It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
First person writing is great to read. You get to see the world through one pair of eyes. From one perspective. You get a sense of bleeding between yourself and the main character. For a time, you can become the protagonist.
Third person writing is also great to read. You get to see the world from above. You see the pitfalls coming. You can anticipate the excitement. The view is panoramic and stunning.
As a writer, the choice of first person versus third is one of the most fundamental decisions you can make. Even people who write without a plan must choose between those fundamental viewpoints before putting pen to paper. From the very first word, a writer has to know who’s telling the story.
I got thinking about this because of a post on Katy Regan’s Blog in which she outlines ten very sensible tips for successful writing. Her ninth tip is:
In my humble opinion, it’s much easier to write in the third person. I realised this far too late with book number four but now I have to stick with it! (my next, shall be on 3rd!) If you are going to write in the first person, make sure you know your protagonist inside out and that you really, really like them, because you’re going to have to spend an awful lot of time in their company and if they just annoy you, you’ve only yourself to blame!
If you’re not a writer, you might wonder what’s the big deal? Surely it’s just the difference between writing I went to the shops with my wife and He went to the shops with his wife?
Well of course it’s not. If it were, this would be a pretty short (and dull) blog post. Katy’s quite right about spending a lot of time with your main character when you’re writing in the first person. In fact, you’ll spent ALL of your time with them.
You’ll spend all of your time trying to describe him in a way that doesn’t sound clunky. How often do first person narrators gaze at themselves in mirrors, describing their own best and worst physical features? It’s weird. You have to move them in and out of every scene you set. If someone’s plotting against your main character, you can’t tell the reader about it until your protagonist gets wind of it. Which doesn’t help you to ramp up the tension.
On the plus side, your character will drive everything forward. Be involved in everything. They’ll be ever present and you won’t lose them in the action.
If you write in the third, you can give your protagonist a rest, and you can give your reader a new perspective on what’s happening outside the sphere of the main character. Readers can see the murder taking place before the detective arrives. They can watch the main character’s love interest cheating behind her back. They can watch the baddies setting up the trap that your main character is going to walk into, and cunningly escape from. Plus – and this is a biggy – you can much more easily explain other characters’ motives.
So as a writer, how do you choose which style to choose? In my opinion, the perspective should probably suggest itself when the idea for the story starts to bubble. If there are interweaving complexities then the best bet is probably to write in the third person so that you can jump from place to place without your protagonist clocking up ridiculous amounts of air-miles. But if there’s a strong plot line which just needs plowing through then first might be the way forward.
It depends of your character, too. Is their voice strong and compelling and seductive enough to pull the reader right the way through to THE END? Have they got enough fire in them to react to everything that they have to convey and describe to the reader?
Of course, you can cheat. If you want to. I mean, who says you have to stick to the rules?
Sometimes writers flip flop between first and third from novel to novel. Lee Child sometimes writes Jack Reacher in the third person. If you’ve seen Tom Cruise’s film Jack Reacher, then you’ll know it’s based on One Shot. That novel is written in the third person. What you lose is Reacher’s distinct, uncompromising voice. What you gain is an almost unwatchable scene told from the perspective of a shooter who is choosing five targets at random and cold bloodedly killing them. In other books, Lee Child writes everything from Reacher’s point of view. Depends on the story.
Personally, one thing I don’t like is when great writers try to have their cake and eat it by writing alternate chapters from the first, then third, point of view. Examples that spring to mind include some of John Connolley’s Charlie Parker stories (The Whisperers for example) and James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider.
To me, this style always feels like a cheat. A work-around and a short-cut from sitting and shaking the thing until the plot fits one perspective or another. As a reader I always feel like I’m getting the worst of both worlds rather than the best. But that’s just me. That’s just my perspective. And who’s to say I know anything, anyway?