What are some of the differences between first and third person narrators?
One main one needs to be highlighted now.
A third person narrator is far more likely to be leisured.
In fact, a third person narrator (‘Paris looked beautiful that day, spread out glittering greyly toward a horizon of haze…’) can be pretty near immortal.
The amount of wonderfulness they can insert into any descriptive passage is only limited by the number of hours the real-life writer who is third-personing this and then this particular sentence, can put in at the desk.
So, they may be cracking their spine at a desk but they may come across like they’re Madame Récamier reclining on a chaise lounge –
All the time. Lockdown city. Someone fetch me Roget’s Thesaurus – I need a synonym for ‘crepuscular’.
By contrast, a first person narrator (unless intended to come across as a leisured, writer-type) is going to be describing themselves as a particular person in a particular place at a particular time.
And during that time they may have been panicked, upset, horny or whatever. In other words, they will only have taken in what they’re capable of taking in.
They will also be narrating their memories from a particular place at a particular time, and though this may be neutral time, not given to the reader at all, it is still at a particular stage in their life – in which the memory of previous events still has an emotional effect on them.
How a narrator reports on what has happened to them can vary a great deal. A narrator who was in a place only very briefly, and in a panicked state, can still report on their experience in a leisured way. And this despite the fact that, at the time, they weren’t at leisure to take in many details. They can say something like –
Although, as I ran away from Gilbert, I wasn’t in a fit state to appreciate the view of Paris from 267 metres or 906 feet, or Eiffel’s magnificent steel construction, completed in 1889, still I did take in that it was very slippy underfoot because the rain had been coming down all morning.
If they are speaking from closer in time to the action, they won’t have leisure to do the research I just did into the height of the viewing tower and the age of the construction, just so that I could include them in that paragraph. Their information will come from their senses, not books. They’ll say instead something like –
As I ran round the platform, I felt the metal grille to be dangerously slippy beneath my feet.
Even closer in time to the action, close enough to transform into first person present tense, this might become –
I sprint round to the left, my feet almost slipping out from under me. I grab hold of a post, regain my balance, and keep running.
Or, more choppily, time in shorter, more panicked slices –
I dodge to the left. My feet almost slip from under me. It’s wet here. I grab hold of a post, regain my balance, keep running.
Or, with almost no time at all –
I’m running, slipping, grabbing something, running.
The shorter time a person has in a place, the fewer details about that place they will take in. Similarly, the more panicked they are, the less of it they will remember.
(All of this is mimesis – all of this can be finessed.)
A third person narrator doesn’t have these issues at all. They can pull back, in time as well as space, and tell us wonderful things about the place the panicked person is sprinting through, running for their flippin’ life.
However, if the gap between the time the person is in and the time within which they are described opens up too far, the effect is likely to make them look smaller or sillier.
As she sprinted haphazardly around the rain-dappled iron viewing platform, stylishly enclosed by Eiffel’s original latticework, she also failed to take in the particularly exquisite detailing of the tower’s continuation above her head.
Well, of course she failed. She had other concerns.
Similarly, if the third person narrator becomes too portentous, in taking time to give background to events, the person is again made ridiculous.
As she sprinted haphazardly around the rain-soaked top of the Eiffel Tower, she little suspected the complexity of the arrangements that had led up to her being pursued, nor did she – of course – have any idea of the vast global consequences her successful escape would eventually cause to come into being.
O little fly, who so little knows the shit it’s landed on. (Although imitators of Dan Brown might include the second paragraph, early on in a novel.)
Not a Symbologist
You may think I am pushing this too far, exaggerating beyond what anyone would ever write.
Perhaps I am, a little.
But there are many many more subtle disjunctions in time-of-action and time-of-description that can ultimately undermine what you as a writer are trying to achieve.
By aiming to write the best you can, wherever you can – I will bloody well do the Eiffel Tower as well as it’s ever been done; I have this great metaphor for the way it looks from below – they forget to write appropriately, fittingly.
Appropriately to the moment; fittingly to the mood.
Writing that’s good or wonderful is very often writing that doesn’t fit – especially so when slow writing attempts to do fast action, or when leisured writing attempts to do panicked existence.
This is the reason why gnarled old writers will give fresh-faced young writers the gnarled advice, ‘Kill your darlings.’
What they’re saying, the Bukowskis and Highsmiths, is that it’s obvious to any good reader that you’ve spend hours cooing over your darling sentences, dressing them up in little booties that you’ve spent even more hours knitting; and that some of those others sentences (which actually have a lot more rude, kicking health) have been comparatively ignored.
Your prose is uneven; your project is screwed.
(I can’t resist two more photos of these definitely non-non-smoking writers.)
Unless, like Nabokov, you’re so leisured you can make every sentence your darling, and dress it in lace, you’re going to have to put some of them up for adoption. (Baby shoes. Not used.)
It’s obvious: the point of view used to tell a story has to fit the story being told.
Less obvious is that the two elements (voice and event) have to fit together in one satisfying story-time.
The most basic problem with the novels that most writers write (and fail to get published) will be something to do with –
POINT OF VIEW AND TIME
AND HOW THEY DO OR DON’T FIT TOGETHER
In the past few weeks, several people have very kindly clicked the button below (the one on the Starting to Write page), pressed a few more keys, and made me feel good about human nature.
I am giving away this stuff for free. However, if you have gained from it, and would like to help cover the costs of writing it (and of me continuing as a writer) please feel free to –
Meanwhile, I’ve published an ebook on Cult Books. If you’re interested in reading about writers like Jack Kerouac, Elizabeth Smart, Emily Bronte and Robert Walser, you’ll find something in it.
And on to the next chapter…