Fiction Focus- First, Second and Third Person
(My numbering goes “1,2,3,5,5,7,8,9.” I will no longer be numbering posts. I also apologise for my lengthy hiatus over the exam period).
So. You’re starting off a new story, it’s exciting and thrilling but you have one major question before you can even start putting words on a page: which perspective should I write this in?
First. There are those who will tell you that nothing should ever be written in first person unless you have such a strong voice for the tale that you just can’t ignore it. I don’t know where I stand on this because every character has a voice. I always used to think that writing in first person was modern and somewhat childish, but there are many classics (though still relatively modern) which use first person. The Bronte sisters are one example- and Wuthering Heights uses a storytelling which is rarely seen these days- Ellen the housekeeper recounts the tale from her perspective, yet she plays only a minor part in the unfolding drama.
First has its benefits. We are constantly inside the character’s head, we see every thought and we see the world through their eyes, we appreciate their idea of beauty in the world around them. It’s often best in a character-driven story, because quite obviously everything centres around them. It can be difficult to work in any great description in first person, unless it’s something that your character is paying particular attention to.
Another backhanded blessing is voice. In first person, your character has to have their own voice in which to tell the story. I personally find that whenever I write in first person my characters all turn into sarcastic cynics, and you may have a similar problem, that pretty soon, their thoughts just begin to sound like your own thoughts. But if you master the right voice for the character, then it can be something pretty amazing and special.
Second. I can’t really say much here because I’ve never read a book in second person. A few short stories here on YWS, for sure! Second’s biggest attraction, and biggest concern, I guess, is that it’s different and not used that much. That can make you seem really cool… or really pretentious. It’s difficult to write but also pretty special, because immediately your reader doesn’t just relate to the character but becomes the character, and every step, every gasp, becomes theirs. That’s pretty darn cool, but second is hard to maintain with the same level of conviction. Maybe that’s why it’s so rarely used. But if it’s used well…
Third. Ah, third. The voice we first associate with stories. It seems so natural that we don’t even need to think about it sometimes. Sometimes third’s benefits can be seen as first’s drawbacks. Third gives the author a wide rein and the ability to drift away from the character and describe pine trees and the weather, to use words not in their character’s vocabulary, to wax lyrical and the character will have no idea. We can dip in and out of the character’s head and we can give a more balanced view of the world without having to factor in the character’s own opinions. Of course, we can write what is called a “close” third, where we do see everything through their eyes and stay on them like a shadow.
Something that always gets me about third though is what is called the omniscient third person, who knows all, sees all. On YWS I often read the thoughts of two characters in the same paragraph. And this too can be done well, but often people don’t realise they’re doing it and it can often seem like a mistake. But both the close and omniscient third person perspectives have their uses, not to mention the entire range in between.
So today I want to know: what’s your favourite perspective to write in? Have you ever read a second person novel or short story? What benefits and pitfalls do you see in each of these?