It happened. We got into a small argument: Which is better, first-person or third-person POV? It’s a pointless argument, one you can never win, but we thought the resulting conversation was worth sharing. Which side of the aisle are you on?
Melissa Hinshaw: I would like to start by saying I would love to apply a blanket rule that third person narration is better than first person narration, but every now and then I run into something amazing and get mad it’s in first person, because it reminds me I’m not allowed to make this rule.
Third person is way harder to do and I think that as a result of that it forces better writing. With first person you engage imaginative empathy by being like, “Hm, how would it be to write from this character’s perspective?” but with third person it goes one step further—you literally have to get outside yourself without actually being the other character. It’s so hard to be objective. The best third person narrators are able to tap into that sense of subjectiveness we love in first person writing via omniscience (literary buzzwords ftw) and we love them because it maximizes objectivity and a more universal subjectivity—sort of the core of being human, ideally. Maybe transhuman? God-mode, you know? There’s a tangent, whoa. Anyways, first person narrators are awesome for getting at the good and dirty angles of flawed humanity, but, like in real life, it’s all too easy to get stuck in the same ruts and ticks from being pissed off or messed up or depressed or what have you. I guess I’m making a moral argument or value statement about third person narration… I’ll caveat that by saying I think a really really skillful first person narrator can be as compelling as a third person narrator, but a third person narrator is way harder to write than a first person narrator, so we end up with a lot of really meh first person narration coming through the slush, and that’s why I get peeved about it.
Even the most famous/renowned first-person accounts—think Gatsby, etc.—are with narrators we forget are there. They start in that “I” mode, and then they lose it because they’re so good at observing everyone else.
Brandon Williams: I want to say that I love first person, but that’s not quite true; I really love the unique narrators that can pull it off, who can manage to build narratives that sound like theirs without having to fit in that catch-all first-person descriptor “voicy.” I’m thinking of short stories like “Boys Town,” by Jim Shepard, “A Love Story,” by Samantha Hunt, “The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones, and what I love about them is that there’s a REASON, a clear narrative argument, for them to be in first person. And for me, that’s the big thing—third-person still has this feel of being the natural storytelling mode, and it deserves that distinction for all the reasons Melissa mentioned.
I also really, really agree with the point about how much middle-of-the-road first-person narrators we see. Sometimes they’re trying to make an argument for themselves because of style/voice tics, sometimes they’re rolling with that reflective narrator in occasional paragraphs (and we’ve talked internally about how much I absolutely hate that), and sometimes they’re so stuck in their own head that they’re in the way of the story. If we’re in first, the narrator needs to have a clear reason for telling us the story, and we need to remember that they’re aware that they’re telling a story—that means objectivity is out the window, but also that they’re actively trying to convince us of the things we’re seeing, and that they have a reason for doing so which almost certainly isn’t going to be apparent on the surface level. That’s awesome, but also that’s not most stories, and that’s not what I see most first-person stories trying to do anyway. If they’re just going to lounge by the pool and think dark thoughts for a while, then third could do that just as well, even if it “feels” like we need to hear that incredibly unique speaker or whatever.
Cole Meyer: It’s funny—when I think about my favorite stories, the ones that come to mind when I think, That’s what a short story is, they’re almost all in first-person. Aimee Bender’s best work is in first-person. “The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier, first person. Saunders’ “Semplica-Girl Diaries” and “Sea Oak” and Raymond Carver and Carmen Maria Machado and on and on and on. As Brandon said, it works because the voices guiding us in those stories are so compelling. I’m not sure I agree that third person is harder, but like Brandon said, both POVs have their strengths, and the best writers know how and when to utilize both. I actually got into a bit of an argument with a professor over this, who was saying any story could be told in first or third-person. And maybe that’s true, but I still contend that some stories (some narrators) are much more successful in one POV over another.
It’s important to emphasize your point, Brandon, that narrators in a first-person narrative are aware they’re telling a story. There’s a reason you’re reading (hearing, really) their point-of-view. They want to sell you their perspective. And that’s fascinating to me. I recently (finally) finished There There by Tommy Orange, which is an excellent novel for many reasons, but relevantly, it moves between first- and third- (and in one instance, second-) person throughout the novel, as often as it moves between characters. A chapter about a character may be in first-person in Part 1 but in Part 3, a chapter about the same character may be in third-person. Orange wrote that he “[likes] how it can reveal different aspects of the characters’ reality,” which I think is a great way to approach a story.
Brandon: I just today switched out a story that I’ve been struggling with from first to third (for the exact argument laid out here—the narrator had no real reason to be telling the story, and if he was telling the story he wouldn’t have said some of the things I want the story to say, because it reflects so poorly on him), and the three scenes I’d been unable to get down just sorta exploded onto the page for me. So, count me as a believer that there are definitely stories which should exist in one or the other.
I’d forgotten that There There switched like that; I always remember it as a first-person (with the one second-person section). Interesting to go back and reread and see if I just liked the stuff in first more, or if the third felt more natural and so I wasn’t paying attention to POV there, or if I’m just a terrible reader who forgets details really fast.