mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

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
Tags: personal, roberts-rules, writing-advice

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