Alex shall today use his Easter break to discuss another intriguing aspect of writing: first-person versus third-person narration. This is a topic that is quite bog-standard in creative writing circles, but one which Alex has not really thought about too much—until now. The reason, of course, is Fallen Love; it employs first-person present-tense narration, and this inevitably poses some challenges when compared to the Necromancer, which is third-person past tense.
So without further ado, allow me to present my thoughts on the advantages—and challenges—of the different narration styles. Hopefully you will find the discussion interesting (and well suited to a quiet Easter break, unlike my usual fiery polemics).
First or Third Person Narration? (Read: Intimacy or Flexibility?)
What, then, is the difference between these two common narration styles? The obvious answer is that first-person narration reveals the events through the eyes of the character (using “I”) whereas third person narration makes of a detached narrator (using “he”, “she” etc.) Nonetheless, there are some additional variations to consider: the third person style, for example, can be limited or omniscient. The first person style can be reliable or unreliable, and also has various degrees of closeness to the character.
To address the confusion, here is a list expounding the differences:
- First person. In general, this is used for intimacy, especially when the story revolves around one important main character.
- Unreliable: this is when the character’s account of the story is not always reliable—the character may lie, or fail to mention important things, and so on. This style is useful for certain narrative purposes.
- Reliable: this should be obvious enough. Still, although the character doesn’t lie, their account of the story is limited by their own perception. This style isn’t equivalent to third-person-omniscient, by any means.
- Third person. This is useful for telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, and tends to de-emphasise the importance of one character in the grander narrative.
- Limited: this is when the narrator doesn’t know the future or have perfect knowledge of the past. You can imagine the narrator as being someone close to the characters—knowledgeable, but human.
- Omniscient/God narrator: this is when the narrator has a bird’s eye view of the events in both time and space.
So when and why do we use these different styles? There is actually no single answer; there are various recommendations, and some writers and editors swear by them, but as far as I’m concerned choosing between the styles is very much down to artistic choice.
You may have noticed that, earlier on in this post, I used the third person; right now I am using the first. This reflects a change in what my writing is doing. In the first instance, third person narration acted as a form of self-deprecation, and gave the reader a humorous introduction both to the topic and to me as a personality. In the second instance, the first person style serves to give me my own distinct voice, and thus carry a sense of authority.
Writing fiction works in a similar way. First person narration usually works to give the reader a sense of intimacy and connection with the main character—and a lot of readers enjoy this. Third person narration can be very impersonal, and usually works well to carry across a complex multidimensional plot. The dehumanising effect is another element of it: Game of Thrones is a good example of this.
But note the words usually and can. The reality—as with many things in writing—is that these different narration styles can blur together, or even act contrary to standard doctrine. Some first person narration is very intimate indeed, whereas other first-person narration is more detached; this depends on the main character’s personality. Third person narration can be intimate: it can tell the reader a character’s darkest secrets and brightest hopes. Some authors have a very warm, intimate, or humorous third-person voice.
Mark Lawrence, an author I regularly read and admire, has written a lot of dark fantasy in first-person narration. In his case, the question is not so much about making the reader like the main character (in the traditionally understood sense); rather, it’s about getting the reader to understand just how dark and depraved the main character can be (but making them love the character just the same).
Trudi Canavan, another author I admire, writes very compellingly in third person. Her romances make me swoon—at least figuratively, since swooning would be terribly unlike me.
So, to conclude: generally speaking, writing in first person is about intimacy, and writing in third person is about perspective, flexibility, and emphasis on plot. But writing is complicated. There are many things that go into character development and plot; the narrative style is more of a tool, and one that can be used according to preference.
What About Fallen Love?
This leads me onto the complicated subject that is my new novel. I have written the book in first-person, but I have broken a traditional rule: the narration is not in the eyes of one character, but three, and possibly more. Namely, we read it in Conall, Mark, and Kaylin’s perspectives.
The first reason is simple—there are many important plot elements which go on behind the scenes, and which Kaylin is somewhat aware of, but not the two boys. The second reason is also obvious: I like reading romance from both sides.
Still, this choice brings some challenges. For one, readers can sometimes struggle with multiple first-person Points-of-View (although my beta readers have not complained, so perhaps the number of POV changes and how they are accomplished matters). For two, it’s quite demanding in a technical sense.
Take language. Conall, an Upperclassman and poet, tends to use more elaborate language in place of the simple. Mark, on the other hand, usually uses more direct expression. Still, neither of them are stupid—getting the balance right is tricky.
Of course one might ask why I didn’t use third-person. The answer is that I wanted to focus on character development in this book, more so than in the Necromancer. In the latter book, world-building and fast-paced plot kept the story flowing; in the former, I think the reader needs to be closer to the characters in order to really understand them.
A Brief Note About Tenses
Since this post is proving fairly lengthy, I shall keep my digressions into the role of tense relatively short. Two kinds of tenses are used in fiction writing: past and present. The former uses ‘are/is’ and the latter ‘were/was’. (Of course, there are 12 tenses in the English language, so this is a gross simplification.)
What do they do? Is there any difference between them? Frankly, I have found them to be problematic. I wrote the Necromancer mainly in the past tense, and Fallen Love was a mishmash until I settled on present. The difference seems to be one of grammatical pedantry, as opposed to a real literary technique; whether the prose is written in present or past tense, it makes little difference.
Rather, I have found that the usual truisms about tense—present is for immediate action; past for complex, multi-layered narrative-building—to be, well, truisms. The myriad action scenes in the Necromancer were very fast paced, despite the use of past-tense. Conversely, I have worked on the action scenes in Fallen Love so that they flow better. Other elements of writing—punctuation, the characters’ interest and motivation, the reader’s knowledge of the plot—have far more of an impact.
I hope you have enjoyed my rather long and technical musings on this matter. To surmise it all in a few sentences: first person is for intimacy, third for scaled up narrative building; past is for multidimensional plot, present for immediate; and all of these are just generalisations.
So there you have it. I will be doing more blogging soon, although—aside from my work on Fallen Love and my commitments to Red Pers—I am also busy with academic work. Still, I will be visiting my parents again on Friday, and will have the week largely free.