Who tells the story and why? One of the fundamental questions for storytellers of all stripes is the question of voice. Is a particular narrative best served by an omniscient voice or will the story be better if it’s told through the point-of-view of an individual character? The first person/third person quandary is a classic dilemma for all fiction authors.
This is one of those fundamental storytelling questions that can, and will, make or break an individual manuscript. I doubt that THE GREAT GATSBY would be a classic if Fitzgerald had used an omniscient narrator to tell the poignant story. The often-quoted opening lines draw the reader into the Gatsby’s story as it is shaped by the first person voice of Nick Carraway:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
I honestly don’t think we’d be talking about Gatsby today, if Fitzgerald had written the book in a third person voice. Nick’s voice lends an interesting emotional intensity to the tone of the novel. He guides the reader and, I think, invites the reader to adore Jay Gatsby and Daisy, the way Nick himself loves them.
Edgar Allan Poe famously used unreliable first person narrators to lead the reader down a peculiar and twisted garden path. This snippet from THE TELL-TALE HEART is a good example of how he involves the reader in the narrator’s self-justifying madness.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
The limits of a first person narrative often get in the way of a mystery or of a story with a broad scope. In the case of a mystery, the first person limits the reader to the clues available to the narrator. An omniscient voice enables the storyteller to step back and share a larger view of the events. It’s a matter of perspective. Had Jane Austen chosen to tell PRIDE AND PREJUDICE from Elizabeth’s point-of-view — or Jane’s or Darcy’s or Mr. Bennet’s — it would have been a very different story and I can’t imagine how the now famous opening lines would read.
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
I’ve chosen both first and third person for different stories and, on occasion, I’ve rewritten a story — switching out the POV of the narrator until I find the right one.
Any thoughts on first person/third person storytelling? Please share…