Which person?

Matt (CC/Flickr)

Your fingers are itching to get at that draft by now, but there’s one more choice to make. We need to decide what person the story will be told in. Most of us vaguely remember verb conjugation from school, in which were taught first (I fidget), second (you fidget) and third (he/she/it fidgets) person. If that wasn’t the verb we used at my school, it should have been.

The options for storytelling are slightly different. Most stories use first person, tight third person or omniscient. Here’s a brief explanation of each:


First person

The viewpoint tells their own story to the reader.

Advantages:     There can be a sense of immediacy, which works particularly well in mystery stories where the tension derives from the protagonist’s collection and interpretation of information. Using the first person constantly reminds the reader that they have access to no information except what has been presented explicitly.

First person allows the story to be told in the voice of the viewpoint, either in a document they have written or as if they are actually talking to the reader, perhaps reminiscing over a camp fire or in a bar. As the viewpoint looks back on his own actions, there’s the potential for some retrospective commentary. That’s rarely possible with third person, which is told more in the moment.

If the viewpoint is also the narrator, it can be hinted that they are not entirely to be relied on. Most stories that use the technique of the unreliable narrator are told in first person.

Constraints:     Because the viewpoint is addressing the reader directly, the reader will feel cheated if it’s not clear how the story got to them. It’s not too much of a problem if the viewpoint carries on with their life at the end of the story but if they die or disappear into exile, there needs to be some explanation of how the narrative survived.

The reader needs to believe the viewpoint is actually likely to tell the story as she is reading it. That means that the viewpoint must be reasonably articulate or literate.

A common pitfall for beginners is to tell the tale of a heroic character in the first person. The more brave, clever and noble the viewpoint is, the more boastful they sound which turns the reader off rather than engendering sympathy.

Examples:     Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela by Saladin Ahmed, Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death by James Tiptree jr, Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke, Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett.

Tight third person

The story is told in third person, but firmly from inside the mind of the viewpoint. The narration has no more access to any information unavailable to the viewpoint than if it was in first. If it’s necessary for the reader to have some understanding of what is going on in the mind of other characters, it helps to have a viewpoint who is either perceptive enough to read their body language and tone of voice, or so lacking in perceptiveness that they completely miss cues that are obvious to the reader. For me, this is the default option unless there’s a good reason to use another.

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Pascal (CC/Flickr)

Advantages:     It is as vivid as fi rst person, but without the constraints. It can be used with any viewpoint, however heroic or inarticulate they are and it doesn’t matter what happens to the viewpoint at the end.

Constraints:     As with first person, everything stated has to be conveyed through the viewpoint’s thoughts and perceptions. Any commentary or explanation that would not occur to the viewpoint comes across as the author’s voice, and feels intrusive.

Examples:     Steel in the Morning, The Endocrine Tyranny, Newgate Jig, A Spy in Europa by Alastair Reynolds, Hooks, Nets and Time by Linda Nagata.

Omniscient

The story is told in the author’s voice. The author may dip in and out of character’s perceptions, and offer whatever commentary and explanation they like. Because of the constraints below, omniscient voice lends itself to stories where the emphasis is on lyrical writing rather than tension-filled storytelling.

Advantages:     The narrative can dip in and out of characters’ heads at will, describe things the characters pay no attention to, and offer commentary as required.

Constraints:     The reader knows the narrative voice has access to any and all information, so any withholding of information feels contrived. The freedom implied by omniscience can be dangerously seductive because the inability to raise tension by controlling information makes it very difficult to do well.

Examples:     The Ink Readers of Doi Saket by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, The Duel by Joseph Conrad, Mantis Wives by Kij Johnson.


Kathryn Denman (CC/Flickr)

A common mistake is to fall between the two stools of tight third and omniscient, and tell most of the story from one character’s viewpoint with the occasional leap into the mind of another character. Commonly known as ‘head hopping’, it reminds the reader that there is an omniscient author is telling the story, so any withholding of information is a contrivance on the author’s part rather than being because the viewpoint hasn’t found it out yet. It ends up combining the constraints of tight third and omniscient with the advantages of neither.

In the same gap of death is the authorial intrusion, where the narrative pulls away from the viewpoint to explain something they had no reason to think about. Make no mistake, falling into that gap will be the death of a story when an editor sees it.

There are other ways to tell a story but they should be approached with caution. Rachel Swirsky’s If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love used second person and won a Nebula award, so I do not claim the three possibilities above are the only ones. However, as with story structures, the commonly used approaches are commonly used because they commonly work, and experimentation is best kept for stories that really demand it.

Which brings us to the end of the planning phase. The next step will be to write the story.


Exercise:

For each of your outlines, pick a tense. The earlier exercises should have directed the outline toward something with a clear viewpoint, so try to keep to first or tight third. Omniscient is not to be undertaken lightly.

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Posted in Story development, Writing
2 comments on “Which person?
  1. schillingklaus says:

    Classic omniscience, complete with digressions and explicit reader address, is my one true way to go. No editor, no critique, and no worksopahloic will be able to deter me therefrom.

  2. DJ Cockburn says:

    Whatever works for you. Just as long as you know why you’re making the choices you make, they should do the trick.

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