Welcome to the new Writing Q&A site! This is the place for anybody interested in the craft of professional writing, editing, and publishing. We welcome questions about all types of writing: fiction, poetry, technical documentation, journalism, scriptwriting, non-fiction, essays, and more. Got questions? Click the "ask" button! Able to offer answers? Try the search button, click on any tag, or just browse. And please vote on content that stands out.
If you have an account on Writing Stack Exchange, you can claim your questions and answers with your account here.
We're currently running on temporary software while waiting for Codidact to be ready. The URL is on codidact.com now, and the software will be updated to match later. Regardless of the software, you can help us expand our library of questions and answers right now -- please join us.
First or third person
I'm sitting with a bit of a dilemma. I'm writing a novel and I'm struggling with the decision of whether I should use first or third person. I prefer third person, also prefer to read novels written in third person, but this specific novel centres around a woman finding herself trapped in a world where she's the only survivor and the challenges that she has to face because of it. If I write it in third person it suggests that someone else survived to tell the tale. I need to create the feeling of utter loneliness.
What are your opinions on the matter?
First person narration is a gross violation of common sense. I say this simply to point out that all forms of narrative, or almost all, are a gross violation of common sense. Who is telling this story and when? Who observed that action that is being told, and how? How did it get into the hands of the reader?
There are a couple of narrative forms that avoid this problem. One is what I call first person reflective, where the narrator explicitly states that they are writing down (usually in old age) something that happened to them in the past (usually their youth). Another is the epistolary novel (putting aside the question of how the letters were collected and published).
But in most novels, the narrator is a construct whose existence, method of observation, and method of storytelling are never justified. And the worst offender (if this is to be considered an offence) is what I call first person immediate (meaning that the narrator is the character and they are narrating things more or less as they happen). Who exactly is the character talking to? When exactly are they writing this down? How, exactly, does it get into the hands of the reader?
In your last survivor example, all these questions occur in spades. Who could they possibly be talking to? How, exactly, does it get into the hands of the reader, given that everyone else is dead?
The solution to all this, of course, is that this is a story, the reader knows it is a story, and stories need to be told. They need a narrator. They need a narrative voice. And they need a narrative point of view. That is simply the nature of the art, and all who consume the art (one hopes) understand this, if only tacitly.
So by all means write in third person, which is to say, write in the voice of the storyteller. This is the universal default of the storytelling art. You should only deviate from it for a good and specific aesthetic reason.
The excuse commonly given for the use of first person (that is, the use of an involved narrator) is that it bring the reader close to the character. This is nonsense. For one thing, this is not how we get close to people in real life. We don't become them. We get close to them while remaining separate from them. Second, the third person narrator can go everywhere the first person narrator can go, can reveal every thought and feeling, can tell us each and every thing the first person narrator can.
The real literary property of a first person narrator is that they can be (and usually are) unreliable. People fool themselves, and the often try to fool other people. We seldom tell people how we really feel or what we are really thinking. A first person narrator who reveals everything about themselves honestly is behaving is a very inhuman fashion.
When we observe a first person narrator, therefore, we are (presumptively) observing someone who is hiding something from us, who is presenting a false face, since this is what every human we ever encounter is doing. And that can be a brilliant effect for a writer to exploit in telling a story. But the last thing it does is bring us closer to the character. On the contrary, it reveals the character through what they attempt to hide from us, from how they push us away.
This can be a brilliant effect if done well, but it is very difficult to pull off. But it is, to my mind, the only justification for the use of first person immediate. If you just want to tell a story, the voice of the storyteller (third person) is the natural form for that purpose.
I don't think readers notice 3rd person view as another character observing the MC.
I have read many books written in 3PL (3rd person limited; narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of the MC, everything else is seen through the MC POV), and I recall scenes of masturbation, or celebration when alone and something great happens, or grief in solo, etc. I never lose my reading reverie and think "somebody is watching this girl crying alone in her room!" or anything close to that.
There are many things that do break my reading reverie, but that isn't one of them. I will tell you what one is though: Somebody that is supposed to be going through extreme trauma, physical pain or betrayal or confusion, being drugged or poisoned -- yet is strangely articulate and descriptive of their own chaotic state of mind, feelings, the situation, etc. That does not feel realistic.
Because of that, I recommend 3PL, it offers more flexibility. The narrator can describe how the MC feels when the MC would not plausibly be able to do so.
We similarly don't mind the narrator describing settings and scenes in detail that it just isn't plausible for the MC to do in thoughts or impressions; because whatever the MC thinks, in images or words, takes time in-story. But the reader gets the sense that the narrator is exempt from time and outside of it, when it comes to descriptions of setting and scene, or description of characters or devices.
The narrator can tell us, at length, about what the MC already knows without the MC having to consciously review what she already knows. Also about what the MC has experienced without the MC having to consciously review it. It doesn't read like an authentic thought to say I trained six years in Wing Tsun Kung Fu, at my father's insistence, always afraid I'd be raped, like his sister.
But it is fine if the narrator mentions something like that, and relates a paragraph about it, to provide details about what the MC already knows and experienced, so the reader is not blind-sided when the MC defeats two armed muggers in a few seconds, leaving them incapacitated in an alley. To me, it is far more difficult for a first-person narrator to do anything similar without it sounding awkward and unrealistic.
This is particularly true in skills the MC may have, like the martial arts example. In situations where we (humans) apply our skills, we don't think about the history or learning of them, we just do things. The whole point of martial arts training (particularly in the martial arts) is to build the moves and reactions into muscle memory, so we don't have to think about it, we just do it. Other skills, like typing, playing a musical instrument, operating various vehicles, are all the same.
A final difference is the problem of the reader being alienated by lines like "I did X" when in fact they would never do X, whatever it is. At times such lines remind them they are reading in a way that "She did X" or "He did X" would not. Such lines can break reader immersion and create a mix in which sometimes the reader identifies with the MC as themselves, and sometimes is forced to not identify, and see the MC as somebody speaking to them. Whereas in 3PL, it is consistent and always "She did X", the reader is always the invisible observer, and the narrator basically disappears.
I believe most novels are written in 3P or 3PL for a good reason, it is because of the greater leeway it provides you as an author, that slight distance from the MC is useful. I think you will have an easier road to success if you do the same.
If your story is completely focus on a women, her survival, and the challenges that she has to face then first person view will be really helpful. The readers will get more attached to the character and the feelings,struggles and pains of the character will pass to the reader more effectively.
Where in third person view , you can easily shift from scenes to scenes. It has the flexibility of the God's Eye.
for example: if a lion follows our main character, and if she is not aware of it:
- in Third person view
you can tell the readers about the coming danger in detail, and can create a tension.
- in first person view
(if the lion attack the main character)
you can show them how unexpected was it, how you(MC) feel, the pain, etc. If you talk about your pain,it has more effect on the reader other than you let someone else to tell it.
Also, I think survival stories are usually written in first person view, like Robinson crusoe.
Good luck with your writing, Break a pencil :)