Wordslinger: 1st Person vs. 3rd Person
Wordslinger first began in December 2011 as a monthly series of writers’ essays for the Bookish Temptations website. In this column, Morgan explores the many elements of fiction and offers tips on how to get the most out of the proverbial pen. After three years, Morgan wrote his final Wordslinger post in 2014, but we’ve decided to take a walk down Memory Lane and re-post the column here. The pop culture references may now appear dated, but the writing advice is timeless. Enjoy!
Originally posted on the Bookish Temptations website, January 2012:
This is my second post to Bookish Temptations and my first as a monthly contributor. I am very excited to begin and my goal with these continued submissions is to explore the things that matter to us as readers and writers. To that end I have chosen as my first topic of the new year:
1st person vs. 3rd person
Some writers like to tell stories from a more personal point of view, while others like to introduce details and insights that a single person might not notice or record in their narrative.
Readers likewise have habits and desires concerning how stories are told to them. For some the narrative style is mandatory, for others it is barely noticed. I will therefore referee three rounds between the two most commonly used styles.
Before I begin I would like to share my methodology with you; I regularly write in both 1st and 3rd person and although I studied literature at Portland State University, I will mostly be using research and interviews I’ve done for this project alone. (I wanted to make sure that current trends were accurately represented and PSU was a looooong time ago).
Round One: Definition
Even if you already know the definition of the three types of literary narrative styles, please indulge me as I frame it up.
1st Person storytelling speaks from the “I” point of view, as in, “I grabbed the monkey bars and wondered if my small hands would hold me, let alone carry me across the imaginary lava pit I had installed just that morning.”
3rd person storytelling speaks from the “he/she” point of view, (omniscient if you will) as in, “She held his face to the gravel with her unlaced boot. His smirk was now painted on the rocks in a bloody tribute to her rebellion.”
There is of course a 2nd person storytelling style and that is speaking directly to “you”, as in, “If you want to get the best tasting watermelons, choose ones with a yellow bellies; This insures that you have chosen melons that have not been disturbed as they ripened.” As you can see this
style of writing is seldom useful outside of toy assembly instructions and the hokey pokey. Interestingly enough, these “Wordslingers” submissions tend to lapse into the 2nd person style from time to time. (Reread the first sentence under Round One header, it starts with 2nd person and ends with 1st person yet it is a completely acceptable sentence structure).
By definition alone, 3rd person storytelling allows the writer more avenues to explore and therefore puts the them in the best position creativity. This is merely a matter of access to information that can be shared with the reader. So, while the fight is not over, round one goes to 3rd person.
Round Two: Application
Using a personal method of telling a story like 1st person gives the writer more access to the kind of intimacy that makes characters seem completely real. And while the same level of depth can be achieved in a 3rd person narrative, the confined emotions of one person will always jump off the page with greater charge.
1st person has a way of drawing the reader in and putting them at ease because they can usually assume that the storyteller will make it through okay. (Ironically, that’s only sometimes true).
Writers want to create a world for the reader to get lost in and telling a story in 1st person is the equivalent of having an arm around the readers shoulder as you share an eye witness account.
It also lends credibility to the story when it is coming from a witness, even though the witness is also fiction.
Therefore, round two goes to 1st person.
Round 3: Communication
Writers not only need to convey depth of character but they need to tell a story and that must remain key. If you lose your story you lose your story.
Characters in 1st person stories are all to often forced to “find out” things the writer needs the reader to know and this can become very transparent and hurt your story more than it helps. Sometimes the best thing to do is to find a way around it altogether or turn it into a moment of discovery for reader and character alike.
While 3rd person may not be able to delve into the sorrows of one single character as efficiently, it can communicate story points far easier and readers do not appreciate being confused. 3rd person also has the authority to jump in and out of characters and paint a more vivid emotional picture.
3rd person is certainly more difficult to master. A writer can get themselves tangled in all the information that is available to share. I myself am like a goldfish in that way and find 3rd person writing sometimes overwhelming. It also and promotes writer’s block more than the 1st person style does.
Still, round three goes to 3rd person because in the end we need to communicate as effectively as possible.
It’s not a knockout and some of you may still maintain that there was never even a reason to debate the issue but 3rd person is the winner of the match.
More importantly, 3rd person is what is most commonly used in the big leagues. 90 percent of all novels are written that way and must be mastered if one is going to write professionally.
Stephenie Meyer is a recent example of how there are always exceptions and it shows that in the end this is all just personal preference. Like our taste in music or pie it should remain un-judged and accepted.
I prefer writing in third person but seek out 1st person opportunities because of the challenges they offer. As I mentioned in last month’s post, I have even written a story told from the perspective of a cat because I enjoy telling stories from interesting perspectives. (I heard that the movie War Horse is told from the horse’s perspective but I’m not certain if it’s true). 3rd person appeals to me more often because I like giving the reader information that my characters don’t have. It can create a very interesting relationship between the reader and the people they are following through the story.
As long as you choose to celebrate fiction you are making the wise decision as far as I’m concerned and just because more people do something one way doesn’t make it right for you. Read what makes you feel good, write what you makes you feel good and you will be get more out As long as you choose to celebrate fiction you are making the wise of your fiction in the end.
Also, that was not a bunch of crap about choosing good watermelons. I know it’s not the season yet but you’ll thank me next summer when you are eating juicy yellow bellied melons.