THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:
Narrative: 1st-Person vs. 3rd-Person
(This article originally appeared at another site back in March of 2011, from which it is now gone. Therefore, I re-post it here.)
It’s time, you tell yourself, to finally sit down and write that novel or short story that’s been burning a swath through your consciousness. Outstanding! Now you must answer the first critical question: Who’s going to tell your story?
In other words, which narrative voice will you employ? You have options, but for our purposes, since a second-person narrative is so rare (and difficult to pull off), I’ll focus on the two primary options.
1) First-Person Narrator
a. This would be a character from your story, typically the protagonist.
b. You could have multiple first-person narrators, each telling their own parts of the story.
2) Third-Person Narrator
a. The most common form is the omniscient narrator—the God-like being that sees, hears and knows everything.
b. It could be a secondary, minor character, a witness to the critical story elements.
c. It could be a separate “interested party,” such as a news reporter.
The truth is that most agents and editors (publishers) dislike a first-person narrative. Why is that the case? The simplest answer is this: Few writers pull it off well. Authors have so worn down agents and editors with poor first-person submissions, many of those agents and editors have erected an automatic mental barrier to them. Some are reluctant even to consider it seriously, let alone review the manuscript.
Don’t think badly of them. Under such a barrage of poor work, their reaction is perfectly natural. They’re only human, after all. (Oh yes they are!)
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t use a first-person narrative, merely that you have some hard work ahead of you.
We must overcome several challenges to create an effective first-person narrative. As the first-person narrator, we authors become the primary character; we personalize the narrative. That means we see everything through our eyes alone, which leads us into a few traps.
1) We don’t remain consistent with the character-narrator’s voice, in both the main narrative and that character’s dialogue. She must have one voice, whether narrating the story, speaking to another character, or musing in silent monologue.
2) We create a character-narrator with such quirks or limitations that they are no longer credible—believable—as narrator. If that happens, you’ve lost the reader.
3) We offer insights into what other characters are thinking or feeling, even though the narrator, as one of the characters, can’t possibly know what’s in the minds of those other characters. When we insist on a first-person narrative, we trap ourselves into a single Point-of-View (POV), and we must adhere to it.
a. You can get around this by having multiple first-person narrators, each telling their own part of the story. However, this is highly inadvisable in a short story, and in a novel, you must always break chapters when you change narrators. Furthermore:
i. It would be advisable to include in your chapter headings the name of the narrator for that chapter, in order to prevent reader confusion.
ii. You must establish a unique narrative voice, a distinctive style, for every one of your first-person narrators (no simple task), and that distinctiveness must shine through consistently in both their narrative and their dialogue.
4) We tend to relay information, rather than bring the reader into the story. In other words, it becomes all TELLING and no SHOWING.
a. I saw this, I heard that, I remember when this happened, I wish I had done that, etc. I, I, I, I, I….
b. Every narrative struggles with SHOW versus TELL, but the problem is particularly acute in a first-person narrative, where the lines are grayer than the more black-and-white lines of a third-person omniscient narrative.
5) There is a natural tendency to bring even a Past Tense story current, to jump into Present Tense, in order to indicate how the character-narrator now feels about what happened. This often smacks of Author Intrusion, and it happens much more frequently in a first-person narrative. After all, the author is the character is the narrator; it’s hard to draw distinct lines of separation.
a. I’ll never forget those words.
b. I wish I could have seen it coming.
c. I remember that day as if it were yesterday.
d. Looking back, I now understand how it all went wrong.
It’s not that you may never use such devices, but you must not do so within the Past Tense narrative. You may start a chapter or section with that sort of reminiscence, but only if the following are true:
1) You use a story break (***) to separate it (the Present Tense Lead) from the main Past Tense narrative.
2) Within the Lead itself, you must break paragraphs when you jump between Tenses.
3) After the story break, when you’re back in the main narrative, as it were, keep it in the Past Tense.
4) Only use this Lead mechanism if the character-narrator’s emotional and psychological states, as seen through her mind, is:
a. Critical to the story, and;
b. Something you visit throughout the story with some consistency.
c. Be honest with yourself. If neither of these two is true, resist the temptation to utilize such Leads, and just stick with the main Past Tense narrative.
Ultimately, we should base our choice of first-person narrative on only one criterion: It cements a deep emotional bond between the reader and the character-narrator (usually the protagonist) that you might not otherwise achieve. That’s it—the only justification for a first-person narrative, in my opinion. If it fails to deliver on this, or if it detracts too greatly from the other characters, some of whom may be as critical as the character-narrator, we should revert to a third-person omniscient narrative, which offers certain advantages.
1) It enables us to delve into every character’s mind, rather than just the character-narrator’s mind, to explore all of their emotional and psychological states.
2) It brings the line between SHOWING and TELLING more into focus.
3) It provides us greater flexibility in moving from one character POV to another.
4) We’ll be less tempted to jump into Present Tense during an otherwise Past Tense narrative, and less inclined to engage in Author Intrusion.
In closing, let me say that a first-person narrative can be a powerful tool. It might make your work more provocative and thrilling, as you delve deep into the mind of the character-narrator at the heart of your story. However, you must recognize and meet the challenges that such a choice will provide. It will be more difficult to execute effectively than would a third-person omniscient narrative, but the payoff just might be worth that extra effort. If you don’t want to tackle those challenges head-on, stay away from the first-person narrative.
‘Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy.