Monday, October 21, 2013

Writing Remnants: First Person Vs. Third Person

                I remember the very first short story I’d ever written… and it wasn’t very good.  I was 12 years old, and it was sort of a child’s half-hacked interpretation of “Stone Soup”, only it was about a girl with a big imagination who decided to make soup out of dandelions because she didn’t have any real ingredients.  She decided that she would pretend the soup was delicious so that she wouldn’t be hungry anymore, even though the soup didn’t really taste very good.

                And that’s it.  That was literally the entirety of the story.  It was named (aptly enough) “Dandelion Soup”, and somewhere along the lines of transitioning between one computer and the next, I lost the document.  That’s ok though, because this post isn’t really about that story or any of my other stories.  This post is actually about how I WROTE that story.  You see, I wrote that story in third person point of view… which means that the story itself was about a girl, and I was telling the story.

                To this day, I cannot tell you why I wrote that story in Third POV.  It was almost instinctual.  I’d seen it done in so many other books that I figured that all stories must be written this way, so I wrote mine like that too.  Now I’ve written posts and posts about POV, and about showing vs. telling, and all other sorts of things that have to do with writing… but the point of my telling you about my first short story at the age of 12 is that at the time I didn’t know anything about writing well, so I just wrote… and what came out was how I thought stories were supposed to be.  Third person felt natural to me.

                I also remember the first time I read a book that was in First Person POV.  I was probably 13.  The story was set in a medieval world and was about a girl whose father had been killed.  She learned to fight and ride like a man, and discovered that she had some royal blood in her from generations past.  She wanted to make something more of her life and so she set out to do just that.  I think her name was Illyn, but I can’t remember for sure.

                I DO remember thinking what a strange book it was though.  The person telling the story spoke as if she was the girl Illyn… but surely the writer wasn’t Illyn, because the book was a fantasy AND set in the middle ages.  There was no way the author could have lived that long to write her own story down in such detail.  No possible way!  And yet I felt as though Illyn herself had stepped out of her pages and told me her tale with her own lips.

                At that point in time, I still didn’t realize that there was more than one point of view a person could use to write a story.  I was absolutely amazed that this author had done something so different from everything I was used to.  She’d obviously made up the story of Illyn, but had written it as if she were her own character.  I wanted to know if other people had done this type of thing before, so I started researching, and that was how I was introduced to the idea of different POV’s.

I’ve been thinking about these events for the past few days now and comparing the experiences to where I am now in my writing career.  Remembering all of this made me wonder: why do writers choose different POV’s to write their stories in?  What are the pros and cons of first person vs. third person?

Up until a few months ago, all of my stories (save one) were written in third person.  I’m comfortable with this type of writing mainly because I don’t have to be involved in the story to tell it.  I mean, I have to write it, of course, but writing a story is different from being involved in the story.  None of the events of the story have actually happened to me; I took no part in them.  When you think about it, this is what makes writing in third person seem rather impersonal at first.  The story becomes more like a movie than anything else; it still may affect the writer emotionally, but because the events in the story aren’t actually happening to author, the writer doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of the actions.  For example, if one of my characters stabs my MC, I may feel intense sympathy for him, but I won’t feel the actual stab wound… my job is to write down that it happened and how it feels to the character, not to actually experience it myself.    

Because of this, third person pov makes it easier for me to take in the extra little details that the characters in the story might not notice at first, or might overlook: the color of the chandelier or carpeting in one room or another, the strange markings here or there on a statue, or the reason a secondary character might like to wear a certain type of coat, even though the MC is completely oblivious to the fact.  I can also (on occasion) switch from what’s happening to one character to what’s happening to another character without it seeming awkward or confusing.  I can know my characters intimately from the get-go if I want to, or learn about them as I write if I would prefer.  And for me, this works.  In fact, it works for a lot of famous writers (as well as those who aren’t so famous).  It worked for J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George R. R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling.

There are two big downsides that come with writing in third person, though, and they work hand in hand.  #1: it’s easier to fall into a “telling” state when writing in third person, and #2: the writing can seem impersonal at times (usually because the writer has fallen into a state of “telling” what’s going on in a story instead of “showing” it.)   I’ve blogged about the art of “showing vs. telling” several times before, (here) and (here) so I won’t go into it right now.  However, I will point out that mastering the technique of “showing” an event in a story instead of “telling” about an event in a story takes a long time… I still grapple with it, even though I have a better handle on it than some writers do.

                Interestingly enough, where Third Person POV has its faults, First Person POV finds its strengths.  Writing in first person is like writing the story from your own point of view, as if you were the main character and experiencing all of the events of the story first hand.  It’s a lot easier to “show” when writing in first person, and “telling” isn’t frowned upon nearly as much… in fact, it’s almost expected.  If someone doesn’t know about another character, of course your MC (or you, by extension) is going to tell his or her captivated audience what they known about the person.  There is likely to be some physical details mentioned as well as a quick explanation of the MC’s relationship to and with the other character.  Of course, such things are also done in third person POV, but it takes a lot more work to get them “right”, and they seem so much more natural when done in first person.

For example:

#1: Third Person POV

“(The king) chuckled at that, but did not reply.  Instead he continued standing before the gigantic bay window, arms folded behind his back, looking out on the sprawling city beyond and completely ignoring his son.  And so, leaning back against the doorframe, Markayle studied him: the king of Tevaun, his father.[…]

“For a man past his prime, Markaye’s father still looked and acted young, and he could be just as infuriating and reckless.  His temper when stoked had no equal in the Five Kingdoms, and his rage burned like dragon flame.  Yet for that, he was a good king, even Markayle had to admit it… the son the king saw as both his heart and his deepest disgrace.”


#2: First Person POV
He chuckled at that, but did not reply.  Instead he continued standing before the gigantic bay window, arms folded behind his back, looking out on the sprawling city beyond and completely ignoring me. And so, leaning back against the doorframe, I studied him: the king of Tevaun, my father. […]

“For a man past his prime, my father still looked and acted young, and he could be just as infuriating and reckless.  His temper when stoked had no equal in the Five Kingdoms, and his rage burned like dragon flame.  Yet for that, he was a good king, even I had to admit… me, the son he saw as both his heart and his deepest disgrace.”

To me, the difference is clear. In example #1, the second paragraph sounds very telling.  It’s all information that the MC, Markayle, already knows, but it sounds as if I’m the one who is telling the reader about the king, and not as if Markayle is observing or thinking about these aspects of his father.  This is the type of thing that writers all over the world try NOT to do when writing in third person.  A little bit of telling is good, but a lot can make the story seem dry… more like a text book than a novel.  If I were to fix that excerpt in third person, I would add bits and pieces of Markayle’s actual thoughts to the scene, as well as a few of Markayle’s memories to confirm his father’s personality.

In example #2, the situation is reversed.  With Markayle narrating his own story, the reader understands that the MC is thinking about his father and their strained relationship, as well as his father’s personality.  It doesn’t seem nearly so awkward when this type of information is coming through a character’s thoughts as it does when it appears to be some sort of off-handed info thrown in by the author to explain something.  Notice that the wording is the exact same in both excerpts with the exception of the point-of-view switch.  (Example #2 is the original excerpt from my WIP, “The Cinder Beast”.)

Another interesting thing to note about the differences between the two POVs is what some people might call, “Camera positions”.  I’ve read blog posts and books by authors who would swear that writing a scene for a novel is like positioning the camera just right.  To a degree this is so, but the way you position those “cameras” depends on the point of view.  In third person, the camera can pretty much swing around the room (within reason).  One moment it can be looking at the face of your MC, and the next it can sneak up behind your secondary character to see what he’s up to. 

In first person POV, the camera is always the eyes of the MC.  Period.  The end.  Your character’s eyes can’t detach themselves from their sockets (unless for some odd reason you give your character that ability) and so the cameras always have to stay in your MC’s head.  This makes the emotional connection with the MC stronger, but often limits the viewing angles of a scene, as well as what the reader is allowed to know… because, of course, with first person POV, your reader can only know and see what your character knows and sees at that point in time. Third Person isn’t always as limited.  

There are, of course, other types of POV.  

There is "Third person limited" (which basically means that the pov is limited to only one character... a great example of this is in "A Cast of Stones" by Patrick W. Carr), "Third Person multiple" (which is where a writer can switch between which character holds the current POV.  This is best done by switching out a scene or chapter... George R. R. Martin has proven himself a master at this POV with his "A song of Ice and Fire" series), and "Third Person Omnicient" (where the narrator of the story knows EVERYTHING and switches on a whim between characters; the narrator isn't limited by what one character knows, and sort of knows everything at once.  The best example of this is in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.)  

There is also a type of pov known as "Second Person" which is generally only used in instructional writing and rarely in fiction.  It is told from the perspective of "you" (meaning, basically, that some one else is telling you how things are, addressing you... or perhaps making you see yourself as the character.)  Some good examples of "Second Person" in fiction would be "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerney, and "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis.

So... now that you’ve had a chance to read about some of my observations on POV, what are some of yours?  Let me know in the comments. :D


Galadriel said...

I've written in both povs, but I tend to lean towards 3rd for fanfics, with a few exceptions--because it's so hard to feel you've gotten someone else's character correct.

Star-Dreamer said...

Totally understand that, Galadriel. I tend to lean towards 3rd most of the time in my regular novels, but lately I've been experimenting in 1rst and I really like the results... I'm thinking I might have to play around with it a bit more. :)

Emilyn J Clover said...

I still haven't read many books in the first person, though I'm trying to find some well written ones. For a while I didn't like first person because I thought it had only been done recently (like in the Hunger Games), but no, Charles Dickens plays about with first person in Bleak House (a different character point of view every now and then).
I didn't like first person because it was too limited for my what I'm used to writing, and plus it can get hard to get rid of all the "I"s when it gets to be too much(it's like trying to run away from yourself. You can't). But I'm beginning to find the interesting things one can do with first person. The Book Thief is in the first person from the POV of Death (he's like David Tennant and he tells us he doesn't have a skull for a face but looks like us) but the main character of the book is Liesel. So it's almost like third person but with a really cool twist to it. That book's really well written.

Anonymous said...

I've known about first and third person POV, but your pros and cons are new to me, thanks! :)

I don't see the appeal of third person limited POV. I like using third person omniscient POV.

Anonymous said...

Same Anonymous from above...

Also I liked the story about dandelion soup, stories like that make me sad but I like the humanity they evoke.

I love the part about the girl pretending that the soup was delicious even though it wasn't so she wouldn't be hungry anymore.

I think I've seen characters pretending that they were eating some delicious food when they were in a situation where they were starving. I didn't think anything of it until I found myself doing it also. I would imagine that I was eating a nice meal and go through the motions to ease my hunger.

You never know what it is really like for people until you walk a mile in their shoes.

Thank you for a nice blog post. :)