Writing or reading in the First or Third Person?
Initially, as a reader, my preference was to read books written in the third person. I changed my mind when I fell in love with the first ever Fantasy book I read. I was about fourteen years old. It was the Nine Princes of Amber by Roger Zelazny.
He wrote in the first person:
‘It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me. I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them, three times. The room grew steady. Where the hell was I?’ The opening of his first book may now sound cliché to many new readers. The waking up disoriented and the loss of memory scenario have been used by many more recent writers. Let’s put it in context, shall we? This book was first published in 1970. We can assume Mr Zelazny was a trendsetter and his idea has inspired many authors after him, using similar scenarios. The way Roger Zelazny started his story drew me in immediately. I wanted to know more and once I started reading, I didn’t stop until I read the last volume he has ever written. Having been spoiled by his style of writing, I found it difficult to get hooked on other authors who used the 1st person. What I found was that many end up writing some sort of a ‘journal’ and concentrate too much on narration. Not getting the balance right, the first person can easily make a story become flat and boring. ‘I did this and I did that and went there etc. etc.’ It doesn’t draw the reader in because it resembles more a journal of events than a story. I also find when authors choose to use this style of writing, they are struggling to express their emotions and turn to paragraphs of italics of thought patterns to explain themselves. I don’t know about you but… I hate it when italics are used in this way. When choosing my next book to read, I tend to read the first few pages. As soon as I notice it is written in the first person, I flick through the book to somewhere in the middle and read a few paragraphs. It gives me a good indication if this is going to be interactive or just lumps of narration. There were many books I didn’t read because of it, until… Robin Hobb landed in my hands with her Assassin series, The Farseer trilogy: ‘My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip, leaving a worm’s trail of ink across Fedwren’s paper.’ Look at that starting sentence. Just ‘wow!’ It is written in the first person but descriptive in a way that can easily be changed into the third person: ‘Fitz’s pen falters, then falls from his knuckly grip, leaving a worm’s trail of ink across Fedwren’s paper.’ What makes this style of writing in the First person so strong is the scene setting. When people write in the third person, which initially is more difficult, they will be forced to think more about how to bring a situation or ambience across. So far I have given examples of fiction books where scene setting and character development are very important. In my opinion, it is not so different for non-fiction books, such as autobiographies and memoirs.
Like me, there are many authors who are sharing their life experiences and they have amazing stories to tell but it gets lost in pages and pages of journal style narration, many of them are unfortunately Indie / Self-published authors. Instead of narrating in the way of: ‘I am deaf because of years playing the drums.’ Take a look at how Phil Collins his book begins: ‘Much as I try to shake free the blockage, my right ear is unyielding. I attempt a little rummage with a cotton bud. I know this is never advised – the eardrum is sensitive, especially if it has been subjected to a lifetime of drumming.’ You can see him poking around with the cotton bud, not? The autobiography told from Phil’s perspective takes the time to explain and describe the people who have touched his life, they are not brushed over. He sets the scenes, the stages where he plays, the way the streets and buildings look like etc. It creates an ambience and it tells a story by itself. Another great example is the memoir by Chris Packham: “I’m sorry, I haven’t got change of a ladybird.” The ice-cream man had opened the matchbox expecting a sixpence but instead found a six-spotted beetle that was now scuttling manically over his counter, defiantly refusing retirement in its crisp little cell despite repeated repositioning. He gently pressed his cupped palm down on the fugitive and as it squeezed free of his fingers, he managed to flick it back in its box.
Anyone who has seen Chris Packham on TV knows he is a presenter and wildlife expert. His opening paragraph immediately takes you back to a scene from his childhood. We learn he is a young child who loves catching bugs. If it was written like: ‘When I was a five-year-old child I gave the ice-cream man a beetle as payment…’ and if the stories continue in this style, it becomes flat. Try to change the sentence in the third person and you will struggle because you are forced to set the scene. Yes, you can say: ‘Five-year old Chris gave the ice-cream man a beetle as payment,’ but you have to set the scene. Why, how, where and when. The sentence on its own doesn’t tell a tale. You have to write more to explain it. When writing in the third person, I think an author would also be more inclined to use dialogue. As a new writer myself, it took a lot of consideration and decided to use the first person for my first series of books. I chose to do so as I write about my own experiences and influences from other people. I researched memoirs and autobiographies of other authors and the style that appealed to me the most is the one I applied. As a future project, I would like to write fantasy using the third person. I already know what stories to write but first, I have to get on with completing the Path of the Maiden series!