Wednesday, October 2, 2013

First or Third? On the Choice of Narration

My romance writer self, Janis Susan May, just released a new book, a traditional Gothic romance entitled FAMILY OF STRANGERS. While I was doing the publicity for it, a fellow writer – who had bought the book and gushed over how good it was – then asked me a serious question. Since the book was written in first person (which is pretty standard for traditional Gothic romances) did I think there was a return to first person as an acceptable narration? She was hoping there was, as were a number of her friends. According to the universal ‘they’ who know everything, first person narration has been ‘out’ for a number of years. News to me.
Disclaimer : I personally love the first person narrator and find it the easiest to write, so perhaps I might be just a little bit prejudiced.
There’s a couple of sure ways to start a good round of verbal fisticuffs among writers, and one of them is the question of first/third narration. Proponents of first will wax lyrical about how it brings the reader closer to the protagonist and makes the reader a part of the story, that it gives a feeling of intimacy and immediacy to the story. Proponents of third say third gives a well-rounded picture of the story and the varying points of view allow the reader to see all sides while first is stultifyingly narrow.
And they’re both right.
Without meaning to wiffle-waffle, I say that the story itself should dictate the choice of first or third, or in these modern times, sometimes a combination of both. Some stories just cry out to be written in first, others in third and the choice isn’t always the writer’s. My own historical mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE was never even thought of as being in anything but first person, but my contemporary cozy  BEADED TO DEATH was from the beginning written in third. As to how I knew this when starting out, I can’t tell you – I just know that when I sat to write, that’s how it was and I couldn’t change it.
I don’t know if other writers experience this ‘semi-automatic’ declaration of first or third, but then all writers are different. Certainly every writer – if they can legitimately call themselves a writer – should be equally as facile with either point of narration. Having a favorite is one thing; having an inability is another!
I’d be curious to know how other writers settle the first/third question. Do they choose it, or does it choose them?

But – as long as it’s done well – does it really matter?

8 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I tend to prefer third person for romance novels and usually mystery as well. However, my co-authored novel THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY uses first person alternating with third person pt. of view. We have two main characters coming to the same place but from different perspectives. It works very well.

Shalanna said...

I have no control over whether a particular story comes out in first or third person. The story itself--the Muse--the character whose viewpoint we see it all from will decide for me within a few lines. The APRIL, MAYBE JUNE series is all first person because it would be flat and boring without April's musings and personal asides (and they don't come across properly when you pull the focus back.)

I had an agent tell me that she would take on my book UNBROKEN if only I would change it out of the "unsellable" (at the time, around 1988) first person, but when I finally managed to hack the book into third, she didn't like the result. A loss of immediacy, a loss of intimacy, changes in the way things were phrased--who knows what it was? But the magic smoke escaped during that conversion. Interestingly enough, she still didn't want the first-person version. Nowadays, first person present tense is the norm for much YA fiction, so things have eased up quite a lot.

I don't have a lot of choice or control when it comes to certain things about my novels. I've accepted that it's part of what the Girls in the Basement control, or part of what the Muse dictates, and I find that it's usually the right choice, so I am content. It's OTHER PEOPLE who are the stinkers because they don't want to read first/third or whatever (LOLOL). Give it all a chance, I say.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I do think we "just know" which voice/person a story should be in, and the story flows from that. I also had an agent say she would consider a story I'd written if I turned it from third to first person. I gave it a try but it just didn't work for me, and she didn't like the results either. We never did get together on anything.

I have no preference for first or third most of the time, but a few years ago I did get tired of first person, present tense novels. They do feel immediate, yes, but they also seem to lack reflectiveness at times when the story calls for it.

Good post.

Kathleen Kaska said...

My Sydney Lockhart mysteries are written in first person because Sydney's voice was so strong. She spoke to me and I wrote it down. I write another series (not yet published) in third person, which I enjoy also. I feel third person gives me more freedom and options in telling a story. It's a nice balance.

Alyssa Maxwell said...

I agree that for most readers, it doesn't matter as long as the story is well-written and engages them throughout. For my romances, written as Allison Chase, third person felt natural and allowed me to use the hero's point of view. For my historical mysteries, I switched to first person and LOVE writing this way. It not only came naturally to me as a writer, but seemed the right fit for my sleuth. I feel that first person allows me to identify with her on a deeper level, too.

Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

I prefer to write in third person because using first person pulls me to close to the action. It is easier to use third person when I have the bad guys trying to hurt my characters.

Victoria Adams said...

I believe the book should be written in whatever POV the writer and/or the characters decide. Don't let the outside world dictate how you should write your story. Norms change all the time.

Joan Reeves said...

I prefer third in romance novels, but in mystery, I really don't have a preference as long as it's executed well.