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Robert's Rules of Writing #58: Pick a Personage

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

First, second, or third person? Many pages have been written about the benefits and pitfalls of those three different choices. How does one pick the appropriate narrative voice for a story? Masello shares his thoughts in the two pages he devotes to this rule; I thought I'd share mine here.

I've always subscribed to the notion that first person is the most natural way to write. For example, when we tell stories to others orally, we often use first person because, well, we're telling stories about ourselves. I'm not going to tell someone about something that happened to me and refer to myself in the third person. The point is too obvious to belabor.

When it comes to writing a story, however, some writers advise staying away from first person, and they list all sorts of pitfalls and traps one can fall into. For me, the oddest trap is having someone read a work of fiction I've written and assume that the "I" in the story is actually me. (My mother told me that it worried her when she read my story "Paying It Forward," since I began it with the sentence "I'm dying.") But despite the traps, I think first person is a fine narrative voice; I have to admit that most of my favorite books tend to be written in first person.

As for second person, I can see only one reason to use it, and that's to create an air of detachment. The perennial example of a good use of second person is Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City; in fact, Masello mentions it before pretty much dismissing second person entirely. The entire point of that novel is that the main character, who remains unnamed throughout, is drifting through his life after the death of his mother. He can't get a handle on his daily existence, and in some ways it's like he's watching his own life through a haze from outside. Second person was the perfect choice for that kind of story.

(It occurs to me that second person is also useful in Choose Your Own Adventure books and interactive text adventures, but that's a different sort of story than a traditional narrative.)

And finally, we have third person, the traditional way to write a story. Although I haven't actually done a survey of my stories, I think most of the ones I've written have been in third person. The advantages to third person is that the writer can also alter viewpoints, and take on a more omniscient role in telling a tale.

So which voice should a writer use? As always, it comes down to what fits your story best.

Copyright © Michael Burstein


I remember being rather surprised when I started Tova Mirvis' The Ladies Auxiliary to find that it was written in first person... plural. It took some getting used to, but worked with that particular novel.
I mostly find second-person unreadable. It throws me out of a story very quickly, though I can't really put my finger on why.
I find it difficult, too, partly because it feels like it's tryting to tell me about myself, but it's wrong.
I don't recall any work -- excepting interactive adventures -- written in the second person, but yeah, I suspect it would be difficult to adjust to.
bright lights, big city by jay mcinerney, as mabfan mentioned in the main post. it kinda caught a bad (well, cliche) rep not long after it came out, but it's actually quite good.
I can deal with first-person narratives, but I don't prefer them, for two reasons. (There may be more, but only these two occur immediately.)

1. It's too insular. Unless the format is such that the narrator is clearly speaking directly to someone (e.g., he is addressing the reader directly, or the narrative is styled as transcription of a spoken narrative), most observations come across as forced. Why is the character dwelling on something he's very familiar with, such as the layout of his apartment or the structure of his company, except to convey it to the reader? Does he usually stand around thinking about the kind of car he drives or the history of his relationship failures? I also don't know whether this character is reliable or how he is perceived by others, so my own assessment of him is incomplete. (Critical distance is lacking.) This is actually useful for certain narratives, of course, but more often I find it offputting.

2. Character knowledge is a problem. Unless the narrative is also written in the present tense (which I can't stand), the narrator is speaking of events from a later point of view, yet most events in the story depend on what the character hadn't yet done or didn't yet know. Maintaining the "true" order of the character's knowledge is complex and often unconvincing ... and how much tension is there when the character faces death if he's apparently survived to tell the tale? (Sure, sometimes the character turns out to be speaking from beyond the grave, but ... gimmicky.) Connie Willis's story "Fire Watch" gets around the order-of-knowledge problem (which is actually part of the point of the story) by using a diary/journal format, but that doesn't work for all narratives, and that format itself is also distancing, since it batch-summarizes events. This reinforces to me that I'm not observing events as they happen but am only hearing about them afterwards. Oddly, I don't feel this distance with the usual simple-past-tense style used in most narratives; it's just the journal format that calls my attention to it.

I'm most fond of the limited third person (third person with the perspective limited to that of one character at a time). That can be abused, too, though; whenever the author starts switching viewpoints within the same passage, I start pulling my hair out.

Apparently I'm a very finicky reader.
I've written a handful of stories in first person, but the vast majority of my writing tends to be third person. The only reason those handful were first person is because the story demanded it-- I tend to have a great deal of difficulty maintaining a consistent voice in first person writing, whereas in third person I can juggle the different voices of multiple characters fairly effectively. I agree that a good first person narrative sucks you in and gives an almost voyeuristic immediacy to the story. Unfortunately, usually when I attempt it, my prose reads like limp fish on the page, and it smells just about as good...
I actually have published one second-person story, written all in questions (except for the last line, which is a first person statement). It was 1,000 words long, and probably wouldn't have worked if it were much longer.
Actually, Tom Robbins' book "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas" is a great example of an entire book written in the 2nd person which not only works, but became my favorite book after reading it. Then again he can pull off some really great, weird stuff with words.
"Instructions" by Bob Leman pulls off second person, but it's a special case. "Instructions" was what it sounds like, with the repeated injunction to read each step thoroughly before performing it and not to read ahead to subsequent steps, and it worked well. (If anyone actually follows the directions, I am surprised.)

December 2016

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