One of the key choices writers make when beginning a piece of creative writing is to decide where to position themselves in the text. It’s a subject worth exploring as getting it right helps writers achieve their aims. In this blog, the first of two on authorial voice, I’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of the first and third person. In the second blog, I’ll look at the less common second person, examining how approaches and techniques such as switching the point of view, free-indirect speech and the insertion of the author in the text are useful for both writer and reader.
For most writers, it’s a straight choice between the first and third person. Fiction writers just starting out tend to opt for the first person. Often, there is a personal reason why people want to write, or they may simply be excited by the idea of writing as a form of self-expression. The first person lends itself well to needs such as these because the story is being told from one person’s point of view. That allows for the emotions that the narrator is feeling to be conveyed directly to the reader.
But the first person can restrict writers as the reader’s experience of the setting is contingent upon just one person’s account. Unreliable narrators – an example is Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita – give the reader a spurious view of the world, in the case of Humbert Humbert, convincing the reader that his middle-aged lust for a 12-year old girl is perfectly understandable.
Then there are more reliable accounts such as those from a person purporting to be objective about events. An example is Utterson in Robert Louis Stephenson’s in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Here (plot reveal alert!)! Utterson, a lawyer, tries to objectively recount his bizarre encounters with two men – the respected Dr Jekyll and apparently demonic Mr Hyde. As this story is told in the first person, Utterson and the reader arrive simultaneously at their suspicion that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are in fact one and the same person. The first person limits us to one view and that’s why Stephenson is able to tease the reader about what may or may not be happening. In this case, the first person is a good way not only to convey direct emotion to the reader (in the case of this novella, fear and terror) but also to offer a subjective account in which the reader is gripped by what may or may not be happening.
The other main approach is the third person – ‘He went to the store’, rather than the first person ‘I went to the store’. With the third person, the reader is a more distant from the intimacy of the story than with the first person. It’s as if the author is omniscient, floating above the text as they tell the story. For that reason, readers believe the writer is telling the truth, playing the traditional role of narrator. It’s difficult when you write in the third person to lie to the reader about what has happened in the story. The account given is presumed to be faithful to what really happened, even though although different third-person accounts can offer different versions of the same events.
What the writer can do to retain control over the narrative is choose which parts of the story to tell and which order to tell them in. It’s in the writer’s hands to build suspense or keep the reader guessing. You may believe that you will be unable to convey the emotion that characters are feeling as well you would in the first person. But what you can do in the third person is craft the way your characters react with more freedom than may be possible in the first person. The range of language that can be used to convey emotion when writing in the first person is limited by the character the author has created. Characters who stumble when speaking will not be convincing if their interior reflections on emotional states are delivered with eloquence and dexterity.
For science fiction writers, who want to do more than tell a story and who are interested in other aspects of character than emotion, the third person has one key advantage over the first person, which makes it the preferential approach for science fiction writers such as JG Ballard, who wanted to do more than tell a story in the text and who are interested in aspects other than emotion. The third person allows the author to map a setting – a futuristic utopia or the surrealistic setting of JG Ballard’s Vermilion Sands – and flit between different locations at will. The use of the first person would put a break on such authorial freedom.
In writing in the third person, the setting can be even more important than the characters. From the opening lines of Vermilion Sands, it’s clear that Ballard’s focus is the location. Characters don’t get a look-in:
‘All summer the cloud-sculptors would come from Vermilion Sands and sail their painted gliders above the coral towers that rose like white pagodas beside the highway to Lagoon West.’
The author is commenting on the setting as a whole, identifying visual details that build a picture for the reader. In this sense the third person, the form used by scriptwriters, is filmic. A camera follows the action, taking on the role of third person when the story is acted out.
What determines your choice of first and third person? Do you find your writing is more successful in one than the other?