Sunday, 16 August 2015

A Matter of Perspective

Today I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Auckland SpecFicNZ members monthly gathering.  I always love getting together with other writers and talking about our latest books, covers, promotions, etc.  It's a lot of fun and there's a lot of passion in the room for what we do.

Today's main discussion topic was on choosing a perspective to write from - in particular, the value of first person versus third person.
For those who are unsure what this means:

First person is when you write as if you are the character.  E.g. I ran down the street, my heart a staccato rhythm of fear in my chest.  It was too late.  The gunshot seemed like an explosion in my ears.  Pain filled my thigh and I fell.

Third person is when you write from an outside view about the character (although often with an insight into their thoughts and feelings that an outsider normally wouldn't have).  E.g.  Abigail ran down the street, her heart a staccato rhythm of fear in her chest.  It was too late.  The gunshot seemed like an explosion in her ears.  Pain filled her thigh and she fell.

In this example, you get a little more information about the character in third person - you get her name and her gender because you are looking at her from outside.  In first person you are looking through her eyes and she, of course, isn't looking at herself.

Often, first person gives you more of an up close internal look at the character - it's easier to portray emotion and get the reader immersed in the character's perspective.  The down side is that you can't show anything the character doesn't see.  There's also the distinct possibility that the character, who in first person is also the narrator, has a skewed view of things.  This can be used to great effect.  The narrator in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is an example of this - he does not believe himself to be the predator the astute reader will see him to be and is telling his story to justify himself.

Personally, I use both first person and third person in my writing.  I know some writers have a definite preference for one or the other, but to me, they are both useful tools.  A writer needs to think about what they are trying to achieve in the story before deciding which perspective to use.

Third person:
  • More traditional
  • More flexible in jumping from character to character
  • More options to reveal information to the reader that the character may not know or see
  • Creates distance between the reader and the character experience 
  • Allows for life and death stakes as the character could die during the course of the story
First person:
  • More personal and intimate
  • More emotionally impactful
  •  Easier to give the reader insight and understanding into the character
  • Limits the reader to only what the character knows and can see
  • Requires that the character still be alive at the end to be telling the story so needs different stakes to ensure the reader feels the character is in jeopardy
If you're a writer who usually writes in one of these perspectives, think about writing the other and see how it changes your story.  You may find it suits better.

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