1st vs 3rd person —

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.


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8 thoughts on “1st vs 3rd person —”

  1. Wrede has written a lot about POV, all of which makes sense to me. She’s analytical in a comprehensible way. You might find a visit to her blog and clicking on the viewpoint keyword turns up something useful.

    Back in the beforetime I couldn’t read first person. It wasn’t ‘real’, it came across as too distancing. It’s not a problem now but I certainly remember when it was. The effect you describe is real.

    I can’t say much about Salvatore’s books, as I haven’t read them. But from what he says in that posting, it sounds to me as if he wants to put stuff in that he can’t figure out how to convey in one head/won’t work harder to figure out how to convey through the one head/may not really need in the story, but thinks is nifty. It does not make me want to go see what he does, or recommend him as a good example. As I read his statements I found myself channeling Jo Walton grumbling about how she sweat over getting certain information into her (first person narrative) duology because the narrator simply wouldn’t NOTICE that sort of thing – emotional undercurrents, that category of story stuff. But she did eventually get it in, enough for this introvert to pick up, at least.

    I notice the post ignores the possibility of the first person narrator dying before the end. I’ve seen that done, although not recently. Although something is now niggling at the back of my mind that there was a book not long ago where the narrator died and kept writing.
    Or wrote the whole thing after death. Anyone remember such a thing?

    In first person, the writer has to be in character throughout. I would think that *would* be hard to keep up. Writers who can write in wildly differing first persons – in unrelated books, mostly – have my respect.

  2. I agree; I used to hate first person. Now I like it fine, if it’s done well. And I do think that adding “journal entries” is cheating, in a way. Though again, if it’s done well I’m sure I’d love it. I’ve never read Salvatore either, by whatever odd chance.

    If I were picking ONE author who does brilliant first person, well, actually I’m sure I’d dither if I tried to do that for real, but Stephen Brust is the one who instantly springs to mind. Not that I like all his books equally or anything, but some of his Vlad Taltos books are SO good, and talk about capturing a character’s voice!

  3. My favorite example of using both first and third person narratives in a single book is Kathleen Duey’s A Ressurection of Magic series (starting with Skin Hunger). The third person storyline is one that takes place in the past, while the first person is one going on now–but the different tense usage creates very interesting feelings about the immediacy and intensity of each story. It’s the only case I can think of where this is done really well, though the narratives are split from chapter to chapter making it a more simple transition.

  4. Yeah? I will have to pick that one up and take a look at it. It sounds like the sort of book to read twice — once to enjoy it and once to study the technique.

    Why, yes, there it is on Amazon. And now it is on its way.

    Wow, my TBR pile is stacking right up again, and after I was starting to make real progress whittling it down, too.

  5. As soon as I saw “mixed first and third person” I thought of Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron. It is the most striking example of mixing the two for effect that I can think of, though I ended up hating the story and the characters (how’s that for a recommendation?). It is, however, probably not the thing to study for technique, since it is the kind of trick that only works once.

    … on second thought, I think Gene Wolfe’s Short Sun trilogy does something similar, though it is not as striking.

  6. I have my first E Bear novel downstairs now (Range of Ghosts) — so I sure hope I don’t end up hating the story and the characters!

  7. Well, what I really disliked about Bear’s book (and Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely) is that characters don’t even have control over their own will, let alone their actions. They are slaves because of choices that strangers make, forced to act, and use all their resources, not because of the threat of violence (which is something you could choose to defy, even if it means dying) but by an irresistible compulsion.

    In some other books (that girl in your Griffin Mage series; Cold Fire, etc.) there may be geases, but they come from a choice the character affected made, though perhaps in ignorance; and resistance is possible.

  8. That does sound problematic. Yes, choices have consequence and then you have to deal with those consequences; but that’s not the same as not having choices!

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