The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some Musings on Third Person

By Andrew Tibbetts

All my published work is in first person. The stories I’ve written in third person haven’t been accepted anywhere I’ve sent them. My new story—a few revisions away from submitting to journals—is in third person and I’m nervous.

All his published work is in first person. The stories he’s written in third person haven’t been accepted anywhere he’s sent them. His new story—a few revisions away from submitting to journals—is in third person and he’s nervous.

See! It shouldn’t make THAT much difference. It’s equally compelling. Or un-compelling, as the case may be.

However, I’m tempted to just go through my new story and rewrite it in first person just to see. Maybe first person is my thing.

In a lot of writer’s groups first person is considered less mature. Novice writers write in first person. The theory is that the writing is barely distinct from something they’d write in a diary.

Joe Novice’s Diary:
Got up at noon today. Pretty tired. Put my laundry on. Realized I had to get going to meet Ruth and Anna. I wouldn’t be able to switch it over to the dryer and that might mean somebody in the laundry room would throw my stuff on the floor. I could always stay to switch it over and take a cab. But then somebody could just as easily throw it out of the dryer. I wish I’d waited. Maybe I can go late.

Joe Novice’s Short Story in First Person
I woke up pretty tired. Dragged my ass down to the laundry room. Tossed my clothes in the wash. Saturday. What was on for the day? Oh crap. I had to be all the way across town in an hour. That’d give my fellow tenants a chance to throw my clean laundry all over the place. You have guard your stuff in this building. I could baby-sit the wash and then take a cab at the last minute. That’s gonna cost. More than redoing a load of laundry, I figured, and ran to get on the streetcar.

Joe Novice’s Short Story in Third Person
Frank hauled himself out of bed dragging the sweat-soaked linen with him, threw it in the basket with the week’s clothes, dragged the basket with him down to the laundry-room. The floor was so greasy and dirty it looked like someone had parked a dump truck in there. He wiped the inside the washer before he put his stuff in. He only bothered to check the time once the coins were in, the water was gushing and the bubbles were churning around the dirty laundry. Frigg. He wouldn’t have time to baby-sit the wash and in this building you couldn’t leave anything unattended. If his clothes were even there when he got back, they’d be all over the floor, mixed in with the dirt, dusty bounce sheets and wads of dryer lint.

A part of me can see the improvement. Distance from the emotional reality provides room to put in the sensual details. But another part of me likes the earliest version. I like writing that seems to spring spontaneously from a unique point of view, writing that reflects an individual consciousness.

Sometimes writers like to have both a feel of consciousness caught mid-stream and the pleasures of literary craftsmanship. It can lead to characters who are supposed to be teenage delinquents but who apparently think like Vladimir Nabokov.

On my way to detention I noticed the new science teacher Miss Dendrite naked, I imagined, beneath her iridescent blouse.

A quick glance through anyone’s journal will tell you that people don’t think like writers.

But with the advent of modernism writers having been trying to write like thinkers.

Another inch. Stretch damn it. Reach up, reach up. Tiptoe. I’m not asking the lodger, Mr. Stick-His-Nose-in-Other-People’s, to get the shotgun down for me again. Especially not since…Why does grandma keep it on top of the damn armoire? It’s not like SHE can get it down. Shrimp. Squashed little gnome. Once I get the thing down and shoot the lodger I’m putting it somewhere low. Swing Low. Sweet Chariot. Come and take that damn Mr. Stickney home.

A good thing to remember is that it’s all made up. Naturalism is a style. Realism is a construct. It’s all just black squiggles on white paper (or different shades of light on your computer screen.) And some writer or other has chosen each squiggle. And whether it’s first person or third person, it’s not really the character thinking. It’s always the writer. Authoring.

I guess I’ll send Hughes Bremen, my new heroine, out in the third person she was born in and see what happens to her…


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Love this! So good and so true. I prefer third person for the opportunity it gives you to present a multi-layered character. I use first person when my main character has a very distinctive voice or when s/he is somewhat deluded. For me, in first person there's a risk of the character sounding too much like me. That's a reflection of my skill, not the potential of first person in the hands of a great writer. Many readers like it because it feels more intimate, but I think you can achieve intimacy in close third person, too.

Thu Dec 18, 01:20:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Yikes. Great post. I have problems with all POVs, but I find my writing most natural when it's in 1st person.

Thu Dec 18, 11:37:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

You know, it's always been exactly the opposite for me. Writing in the first person has always been tough for me.

Fri Dec 19, 08:03:00 pm GMT-5  

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