The First or Third? A Return to the Question of Perspective

My training as a writer and storyteller came from watching movies, which is a third-person format. It’s why I naturally gravitated towards the third-person perspective. Like a camera, I conveyed the story through an objective lens, with limited access to the characters’ minds. But I suppose that, upon reexamination of the nature of the strengths of each medium, it might be more effective for me to write in the first person. You see, films are most effective at conveying actions and behaviors, whereas the novel’s advantage is showing psychological insights. For example, it is awkward for Albert Nobbs (of the eponymous film) to say aloud to herself (and I’m paraphrasing here), “But how do you find love?” in a movie. But in the first-person, you can say such things quite naturally. You can convey your protagonist’s personality more vividly, as if this person is sitting right there in front of you and talking to you.

And that can be a good thing for my novel. One major theme in the novel is how misinterpretations and misunderstandings between people create barriers that cause loneliness. If we are given such unadulterated and intimate access to Mark, there is potential that the reader wishes to be his friend; yet we cannot be his friend. This is a way to make the reader feel what Mark is feeling: he wants to connect and be friends with certain people, but he cannot for one reason or another. In which case, I suppose that this method of conveying loneliness is more sensible if I am trying to create a vicarious experience of loneliness rather than painting a distanced portrait of it.

I originally chose the third person:

The advan­tages of the limited omni­scient narrator is that it does not provide the reader with much intimacy with Mark (the protag­onist). This is an advantage because I am, after all, writing about lone­liness. The narrator is observing the observer, is an outsider looking at the outsider. It’s a little meta, I know. I’m not trying to be post­modern, I promise. But by placing myself as a third-person narrator, I create more distance between the reader and Mark. Mark becomes a single man standing in his own little world, with others now seeing it from a distance. The lack of intimacy of the third-person was a decision that I made (6.21).

Part of the reason I wanted to do this was because I needed to remain objective. I also wanted to give Mark his own space such that he was divorced from the reader. But a professor of mine said that people are often looking for a vicarious experience in today’s writing. It would be much easier to do that if I write the novel in the first person voice. After all, like I had mentioned before, all of the novels that I have been studying have been written in the first person, including two recent additions—Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

I need to question whether or not I truly need the objective lens necessary to display the perspective of others. As it stands, my novel right now uses limited third-person omniscient. If it is limited, then perhaps there is in fact no need to write in the third-person. After all, I don’t often dip into the perspectives of other characters. I mainly use it to express certain things that seemingly require objectivity, such as the interpretation of other characters’ actions and behaviors, especially when that interpretation asserts that the character is attracted to Mark. After all, the first rule you learn in any literature class is that you can never trust the first-person narrative.

The other problem is that of aesthetic. There are many segments that I have written in a very literary and writerly way. If I switch to the first-person voice, the use of such literary expressions becomes questionable. Mark is not a writer; what is he doing speaking in such a way? Then there is the question of why the protagonist is recounting these events. Holden Caulfield’s first-person narrative is a sort of stream-of-consciousness recollection of the events leading up to his hospitalization; he is recalling and verbalizing these events to a psychiatrist. Patrick in Auntie Mame is chronicling his aunt’s interesting life. Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar can afford to be literary and can justify the existence of the book because she is an intern at a magazine. Why is Mark writing this first-person account?

Should I choose to use the first person narrative, I would end up losing the use of more high falutin’ vocabulary and linguistically artful sentences. One thing that I very much appreciate and enjoy is well-written prose like that seen in Flannery O’ Connor’s work. Because Mark is not a writer, it would not make the least bit of sense for him to say something like, “The memory of the old man wiping the sweat off his forehead with a white handkerchief evanesced into the humid summer air with a swipe across my own brow.” I feel that one advantage to literary prose is that it allows the creation of more artistic imagery.

At the end of the day I suppose that there is no better way to figure this out than to start writing in the first person and seeing where it takes me. Previously, I had stated a concern with wasting all the work that I had already done. But an artist must not be afraid to tear it all down and to start completely from scratch. I must have the courage to rework the entire novel if I wish for it to become anything meaningful. I suppose that it means that I will be spending the next week playing around with giving Mark a reason to be writing or relaying his story, and trying to develop a unique but relatable voice for him. The question still remains over what benefits I gain from moving to the first person and what I stand to lose from it as well.