An aspect that has a direct influence on the mood and style of a novel’s narrative is the perspective through which the writer narrates. Whether it is in first or third person, often, the writers’ decision is guided through their own creative influences and genre preferences. Authors who read predominantly one or the other will feel it is a more authentic voice to write from, themselves.
There is a growing trend in modern literature toward first person narratives (while classical literature tends toward the third person narrative), which give the audience a more “fly on the wall”, “trusted friend”, “secret diary” viewpoint. This perspective can be an intensely intimate and challenging place for an author to write from. The advantages and pitfalls of first person narratives are unique – let’s delve deeper into what you might encounter in your writing journey through the first person perspective.
Getting Inside the Protagonist’s Brain
Along with the obvious benefits of a book in which the main character “speaks” both their internal monologue and their external observations, there are also quite a few setbacks as it pertains to plot formation and characterization. When your protagonist’s voice is the device through which the audience receives the plot line, the protagonist’s nuances, even small and seemingly marginal ones, have a large impact. This is because when the story is told from a subjective point of view, you are implicitly giving the audience the protagonist’s opinions, feelings, and perceptual limitations, even if it is unbeknownst to the protagonist, themselves; for the author, it is writing from within your character’s mind and strong inner voice. In order for the first person narrative to read as authentic, here are some questions that might help you develop the inner world of the narrator: What are their dominant traits? What makes them happy? What annoys them? What are the challenges in their life, what are their strengths and weaknesses? What does their house look like? What do they like to wear, eat, watch, do? By understanding their tastes and what they put their active attention on, you as the writer will have an easier time crafting their reactions to the world around them.
Showing vs Telling
When a narrative is written in the third person, there is ample opportunity to describe all the character’s features (“Alex’s blonde hair runs down to her shoulders, and her blue eyes sparkle like flashlights”), and traits (“In new situations, Alex tends to freeze up, frightened of what silly thoughts might betray her in conversation”). In a first person narrative, instead of description, the main character’s perspective and reactions are how we find out new information about the plot and the other characters. The timing of how these things are presented will affect whether the narrator’s observations seem natural or contrived. The author of the book needs to find an elegant way to incorporate the characters and the plot, through the vantage point of someone who is directly within the world, versus an outside, bird’s eye perspective.
The best way of doing this is through the contextualization and interconnection of these details.
For example: instead of “I’m a tall guy” – “All men are jealous of me for my height, but they do not know what it is to bend under every frame”. In that example, instead of mentioning a physical trait, you’re getting the character’s opinion or relationship with that trait. You can also use descriptions as segues to descriptions and introductions of other characters by comparison. Instead of saying “I have brown hair”, “During the summers, there are blonde hints in the brown hair that make me look like a twin to my older brother, David…”.
While a first person narrative doesn’t have the advantage of being all-knowing, they are all feeling. The protagonist has to discover things from their own vantage point either from observation, intuition, or third party information. Through this perspective (unless the main character has a deluded sense of certainty), they are only presenting a point of view and not unequivocal facts, but there is a lot of room for the emotional truth of the character, which can have similar implications as an all-knowing narrator can have, as long the reader is willing to assume that the narrator is a reliable source of information – this way, the reader can learn the story without constantly questioning the narrator’s perspective as being accurate.
Let’s take this description of a situation, as written in the third person, and then in the first person.
Third person: “Michal hated Eyal’s blatant behavior. They only met once in the cafeteria, but this time it was enough for her to understand that he was rude, disrespectful to others and tended to speak in a voice that was too loud for her.”
First person (protagonist): “In my opinion, Michal does not really like me. Even though we only met once when we bought coffee in the morning, it seems to me that she dislikes my jokes, and that she perceives them as abusive.”
The resulting information that the audience gathers is similar, except that in the first person version, the reader is getting the information through the opinion and self-awareness of the protagonist in the form of intuition, versus a matter-of-fact explanation from the third person narrator. In this example, Eyal – the main protagonist (first person), can only glean Michal’s opinion of him according to what he perceives in her behavior.
Discovery vs Remembering
When considering the perspective of the narrative, a writer must also consider the tense (present or past) in which the narrator is communicating to the audience. Are we to feel that the events are enfolding in real time, or is the narrator recounting something that has already happened?
Present tense: I enter the gates of the synagogue, and feel a cold sweat on my forehead. I look left and right and do not recognize anyone. A familiar scent immediately transports me back to my childhood; I can’t quite place where I’ve smelled it before.
Past tense: I entered the synagogue gates, my forehead moist with cold sweat. I looked around, hoping to recognize someone. A nostalgic but unplaceable scent filled my nostrils and instantly transported me back to my childhood.
The present tense tends to give the reader a sense of anticipation, and puts the reader on a path of wondering what will happen next, because they will be finding out at the same time as the narrator. Reading narration through past tense, however, can have more of an emotional relatability to the narrator – as if you are a dear friend remembering with them. In a way, the tense that you choose to narrate through is its own character and mood.
Though the choice of narrator or tense can have equally evocative results, the best choice is often one that demonstrates your writing voice most fluidly, and can be read easily. If you are stuck, you can write a couple of chapters in either voice (or tense), and have them be compared to each other by your editors or by beta readers. Either way, these important choices are essential aspects to your writing voice, and help you write a story that is uniquely your own.