Narration: 1st vs 3rd person

In Saturday’€™s Guardian Margaret Drabble made a comment that she gave up first person narration after three novels because she came to think it a lazy form.

This is (or was) apparently a general view among the literati, that third person narration was more literary, more legitimate, that first person was less worthy, but it’€™s not one I ever shared.

I declare an interest here. Most (if not all) of my published works have been in the first person.

I do make one claim to distinction, though. I am one of the very few people to have written a piece of fiction in the first person plural. That story was This Is The Road, in the anthology New Worlds 3, Gollancz, 1993 – nominated for the BSFA award 1994 – which was also published in translation as “Le Chemin D’Eternité,” in Cyberdreams 7. The only other instance I recall of the use of “we” in a narrative sense was in one of Primo Levi‘s books (for shame, I forget which) about his experiences in the concentration camps.

Granted, third person gives insight into the inner life of all the characters and enables us to know them in the round but all we are told is vouchsafed to us by the author, who by definition knows everything about the character. That can present a problem, for it means that the author has to choose not so much what to tell us but instead what to leave out, or else overburden us with information.

Consider now the first person narrative. Except for the viewpoint character, everything we as readers know about all the other characters in the book is not what is known to the author – who is still omniscient I need hardly add – but merely what is known to the narrator. Everything the reader needs to learn has to be revealed by the narrator’s interactions with, or observations of, the other characters and cannot be told to us directly. To my mind, far from being lazy, that is a much harder act to bring off successfully than merely entering a character’€™s head whenever convenient. This difficulty is perhaps heightened when the chosen first person narrator is unreliable.

In this regard, I would submit that the use of multiple viewpoints each of whom is a first person narrator, while providing a more complex narrative, is a form of cheating.

From her last sentence (see above link) Drabble seems to have altered her view. “It’s the straight true line that’s hard.”

Welcome (back) to the club.

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