First Person: The writer is, the Narrator: “I walked into the smoke-tainted air of Murphy’s Pub and looked around for Johnny. The bastard owed me money and I aimed to get paid.
Second Person: The writer, for some insane reason tells you what you feel and do. If you’re guessing I’m not fond of second person, you’re right. “You walk into the bar and nearly choke on the cigar fumes coming from the manager’s stogie. Murphy’s has a strict no smoking policy, but you know Murph never enforces on himself. There’s a good chance Johnny is hanging around the place and doing his best not to pay you.”
Third Person: “Dan walked into Murphy’s Pub and felt his eye twitch in irritation at the vile stench of the owner’s cheap cigar. Murph looked his way and grimaced apologetically. It didn’t take a genius to know Dan was on the prowl, and the manager was just glad the man wasn’t looking for him. In the far corner, his back to the door, the target of his rage sat talking with a few friends.
“Dan moved in the right direction and slipped the brass knuckles from his back pocket. Johnny owed him a lot of money and payment was due.”
That’s as basic a breakdown as I’m doing. Let me say first and foremost that I can just barely tolerate second person as a perspective and even when I am forgiving of that particular sin, my tolerance is limited. I think the nature of that beast is flawed. Most might disagree, but no one has convinced me that I’m wrong so far.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get on to the real issue here: Which is better, First Person or Third?
With my usual grace I’ll answer that with a vague response: It depends.
First person has some very good uses, especially for suspense and for intimacy. On the suspense front if you’re reading a first person narrative it’s easier to ratchet up the possibilities of a beat down. Let’s take a look at the nemesis-du-jour, Bryce Darby.
The following first person scene is just off the top of my head.
At seventeen years of age Bryce Darby stood six feet, four inches in height. He had bright red hair and pale skin adorned with a few constellations of freckles and skin that was either burned and turning into a tan or tanned and growing more burnt by the second. His hands were both covered with an assortment of rings that were adorned with skulls, a lion’s head, and what looked like three crossed swords respectively.
I’d had plenty of chances to examine those rings in great detail, normally when he was holding me off the ground with one of his ham hock hands and waving the other fist under my nose. We had never been friends and I didn’t think that was going to change anytime soon.
Bryce was leaning against the brick exterior of the school, near the exit from the auto shop, and slowly murdering a toothpick in a continual grind between his pearly whites. His eyes regarded me with a sort of dead interest. There was no real expression in his baby blues at all until he spotted me. Then his brows pulled together over his broad nose and his mouth pulled down into a scowl.
I’d been planning a nice, leisurely walk home and maybe a few minutes of flirting with Katie Lowell. Just the thing to take the edge off a bad Monday. Now, with Bryce looking my way, I was remembering that just the week before my mouth had gone off half-cocked and said a few things about Darby’s heritage that he had not seen fit to forgive or forget.
“Need to talk to you, Corin.” The toothpick shredded between his incisors as he came my way.
I tried to think of anything I could possibly say that would end this conversation with me not in traction. Nothing was coming to mind. Darby took two more steps in my direction and I felt adrenaline kicking into my system like nitrous into a high performance engine. I hoped my legs were up to a hard run, because I knew my face wasn’t up to getting rearranged.
This scene, in third person, is from my novel, POSSESSIONS, in which our hero, Chris, decides to use the neighborhood bully as a means of escaping the bad guys.
“Look, Brittany doesn’t know a damned thing. I know, because I already asked her.” He looked around and saw still more people. Bryce Darby was leaning against the corner of his mother’s house, smoking a cigarette. The sun was bright and magnified as it cut through the thickening clouds. The way it ran across Darby’s face, he almost looked like a statue with bronzed hair. Darby lived with his father but still came back to the neighborhood from time to time to see his mother. He was wearing jeans and heavy hiking boots, both of which had seen better days a long time ago. He was also wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Yosemite Sam looking ornery and dangerous in a cartoonish sort of way. Darby and the cartoon gunslinger had a lot in common as far as Chris was concerned. They both had brutal faces, red hair and bad attitudes. The difference was that Bryce Darby was real and fully capable of breaking damned near anyone he saw in half. Bugs Bunny would have been rabbit stew inside of two minutes around the local terror of Chris’s early years. Seeing him made Chris want to scowl and then to smile as an idea finally came to his mind.
“Look, maybe if you described this key it would help?”
“I don’t suppose it could hurt.” Crawford shrugged and casually scanned the area. His eyes saw Darby and immediately ignored him. That was better than Chris could have hoped for. “It’s a little larger than a quarter, a gold coin with some fine silver filigree and the small gems in the center. It’s old, too. The original coin is actually a little uneven in shape.”
Chris heard the words but paid them little attention. His mind was already working on the Darby angle. He waited until they were even with his old classmate and then looked Bryce directly in the face. Bryce’s wide, square face turned to notice him, the dark eyes under a broad brow locked with Chris’s for a second, and he nodded almost imperceptibly. Damn, he’s in a good mood. Now I have to go and piss him off. On the best day, with maybe a dozen friends to help him, Chris still didn't like the idea of making the man angry. He wasn’t really that much bigger than Chris, but he had an almost unnatural capacity for violence and shoulders that made it nearly impossible for him to walk straight through a door. The thought that he might actually get bigger was enough to make most people gape in amazement. If even half the stories he’d heard were true—according to Jerry and a kid they both knew named Tom Murphy, Darby had once curb-stomped a grown man’s face for threatening to call the police on him. He didn't know if he believed it, but he’d never heard Bryce deny it, either—enraging Bryce Darby was probably a better way to get paralyzed than the pistol shoved against his side. It went against his nature to even get Darby’s attention. Actually deliberately making him angry? Well, that was almost a guarantee of bodily injuries.
Chris gave Darby the finger. What had been an almost pleasant look on his brutish face suddenly became a scowl. One corner of the red haired boy’s mouth lifted in an almost feral way, and he suddenly wasn’t leaning against the support post on his mother’s stoop any longer. He was standing straight and tall and looking twice as ugly as an IRS audit notice. He lifted one leg and crushed out his cigarette against the worn heel of his boot. His eyes never left Chris’s.
Chris made another obscene gesture in his direction and smiled.
Darby started walking his directing with a casual saunter that Chris knew meant nothing but pure trouble.
Both of those descriptions work well enough. They get the point across. But the first person can add a level of immediacy that third can’t as easily achieve. I tend to think of it as shorthand for the emotional occasions.
When should you use Third Person? When should you use first?
That’s easy. Use the one that works for the story. Listen I was 14,000 words into my latest novel and it just wasn't working for me. I mean, damn, it was not going well at all. It was going so badly, in fact, that I actually went back and rewrote/edited all 14,000 words from Third into First.
It was a damned big risk as far as I’m concerned, but you want to know something? It’s working now. The story that refused to flow for me is now working as well as anything I’ve done in a while.
In this case it’s the nature of the beast. I’m writing an apocalyptic novel. Things are going badly for planet Earth on a massive scale. In third person a lot of what I’d written comes across as statistics. This many bodies, over an area the size of that item. But when you add in the first person emotion, there is a palpable sense of dread offered in what would otherwise be a dry sequence. How can I tell the difference? The story is moving at a better pace and my first readers have told me very emphatically that first person works in this case.
And, because I am me and therefore likely certifiable, I’ll point to my one exception to the rule.
Sometimes the answer BOTH works just fine.
In my novel SMILE NO MORE I tell the story in three separate segments for most of the book. Two of them are First Person. The third is in, no shock, Third Person, limited omniscience. That is to say, there is a limited perspective per third person scene, but it is definitely third person.
Scene One is told from the perspective of Cory Phelps, remembering the events that led up to his death. Scene Two is told from the perspective of Rufo the Clown—the corrupted spirit of Cecil Phelps—fifty years later as he seeks to find the family he left behind when he was murdered. Scene Three is from multiple third person perspectives and examines the consequences of Rufo’s modern day actions. It was a nightmare to write, but you know what? The story demanded it. The end result seems to have been worth it. Reviewers praised the intimacy of getting to know and sympathize with Rufo and also dreaded his very dark actions all the m ore because they were cheering him, often times knowing they shouldn’t have. That was what I wanted. That was what I got. It was worth the extra headaches of switching perspectives constantly.
It was what the story dictated.
I still maintain that Second Person was designed by Satan to annoy me. But that’s a matter of personal taste.
Until next time,
James A. Moore