We talked recently about third-person narrative, and what goes into making that work. But how does that differ from writing in first person, and what tips make both easier?
Again, Point of View is whether the story is told from the first, second, or third person. Viewpoint, on the other hand, is the perception of one character; the eyes and ears the reader must use to experience the story.
Yep, a tricky subject! But mastering it will revolutionize your writing. Doing so hones both your focus and your ability to show vs tell.
Often when in the beginning stages of writing, people choose the first-person narrative. It may seem easier, or more natural. But in actuality, it’s more difficult to perfect for a number of reasons.
As a book editor, I see a lot of issues with this. So, let’s talk about what makes writing in first person work, and where the issues lie.
This is the top reason writers give me for utilizing the first person. And yes, you have that instant immediacy when writing in this point of view. There is that sense of being there, with the character, going through the course of the novel.
Especially in the beginning, though, this causes many writers to have tunnel vision. Which leads to long passages of internal narrative, the character’s every thought and emotion, with none of the other characters coming to life.
And, I would suggest that third-person narrative can contain every bit as much of that immediacy, when done well. It’s all about the skills of the writer and growing in those skills as you go.
But with either point of view, you want to include as much sensory input as possible, in order to put your reader in the scene. And–and this is of vital importance–you want to do this through the viewpoint character’s perceptions.
First person is also Limiting
Writers hate to hear this, and yes, yes, rules are meant to be broken, but this point of view by its very nature is limited to one narrator, through the entire book.
This was once a cardinal rule, and I’ll be completely up front—I still believe it to be correct. Chiefly because:
Multiple first-person viewpoints is so very difficult to pull off
Have authors done so? Of course, Steinbeck comes to mind in The Winter of our Discontent. Of course, some modern folks have accomplished this as well. But Steinbeck was, well, Steinbeck.
As a book editor and a reader, I’m seeing more and more of this, especially in certain genres such as Urban Lit, among others.
And, it’s almost always done badly.
The vast majority of the time, when writers use multiple first-person viewpoints, the internal voices themselves becomes sloppy. Everyone sounds the same, and without the tags to begin the chapters, I would have no clue who was telling that part until well into the scene.
You have to differentiate the internal voices, just as you do when using third-person multiple viewpoints. And this takes a high level of skill.
Although this separation is difficult to learn in third-person, it’s truly tough in first. That immediacy we spoke of to begin? In first-person, that trips you up more.
Using multiple first-person viewpoints is taking the easy way out, in that you can just jump into the characters’ heads and tell what they’re thinking and feeling, rather than creating them and their emotions. It loses power, it loses impact.
‘I’ing to death
Whether in a novel or narrative nonfiction, writers utilizing first-person almost always “I” me to death.
I did x. I heard y and I felt z.
For whatever reason, it’s just easier to fall into that trap in this point of view.
Writing in the first person lends itself to telling your story, rather than creating it.
Bridging the gap
An exercise I have my writers do is to take a passage, rewrite it, and take ‘I’ entirely out of it. For this scene, you cannot use I one time. Instead of sentences with, I did x, just write what your character did. What he saw. What he smelled and what he heard. Etc. It’ll be an eye-opener.
Again, the point is to let your readers play while creating an experience for them. And continuing to point out that we’re in his viewpoint paradoxically keeps him at arm’s length from me, while simultaneously producing that ‘told to’ effect.
Finally, one of the most-productive tips I give my first-person writers is to take a scene, and rewrite it in third-person. It’s a really great exercise and gives you some distance. Then, go back and rewrite it again, in the first person. You’ll be amazed at all the changes!
So, is writing in first person too difficult? Of course not! As with anything in this crazy writing life, it’s all in learning the skills, growing in your craft, and of course, success all comes down to the development of your book.
Here’s to great writing!