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A lot of people are either on the side of first person or the side of third person. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of writing in first person for fiction?

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this is useful to collage students –  user4084 Sep 10 '12 at 21:20

6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Advantages

  • First person narratives also have a much easier time garnering empathy from your audience, since they end up spending so much time in your character's brain.
  • If done well, it can give logic and motivations to characters that would seem otherwise evil, immoral, or otherwise not relatable.
  • It more easily fleshes a character on the page by allowing the audience to listen to their voice for long periods of time.
  • A beginning writer often finds it easier to keep consistent tone, style, and prose when writing in first person.
  • In some ways, a first person narrator can more easily "dump" information on the reader.

Disadvantages

  • Many authors discount this, but I think it's important: the narrator needs to have a clear reason to be telling or documenting the story in the first place.
  • Describing the protagonist clearly (let alone honestly and objectively) is very difficult, and usually requires tacky tricks (like staring into a mirror).
  • Perspective and perceptions are extremely limited.
  • First person narrators, unless they are telling the story far in the future, are less inclined to understand the gravity of any situation. In general they are more grounded in the immediacy of any given moment and less able to see its place in the grand scope of things.
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First person makes it easy to show a character's motivations, and using it with an unreliable narrator can add a nice twist of ambiguity. With highly sympathetic narrators, it can forge a strong connection between reader and protagonist.

On the other hand: (Most of this assumes the point point-of-view character is the protagonist, which is the option I've seen most often.) The reader can't witness any action that the protagonist doesn't. It's more challenging to describe the point-of-view character (both physically and otherwise). The reader doesn't get the benefit of multiple perspectives on the same events. It tends to distance the reader a bit from the other characters.

"Disadvantages" might not be the best word, because some or all of them can be advantages in certain types of stories. For instance, suspense might hinge almost entirely on the reader's only being privy to a limited view of events.

I would say that, generally, first-person works best with a point-of-view character who is either extremely identifiable (reader feels at home in the character's head) or not identifiable at all (reader needs an especially deep insight into the character's motivations).

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I've seen a couple first person stories that have chapters that follow other characters around. It's rare, but when done right it pretty damn good. –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 19 '11 at 20:18
    
@Ralph I've seen this, too, and it can be done well for sure. It niggles at me somewhat, but that's probably just because I'm seeing it as a writer. I doubt the majority of readers are at all bothered by that format. –  Kelly C Hess Mar 20 '11 at 1:11
    
Yeah, one writer's "disadvantage" is another's "advantage". I'd choose first person specifically for the limitations that choice incurs. Sometimes is for effect, like suspense, sometimes its for focus and intimacy, to get the reader into the character's mind and experience. –  STSagas Aug 20 '13 at 0:47

I would like to highlight an advantage that first person gives when writing a text: the emotional edge in describing lists, enumerations and so on. Things are rendered as integral to your personal memories: you could easily build a crescendo where otherwise a detached description would induce other emotions in the reader.

It is a common trick for rhetorical speeches (i.e. preachers, politicians), but some splendid examples belong fully to literature. One example in contemporary literature is 'Je me Souviens' by Georges Perec

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I think one of the benefits of writing in the first person is that you are never wrong. In that, all the information that spills into the story is through one person's vision, his brain. So he may interpret events in a twisted way, or may get his facts wrong, or choose not to address backgrounds or facts at all. It's his choice. In other words the advantage and disadvantage is that your story is told through one person's perspective. The disadvantage is that you will somehow need to convey the objective truth to the reader in some way. Perhaps in the conversations your character has with others. It is extremely personal and I like it.

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One's disadvantages are another's advantages.

  • Immersion - First person is the most immersive of perspectives, even more so than the rare, "elusive" second person (which is specifically aimed at maximizing immersion). You live the adventures of the protagonist through his own eyes. Second-person narration is still someone telling me to do something or see something. First person is me doing or seeing something. I know what I know, I see what I see, no deus-ex knowledge, if I have shortcomings, they affect the way I see the world. No immersion-breaking superpowers of a 3rd person narrator. This will be a disadvantage if you want to detach the reader from the protagonist - all parables are 3rd person and giving very simple descriptions, so that we concentrate on events, not on people.
  • Lack of reflection - while for "colorful" protagonists this is a disadvantage - it takes jumping through hoops to describe them for the reader, if your protagonist is more generic, you can freely skimp on details. Leave the protagonist nameless, faceless, maybe even in extreme cases genderless - and let the reader fill in the blanks with their own face and name. This does wonders to immersion. Instead of making your own, cherry-picked protagonist, you put your generic reader in the centre of events in person. They don't follow - they live these events! Of course this leaves you without your own cherry-picked protagonist.
  • Surprising perspective - Do cherry-pick the protagonist. Take a story that would be generic at best but tell it from perspective of a dog. Or the villain. Take a common trope: time traveller stuck with cave people. Yawn? Not if told by a caveman! Humans discovered an alien civilization? Tell that from perspective of the alien tasked with organizing their welcome! You'll never get this done so thoroughly with 3rd person.
  • Unreliable narrator - There is simply no way to excuse the 3rd person narrator skipping/skimping/falsifying details. It will always feel cheap or wrong - or may cause reasonable doubt in case it's merely reported as told by others. Only first-person will let you lie to the reader with impunity and then make them jump with surprise at "The protagonist is schizophrenic!" - OTOH, you'll have a hard time to ascertain things are true that way. Also, hiding things behind scenes is easier. You Were Elsewhere Then. But then, you can't be everywhere!
  • Natural - This is the fundamental way people tell their own stories. It's the classic of centuries. A war veteran will usually tell in first person!
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The biggest difference between first person and third person limited is that with the former you are directly telling the story in the voice of the character. If you want to have a character tell a story themselves, with all that implies (i.e. you're fully able to make the narrator unreliable here), then first person is really great for that. There are quite a few hardboiled detective novels which use this; in fact, it's almost a cliche in that genre.

On the other hand, don't completely discount third person limited, which still allows you to tell the story from the POV of one character but which also allows you as the author to have just a little bit of distance. So for instance if you want to tell the story from the POV of a 4 year old girl, you'd probably want to end up using third person limited or even a little more than limited so that the audience can understand her (kids that age, while fascinating, are horrible storytellers because they don't understand which details to include and which to leave out). Basically, it allows you to kind of straddle the line between actually making up a separate, coherent voice for a character and still being able to tell a (relatively) neutral narrative.

The other deal with first person which can be really off-putting for some readers comes from the idea that few if any people really think they are villains. Imagine the Game of Thrones series told from the POV of... well, most of the characters, really. You'd have people constantly making excuses and justifications for some really nasty actions, you'd probably confuse the audience a little bit with their insistence that the "other side" is just as two-faced and mean spirited (when that's not always clear), and why should they ever be assumed to be reliable when they lie, cheat, and steal everyone else on a daily basis? That's exactly the kind of character a reader is liable to not want to feel too close to.

Of course, if you're looking for something cool and experimental, all the things I just listed as "flaws" are rather the opposite of that. Consider Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting (and if you've just seen the movie, I highly recommend the book). The dialect used is strange and the narrator is not always the nicest of people, but that's also kind of why it works. Faulkner had a real penchant for writing stream of consciousness style writing that really got into the heads of his characters. See also: pretty much all of Chuck Pahlianuk's novels, especially Fight Club ("I am Jack's whiskey-soaked liver"). See also: the brogue and not-always-completely-reliable narrators employed by Irish author Roddy Doyle in books like The Commitments or The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. First person can be a joy to read but it can also be one of the hardest things to get right.

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