Look Who’s Talking

I’m often asked which is better when writing a novel, first person or third?  There’s no one size fits all answer for that.  It’s one of those cases where you really have to first give some serious thought to your main character.  Is he or she the type of character who would be capable of making a really solid connection with readers, speaking directly to them in a style that keeps them interested and even intrigued from page one all the way to the end?  I love those kinds of characters, and I find them to be the most entertaining folks inhabiting the pages of fiction.  Yet the challenges of first person should make authors, especially first-time novelists, more than a little cautious about taking this approach.

To a large extent third person narration has become the default position for the majority of novels today, probably because of the many advantages an omniscient narrator offers.  Think about it.  When you utilize third person you can write whole scenes and chapters from other people’s (other than the hero’s) point of view (POV).  The good part about this is oftentimes in a novel the reader begins to weary of the hero’s problems and point of view.  It doesn’t mean that you have a boring story, it’s just that people like a change of pace.  With third person, you can reinvigorate your narrative at the beginning of a new chapter by switching to another character’s POV and depicting what he or she is doing, or describe what is happening elsewhere.

First person narration, on the other hand, does not enjoy this flexibility.  You need to stick with the main character’s POV throughout the entire novel, as this character also serves as narrator.  On the plus side, though, as mentioned earlier, if you are writing in the first person you can establish a real bond with your readers because you are telling them first hand what you (i.e., your main character, “I”) is doing and saying and experiencing.  This makes the reader empathetic to the hero almost from the very beginning, as the reader is right there inside that character’s mind.  You just have to keep the aforementioned limitations in mind.  He can’t go off in the next chapter and talk about what the villain is doing at his hideout because he (the hero) is not in the scene and consequently doesn’t know what the villain is doing.  So there is undoubtedly a bit of a trade-off.

The final decision, of course, depends on both the kind of main character you have created and your style as an author.  If you like to paint with a broad brush and describe everything that’s going on in the “big picture” sense of the novel, stick with third person.  But if you have a unique hero with an inimitable voice, by all means let him or her speak up and tell their own story in their own way