I was reading a short story the other day, and for the first two pages I was entirely frustrated. I was trying to form a picture of the scene, and while I had a couple of descriptive comments about the narraror, I was missing a really, really important fact. I didn’t know the narrator’s gender. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but this time it did. Of course, to cause that confusion one must write in the first person.
I habitually start new stories in the first person. Many of the stories I submit are still in that voice. I have yet to sell a story for actual cash money that is told in the first person (not that I’ve sold much in third person, either). I don’t think this is a matter of editorial bias, and I’m skeptical about many of the reasons editors and other writers cite. For me, it boils down to this. I can write “I” and save myself a whole lot of work on characterization. I know who I am. The problem is that you don’t. That’s surprisingly easy to overlook. While I think I’m getting intimate, the reader is saying, “who the hell is this?”
Most of the time first person is just the author being lazy.
Not always, I must hasten to add. The Monster Within cannot be told except in first person. In this case, however, the narrower perspective is all about establishing character. It’s about learning who Hunter is as Hunter does.
Tonight I’m working on a story I’m supposed to be holding until I get my almost-done work sent out. It’s in the first person. The first paragraph makes sense in first person, and as planned the end will justify first person as well. But the story is expanding, and the benefits of first person are getting lost in the story. That’s the trap, I think. As storytellers, we want to speak directly to the audience at the start of the story, to set the stage, and again at the end, a debriefing of sorts. For the rest of it, the reader can benefit from descriptions of our main character from outside. By getting away from the narrator’s perspective we can see the narrator much more clearly.
So, here’s my humble advice for writers everywhere, should you choose to accept it. Always use third person unless: 1) It is fundamentally necessary to the story that it be told in the form of a journal. 99% of all stories told this way don’t have to be, so if you think this applies to you, you’re probably wrong. 2) The narrator MUST speak directly to the audience. See Princess Bride. 3) The narrator is a liar, or at least you want the audience to consider that possibility. This can include self-deception. See Catcher in the Rye. 4) Your name is Emma Bull, and your novel is called Bone Dance.
First person does not make the story more intimate, but it definitely narrows the perspective. Use with caution.