First Person Versus Third Person Narration, by Bernard Beckett
A common feature of teen novels is heavy reliance upon first person narration. Ever since Holden Caulfield shuffled center-stage and offered his reluctant, enigmatic introduction, we’ve been seduced by the direct address. In my own teen novels I’ve bounced between this and using the limited third person voice more common in adult literature. I’m interested in why I do this and what different purposes the two approaches serve.
One thing that I can certainly say about the first person voice is that I find it much easier, to the point where it almost feels like I’m cheating. When we describe a scene in the first person, we use the conceit of pretending that this is the way the character themselves would describe it. So what if we don’t capture the texture of the curtains, the dust motes playing in the ray of light above the coffee table, or the disturbing ring of grime two thirds way up the empty glass? That’s deliberate. It’s because the character wouldn’t notice these things either. Our failure to describe the room in any detail is in fact a cunning ploy, designed to reveal the character as the plot advances. In first person, I find I am much less likely to slow down and interrogate a scene, wondering how I should craft the balance between observation, action and speech. Rather, the voice takes over and the whole thing just spills out.
I think this is approach is justified if indeed the voice, and its choice of tempo and observation, is controlled and deliberate. Sometimes though, and here is where I worry about using the first person, all that’s happening is the voice is betraying not the character, but rather the writer. What is emerging is a generic, and slightly lazy voice, masquerading as an individual lens. Actually, I just couldn’t be bothered thinking about the room that carefully.
Another thing that’s often mentioned in relation to the first person is the conspiratorial nature of the communication, which is thought to suit the teenage audience. The teenage reader is inclined to take possession of the book, believe the story is theirs and theirs alone, and the illusion of the character speaking directly to them adds to this intensity. Again, this is true when it’s done well. Done badly though, what you get is an inauthentic voice, and it becomes like watching a movie where the sound and picture are ever so slightly out of sync. Not enough to be obvious, or at first even named, but enough that it irks, and stops you from relaxing and engaging fully with the story. Although the first person appears to get the author out of the story, in fact it does the opposite. The author is never more present than when they are addressing you directly and so, if the voice is not convincing enough to hide that address, the presence can become oppressive.
One thing I know I enjoy about the first person is that it solves a lot of structural problems. The first person voice, it always seems to me, has absolute licence to jump to wherever it wants in the story. The old ‘they way she looked at me reminded me of the time when I was seven, and my brother dared me to steal and ice cream…’ trick. The jumping and jumbling that is a natural feature of the narrating mind, is somehow expected to be cleaned up in the more formal third person presentation. After all, the third person has clearly been written by an author, sitting at their desk, thinking about how to convey their tale. But the first person narrator, we pretend, has grabbed you excitedly by the sleeve and is telling you their story as it comes to them. From the writer’s point of view, the joy of feeling exactly that rush as you follow the developmental impulses of your tale is lost. Again though, the danger is of becoming lazy, and not thinking hard enough about structure, and indulging asides and stalls that are just plain irritating.
Finally, I think the greatest distinction between the two forms is that first person narrative is an exercise in charming the audience. You are the actor walking on stage to deliver your solo performance. You, and you alone, will convey to the reader the worth of this story. They will invest in the story because first, they have invested in you. To the extent this is true, then the advice when choosing voice is probably this: if you have come across a first person voice capable of charming the audience without hijacking the story, then that’s an excellent time to be using it. If not, be aware of the richness of language and control you are sacrificing by going for the easy option. Always ask yourself, am I just being lazy?
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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