4

My name is Alex and I'm writing a fantasy novel. I don't know if I should use first or third person narration.

First person writing is good for protagonists and important characters, but third person, or "narrator style" is remarkably good for explaining the plot and the world.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of both styles? Can you give me some knowledge, please?

  • Related, possibly a duplicate: Options for point of view in a story – Neil Fein Sep 17 '17 at 0:17
  • I prefer reading third person. I am middle aged. I like that there is often more information given by the narrator. My teenage daughter prefers reading first person. She likes that the main character feels more intimate. – DPT Sep 18 '17 at 19:57
6

First person vs third person narration does not really change what can be narrated. In both cases, the narrator is the narrator and it is their role to tell the story. You can tell a character's thoughts in third person or in first person, including the thoughts of characters other than the narrator, as Kerouac does in On the Road.

Don't confuse the first person/third person decision with a much more fundamental decision about the style of narration that we might call the distinction between the surface and the deeps. The great privilege of the writer is the freedom to look under the surface, to report things to the reader that cannot be seen on the surface alone. But many writers today, whether as a deliberate artistic choice or in heedless obedience to the show-don't-tell doctrine, choose not to plumb the depths, but to attempt to show what is below only by its effects on the surface. (Often this involves roiling the surface in a most unnatural way.)

The use of first person narration is often associated with this surface only style of narration, and third person with the licence to plumb the depths. But there is no necessary connection between the two. Third person narratives can choose to deal only with the surface and first person narratives can choose to plumb the depths.

The real function of the first person narrative, I would suggest, it to set up an alternative narrative persona. The personality of the narrator is always part of the substance of a story, part of its appeal. A third person narrative suggests that the narrator is the author themselves (though the narrator in a first person narrative can be the author themselves as well). A first person narrator is a mask that the writer assumes which allows them to tell the story in a voice other than their own. It is a kind of literary ventriloquism. But this literary ventriloquism can significantly change the mood and character of the story if carried out successfully.

The most obvious consequence of this is that writing in the first person (unless you are writing as yourself) creates an additional set of difficulties for the writer. That means it is probably something that beginning writers should try to avoid, unless they can't find a way to tell their story any other way.

And actually, the applies to any and all literary techniques. They all increase the complexity of the task and should probably be avoided unless they are essential to how the story must be told and unless the writer is confident and experienced enough to bring them off successfully.

5

Although I have read a few things I liked written from the first person, I can't write that way myself; it is far too limiting and constrained. For one, the POV character has to be in every frikkin' scene or learn about what happened from other characters, books, videos or some other kind of discovered information.

Second, if the POV character is narrating the story, it isn't possible for the reader to know something the POV character does not (and thus for the reader to know the POV character is making a mistake or walking into a trap).

Of course the exception to this is if the narration is in the past tense, but that implies to the reader the POV character survived to tell the tale, the problem was solved, the antagonist is neutralized, and to me the story is either dead or had an unhappy ending. This may be a pyschological quirk of a minority (that includes me), I don't know: But if the story is told in the past tense, the tension is weakened and I care less.

For example, "I didn't know it at the time, but I was walking into a trap." Perhaps I am overly analytical when I read, but this doesn't build any tension for me: Because you were, but since I have 150 pages to go clearly you got out of the trap. Good on you; what happens after the trap? For me there is no surprise at the springing of the trap, or your rescue or clever escape I know must be coming. Just like I don't find WW II stories very interesting; I know the Allies mistakes don't matter much, they win. Hitler's victories don't matter much, he loses. Anything else is a Twilight Zone fantasy. (Up close WW II stories can be interested; e.g. in Saving Private Ryan, we can't know the ultimate fate of the squad members or the fate of Private Ryan).

I prefer the flexibility of the God's Eye POV and third person narrative. I can write about what Alex is feeling or what she is thinking, and what Brian is feeling or thinking to oppose her. Or not: I can just show you want Brian is doing. To me the Third person is accepted everywhere and is so flexible it outweighs any stylistic advantage of First person. Readers will identify with a character if you consistently let them in on what that character is really thinking and feeling: Who else can they know that about except themselves?

In short, you can get all the intimacy of the first person narrative without any of the shackles. You can tell the story in the present tense and sustain tension about what happens next. I can show Brian accidentally discovering Alex's hidden suitcase in her potting shed, then Brian shopping online for a GPS tracker and hiding it in the suitcase lining; then Brian testing the phone app that shows him where it is; and that night greeting Alex with a smile when she gets home. Now I have tension, the reader knows something Alex does not, and although the reader knows Alex's current plan will fail and she will find this out eventually, IMO this approach has far more tension than either sticking with Alex's in the first person (where Brian's actions while she is at work cannot be known) or Alex speaking in the past tense, in which case Alex has to tell us a third person tale of what she later guessed or learned Brian was doing, after the fact.

Further, Suppose she doesn't inform us, and in present tense just deliberately executes her escape from Brian, using a subway and then buses, getting transport to three different States, and in each terminal chose the next State by coin flip and bought a new ticket for each in cash. She has a fake ID it took her months to craft. Then surprise! Brian shows up at her Motel 6 door 48 hours later. This has to be unexplained in first person present tense, and looks to the reader like a deus ex machina. Brian won't tell her how he found her; why would he? The GPS tracker worked for him once and might work again.

To me, in third person, the situation is believable and the tension greater. Alex's confusion and dismay that her plans failed makes perfect sense, but the reader knows Brian showing up, no matter what precautions she took against being followed, also makes perfect sense. Then we have more tension in the reader: Alex's year of planning is all for naught; Brian takes her fake ID, takes the cash she carefully hoarded, and now he knows she was capable of planning an escape like this: Her element of surprise is gone. Will she figure out how he found her? Will she try again? What will she have to do now?

To me the advantage of third person omniscient is I can concentrate on the story without being handcuffed by the POV. First person feels like an artificial "artistic" constraint to me. Telling a good story is what is important to me, I don't think it adds anything to tell a good story while hopping on one foot.

  • Since the OPs name is Alex, I probably should have picked a different character name! Sorry 'bout that, my made up characters for illustrations are always names starting with letters in the A-H range, just to help me keep them straight. – Amadeus Sep 16 '17 at 14:14
2

A writing instructor once told me that first person should only be used if one of the following cases is true:

  1. The narrator is not the main character. So we witness the main character's story through the eyes of a third party. As in The Great Gatsby and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

  2. The narrator's voice is distinctive. See Catcher in the Rye, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm not fully committed to that rule, but I see his point. (And I can't think of a good example of the exception to it right now.) Without one of those situations, my first-person narrator is telling their own story in an ordinary way. As a writer, I'd easily let the character become self-indulgent, not somebody you'd want to hear speak for more than a few pages.

  • 1
    +1 A counter example springs to mind, which is Craig Johnson's Longmire mysteries. They are great stories. Thing is, I think they would be better told in 3rd person. – user16226 Sep 19 '17 at 21:14
  • Animorphs is another case. They get around the limitation by having a rotating cast of Six characters who each narrate one book in the main series in turn (originally 5 books per cycle, 4 characters getting 2 books every 2 cycles, and 2 characters getting one book in a 10 book cycle. This was later changed to give 2 books to everyone in a 12 book cycle). For non-main story books and some main story when needed, the narrator would shift every chapter with no order and as needed. – hszmv Sep 21 '17 at 14:34
1

The first person is more capable of showing inner thoughts of the protagonist, but third person can cover larger scales of characters.

In my personal opinion I would say it depends on the style you want to write. Do you want deep thoughts, many inner dialogs and show the world from the view of one person: Then First-Person-Perspective is the best choice.

You want to describe a large world, full of myths, explanations, events that happen far away from your character? Then Third-Person should be the better perspective.

If you start writing you will feel, that first person is at the beginning more comfortable and easier to write (only 1 character with a very deep description, with inner world, and so on). But I found out, that first person perspective is lacking the ability to focus my view on all characters.

So I would say: Think about what YOU want from your story and then decide. There is no "This is better than that.". It's all your choice and what you make out of it.

1

With first person you can only really know what the character knows, without tangibly changing perspective, whereas with third person you can meander around the protagonist, occasionally mentioning things they weren't quite aware of, and getting insight that they didn't have access to.

It's much easier to get the tenses right, as well as foreshadowing and subtlety with third than first, but it feels a little bit more impersonal.

  • You're referring to a limited point of view. That's natural in first-person writing, but it's also not uncommon in third person too. – Ken Mohnkern Sep 19 '17 at 18:54
  • True, however it's harder to avoid in first person. – Piomicron Sep 19 '17 at 19:35
  • @Piomicron: It can be done if your narrator openly admits that he learned of the events he's depicting after the fact. Consider "How I met your Mother" which is an older version of one of the main cast. For scenes he isn't involved with, the older narrator admits he wasn't there and another character told him about it. Because of the second hand nature of these scenes, they are prone to exaggeration either on the part of the narrator or his source of knowledge ("Now, your Uncle Martial swears it happened this way..."). – hszmv Sep 21 '17 at 14:41
1

I think it entirely depends on the type of story and what you are trying to achieve by it.

I am currently working on two different writing projects. The first is a fantasy tale with several protagonists coming together to fight in a great war. The world I created is vast and therefore First-Person is far too limiting.

The second follows the journey of a girl in a time of crisis in her life so naturally the story is about the thoughts and experiences of this single character. First-Person makes much more sense.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus Mar 21 '18 at 20:22
  • Welcome to the site, LD. Your answer seems full of potential. Could you try expanding on the (dis)advantages of 1st and 3rd person narrative? Why is one style better than the other, in your opinion/experience? – FFN Mar 21 '18 at 20:35
1

You might not really know what happens when you try each approach until you use both, say to tell the same short story twice.

I'm currently working on the fourth book in a series, and the first one to use first-person narration because I really wanted to get inside one particular person's head for it. I usually don't like first-person, because it limits me to what one character sees and thinks. (Well, you could rotate between several first-person narrators, you also might want to try that.) However, in book 3 I introduced a character who successfully deceives people very well, and in book 4 I wanted to show what she was like on the inside and give the reader a very different perspective on her.

But what I want to focus on is not why you'd try switching narrative styles, but what may happen if you do. Without even trying, I find myself writing in a very different way as her. Her sentence structure and vocabulary aren't what I normally use, and I know if I chose a different first-person narrator such things would change again. My recommendation would be to see whether you catch yourself "becoming" the character in that way when you attempt first-person narration. If you don't, it's probably not worth writing as them; but to know whether you pull it off, you also need to try a third-person narrative to see the way "you" write.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.