Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pros and Cons of First and Third Person Point of View

One of my online students recently emailed me with a very good question.  Many book writers struggle with this during revision:  which to use, first person or third person. 

Which has the most impact on the story?  What are the pros and cons of each voice?

Sometimes the writer will create "islands" or scenes or snippets of writing in different points of view, as she moves through making the manuscript.  This is absolutely fine--it gives our random creative selves freedom to test out many options.  But when you've finally assembled your first draft, you need to settle it down.  You need to choose a point of view that tells the story best.

A wonderful writer, much published, once told me this secret:  for newer writers (new to book-length works), it's easier to get to know the characters in first person voice.  "The first book is often first person," she said, "the next ones are in third person." 

I found this true.  My first novel was attempted in third person but I had a terrible time bringing the main character to light on the page.  She seemed so distant.  On the advice of a writing teacher, I converted her scenes to first person. 

Suddenly she was visible, audible, clear to me.

But when I began work on my second novel, the me-me-me of first person was a bit hard to take.  First person can come across very self-absorbed.  Which is beautiful in short pieces, tiresome in longer ones, like listening to a rant.  To make first person palatable, much has to be worked in the environment of the story--letting the setting (container) reflect the emotions of the first-person narrator, rather than the narrator always delivering them.

In crafting my first book in first person, I learned this the hard way.  My teachers red-penciled out long and, to me, lyrical passages of self-reflection.  I remember one x-ed out an entire page, writing "Enough!" in the margin.  And it was.  I'd learned one of the downsides of first person voice--it can be way too much. 

My current novel, written in third person, is difficult in its own way.  Third is more distant, so I have to work harder to bring out the emotions of each character.  I usually write "islands" in first person, in their voices, to get to know them.  Then switch over to third for the actual scenes and chapters 

Memoir--Its Particular Challenges
Memoirists have a tricky task here--memoir is always written in first person (except for very experimental memoir) because it's all about me, the narrator, anyway.  It's my story, and no one else can tell it.  So the memoir runs the risk of being very blah blah blah about their own precious thoughts and feelings, which the reader may not care about. 

I've been enjoying two memoirs this week that do very well with the first-person challenge:  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, and Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell. 

Fuller makes use of setting brilliantly--we completely get her personality in the story, but we see it against the very large backdrop of the Rhodesian civil war, and that puts her personal angst in perspective beautifully. 

Caldwell falters occasionally in her memoir.  A long chapter about her alcoholism left me slightly bored with her; I found myself skipping ahead to where the story reunites with her friend's story, the meat of this book (about her friend's death).  I found it hard to just have Caldwell's musings without the stronger backdrop of something of bigger importance than a single life.

As my student wrote, "First person gives more immediacy and emotional punch," and it certainly does.  But one human life, with its singular thoughts and feelings, needs always to be balanced in literature with a broader landscape.  Otherwise, the self-absorption will deafen the larger voice and theme of the book.

She also wrote, "Third person allows for more backstory, summary, and the internals of more than one character at a time. It allows for more emotional coloring."  This is true.  The range of colors is wider, too.  Which makes for a potentially more profound story. 

She was kind enough to send two examples from her book, which she gave me permission to share here.  One is written in third person, the second in first person, with the same narrator.  Which appeals more to you, as the reader? 

Third person
Jenna is always touched with a wisp of melancholy when she sees him and she chides herself for thinking of him other than the way he is now. She knows that, his tall figure is slumped in his wheelchair, his stringy muscles gone flaccid and shrunken; his forehead is a map of wrinkles and brown spots below a no longer existent hairline. Still, he holds her fast to this earth though he is disappearing before her eyes and it matters, more than anything, and not of knee-jerk reaction either, to please him.

First person
When Dad isn't in front of me, I forget; I think of him as he was when he was younger. Now, every time I see him, I'm overcome with melancholy. I stand a moment at the door to the sun room and the surprise sweeps me again. His tall frame is slumped in his wheelchair, all his stringy muscles gone flaccid and shrunken; his forehead is a map of winkles and brown spots just below where his hairline used to be. Still, I think, he holds me fast to this earth and being his stand-up girl matters as much as it did when I was a kid.

Very different effects, yes?  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Take a passage from your own writing, about the length of the one above.  Write it in the opposite voice as you've chosen.  If it's third, make it first.  if it's first, make it third.

2.  Read each aloud.  Which feels more layered, more interesting to you?

3.  Even if you are writing memoir, try this.  It's very revealing--you can see immediately where you've neglected the larger landscape of your story.