LIGHT, moves very smoothly back and forth from first to third person, with Margaret’s viewpoint being presented mostly, but not always, in first person, and other characters’ viewpoints being generally, but not exclusively, in third person. So it can be done. But only if you’re a really, really good writer.