Third vs First Person Narratives

Here’s a thought-provoking post on third- vs first-person narrative styles: Using Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives

This post is not about how to handle first versus third well, and it’s not about the reasons first-person is challenging even for many experienced writers (though I think it is challenging). Here’s a snippet from the middle of the post:

…anyone who’s read many manuscripts knows that a great many first-person novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies, usually espousing some recently-learned political or social philosophy, or, if not that, their imitation of some current (or just-over) line of bestsellers. At present, this includes vampire or zombie opuses, or invincible characters who look suspiciously like Jack Reacher but have different names.

Another reason many choose a first-person narrator is that it seems easier to newer writers. Many (many!) first novels are written with characters saying and thinking things the writer him- or herself thinks in their own minds. Novels that are fiction in name only; primarily many are just vehicles to assign the writer’s own thoughts to in a loosely-degenerative plot.

I’ve never read through an extensive slushpile, but this seems plausible. The author of the post, Les Edgerton, does note that the most common reason inexperienced writers sometimes reach for first-person narrative styles is that they feel this is more intimate. Edgerton then goes on to point out the benefits of close-third-person for providing that feel, and provides an interesting snippet written in first a distant third person style, then first person, then close third. This is all well worth reading.

His point that a more distant (he uses the term formal) third person can easily be switched to a closer third person by simply substituting personal pronouns for nearly all the instances where the character is referred to by name … not so sure! But I’m tempted to try it.

CJ Cherryh is said to write in a close, very limited third-person style. I may open up a book of hers and take a look, with this post in mind.

I will also add that in general I suspect that most book-length works will “feel” best if the author shifts back and forth from a closer to a more distant third-person style depending on what is going on in the narrative at the moment. I suspect if you pull most third-person books off the shelf and read them carefully, that’s what you’ll find happens. The ability to move closer than then farther away from the protagonist is one of the many advantages offered by third person and unavailable to the author writing in first.

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4 thoughts on “Third vs First Person Narratives”

  1. I don’t know that I would have said dogmatic so much as simplistic. Like, Follow This One Simple Rule and Your Writing Will Improve! I think the technique of swapping out names for personal pronouns to move from distant third to close third is an interesting idea and worth looking at, but I expect in practice it would not prove so simple.

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