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Sunday, 4 June 2017

First and Third

In writing, there are two major narration styles that everyone will know about. First-person (where the story is told from a particular person's point of view) and Third-person (which tells the story from a separate perspective independent of the characters). Now that I've had the experience of writing using both forms, I've had a chance to appreciate their merits and detriments, together with some examples of the better uses I've seen of either style, and in some cases both styles.

First-person is something I've been slightly afraid of for some time due to one of its key drawbacks; omnipotent narration doesn't work, and instead you have to restrict your perspective to a single character or limited number of characters. This severely restricts or outright eliminates the ability to jump around in a story. On the other hand, first-person narrative can heighten dramatic effect, and make character revelations more resonant if you're focusing on an individual's reaction from within their very being. One of the major advantages of first-person from a purely narrative perspective is that you can keep key plot twists a secret without resorting to padding or contrived red herrings. Of course that's also possible in third-person, but it's only the most skillful writers who can successfully pull this off repeatedly. The biggest advantage is that it adds a layer of personality to a story that might otherwise be missing, as you're telling the tale from a person's point of view rather than from the clinical view of a disconnected narrator.

Some of the best examples of first-person narrative I've come across include: Jules Verne's seminal work Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, which tells of Nemo's undersea exploration from the perspective of his captive Professor Aronax; many works by H.P. Lovecraft including The Call of Cthulhu, At The Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, who uses the technique of the unreliable narrator to unsettling effect; multiple novels by Agatha Christie including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which uses its first-person narrative to plant one of the biggest red herrings in the history of fiction; and Hiroshi Sakurazaka's All You Need Is Kill, which makes masterful use of both multiple first-person perspectives and a non-linear narrative to tell the complex story surrounding one person's fate to be caught in an eternal cycle of conflict.

Third-person is the style I've been most used to, mainly due to its use by my many inspirational authors - and the fact that it's easier to adopt an omnipotent narrative than it is to focus on a single perspective. I have to work at first-person because third-person is the easier route. There are benefits to adopting an omnipotent view; you can cross between multiple characters on a whim, increasing the grand scale of the narrative without overly confusing the reader. The main drawback to using an omnipotent viewpoint is that personal internal vignettes by characters can seem out of place, and taking a distanced viewpoint can blunt the story's emotional edge unless you take a particular stance really invest in saying what the characters feel. It also opens up the temptation to drop too many hints into a story that first-person narrative logic wouldn't allow.

Some of the best examples of the third-person I've encountered include Frank Herbert's sprawling magnum opus Dune; Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth, which adopts a more focused approach by following no more than two characters; Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, which adopts a unique style which reads more like a classical oral legend than contemporary science-fantasy; the Earthsea novels, which alternately adopt an overarching and intimate style to create a flowing and rich narrative across five books; and A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke, which portrays the multiple perspectives surrounding the disastrous final voyage of the lunar tourist cruiser Selene.

There are also a few stories where first- and third-person narratives are used interchangeably for dramatic effect. This style is quite rare compared to its two parent styles, which makes it all the more impressive when this blending of styles is pulled off successfully. I can only thing of two I've encountered to date. One is found in some of the works of Christie such as The A.B.C. Murders, which uses this dual narrative style to create tension and lead the reader down the garden path. The best example I've seen to date is Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, Ptolemy's Gate, The Ring of Solomon); Stroud alternates brilliantly between the snarky first-person style of the titular djinn, a sweeping third-person narrative surrounding the djinn's master Nathaniel, and a more focused narrative around central heroine Kitty Jones.

In an interesting side note, the different narrative forms have transitioned differently into different story-telling media. In films, the most prevalent style equates to the omnipotent third-person narrative, as it flicks between characters and time periods at the smallest provocation. In television there's a balance between first- and third-person, mainly due to the wider allowance in run times and content than is often available in mainstream film. In radio, there is again a mixture of perspectives, with first-person being favoured for things such as mystery stories whether original or adapted, and third-person being reserved for grander or more complicated narratives. Video games still focus to a large degree on the equivalent of first-person narratives

I don't see the need for any personal preference. Instead, you should follow the style you feel is best for your story in the moment. What styles do you prefer?

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