Just so everyone knows what we’re talking about here, when I’m writing in third-person I would write “He opened the door;” when I’m writing in first-person I would write “I opened the door.”
So, when writing in first-person, we’re really inviting the reader to intimately identify with the character to, in a sense, see things through that character’s eyes. Contrarily, when we’re writing from the third-person point of view, we’re allowing readers to watch what happens to the main character rather than through the character.
Think of a movie. You might see a person running through the woods (third-person) being chased by a vampire. That’s one way to shoot the scene. Another way is to have a camera mounted on the actor’s (or possibly the vampire’s) head as she runs through the woods so that it seems like you, the viewer, are running through the woods yourself. This is first-person.
So, what are the pros and cons of writing in these styles? Well, today let’s look at first-person in particular; later this week I’ll add some thoughts about third-person writing.
As I mentioned earlier, first-person really draws the readers in and, I believe, helps to make them more empathetic to the character’s plight or problem. For this reason, first-person is often used in coming-of-age stories.
However, when writing in this way, you as a writer are limited because you can only reveal what that character would know at that time, in that scene. First disadvantage: in every scene that you render—in the entire novel—that character must be present. This presents a problem for highly complex stories with multiple-plot lines, especially those that have scenes occurring in different places on the globe (such as in a thriller).
Secondly, since the main character in a first-person story doesn’t know what other characters are thinking or feeling, when writing in first-person you couldn’t write, “I watched her put the dishes away. She was disappointed and really wished I would’ve remembered our anniversary.”
However, you could write, “I watched her put the dishes away. The look on her face and the way she clattered them told me she was disappointed…” Or, “It seemed like she was disappointed…” Or “evidently she was disappointed…” You get the idea.
In all of my novels I’ve used first-person for the main character’s (that is, the protagonist’s) storyline. I almost always also include other point of view characters, all of which are rendered in third-person. In the next post I’ll explain why I do this and why this method of using multiple point of view characters is one of the hallmarks of the modern thriller.