First person or third person: which is better?

First person or third person: which is better?

From Rick:

A few years back, I did a post on the differences between a story, an anecdote, and an essay and how to tell which you’ve written. Classifying your piece properly will help determine how and where you should market it and will help you avoid unnecessary rejections from magazines that accept only certain types of pieces.

Here’s the link to my previous post where I presented a published piece of mine for you to guess its classification.

STORY, ANECDOTE, OR ESSAY

Personal essays are expected to be written in first person, and they’re almost always written in past tense because they generally express commentary on past events or memories. I originally wrote my personal essay that way. Although I no longer have that first-person draft, I converted the published version into a first-person, past tense narrative to make the point of this post.

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[FIRST-PERSON VERSION]

I remember that one sad summer I came home from college. Behind my parent’s house only the solitary oak remained, rising above the vacancy where the lovely cherry trees had once been and now presided over a practical space for grass and a storage shed.

I remember as a young boy treading through the woods over crusty snow beyond the edge of my parents’ property. My tight-laced leather boots crunched the frozen leaves and twigs. Next to the woods, silhouettes of winter weeds caressed the snowy field that spread out velvet-blue in the twilight. Each spring I walked this same path searching for wildflowers and the mysterious green umbrellas, whose real name I never knew, sprouting up from the forest floor.

A smaller part of the woods inhabited the back of the property. Every summer I played there, building forts, and one adventurous year I built a small tree house. I admired the tall oak upon whose distant limbs I imagined the best tree house of all.

But my favorite things were the nine wild cherry trees. As spring arrived, I waited for their blossoms to make dark sweet promises. I walked over the stains from the previous year’s crop and prayed against a late frost.

One year, I caught the fragrance of newly turned soil coming from deep in the big woods and there I discovered new adventures. After school and on weekends, while the bulldozers were asleep, I walked up and down the dirt mounds they had made.

Next to the barbecue pit my Dad had built stood a rusty fifty-gallon drum for burning trash. On autumn days I relished the fragrant smoke of burning leaves—before laws forbade that simple pleasure. Best of all were the coveted aerosol cans, shaving cream or whipped cream, that I’d toss into the blaze and joyously await their percussion.

Houses and streets grew from those woods, and I grew into manhood. I’d sometimes wonder if maybe every year, on my birthday, the spirits of the past would gather around that oak tree and bow before it in homage to the majesty of times long gone.

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After I’d written the essay in first person, I realized that it failed to capture the emotion and the sadness I’d felt when I came home from college that year. The woods behind our property had years ago been torn down and turned into housing subdivisions, but those cherry trees that had been on my parents’ property since we first moved there were gone as well.

Here’s the third-person, present-tense version that was published:

=====

[THIRD-PERSON VERSION]

He remembers that one sad summer he came home from college. Behind his parents’ house only the solitary oak remained, rising above the vacancy where his lovely cherry trees had once been and presiding over a practical space for grass and a storage shed.

He remembers the young boy treading through the woods over crusty snow beyond the edge of his parents’ property. His tight-laced leather boots crunch the frozen leaves and twigs. Next to his woods, silhouettes of winter weeds caress the snowy field that spreads out velvet-blue in the twilight. Each spring he walks this same path searching for wildflowers and the mysterious green umbrellas, whose real name he never knew, sprouting up from the forest floor.

A smaller part of his woods inhabit the back of the property. Every summer he plays here, building forts, and one adventurous year he builds a small tree house. He admires the tall oak upon whose distant limbs he imagines the best tree house of all.

But his favorite things are the nine wild cherry trees. As spring arrives, he waits for their blossoms to make dark sweet promises. He walks over the stains from the previous year’s crop and prays against a late frost.

One year, he catches the fragrance of newly turned soil coming from deep in the big woods and there he discovers new adventures. After school and on weekends, while the bulldozers are asleep, he walks up and down the dirt mounds they have made.

Next to the barbecue pit his Dad built stands a rusty fifty-gallon drum for burning trash. On autumn days he relishes the fragrant smoke of burning leaves—before laws forbade that simple pleasure. Best of all are the coveted aerosol cans, shaving cream or whipped cream, that he tosses into the blaze and joyously awaits their percussion.

Houses and streets grew from his woods, and the boy became a man. The man imagines that every year, on his birthday, the spirits of his past gather around that oak tree and bow before it in homage to the majesty of his boyhood.

==========

The wording changes between the two are minimal, but I trust you will agree that, contrary to what logic might dictate, casting this particular narrative into third person gives it much more emotion. And it demonstrates an exception to the idea that first person always brings the reader closer to the characters.

Done well, first-person narratives will often deliver a more personal touch and draw the reader closer to the characters. However, they also require the writer to put the reader directly into the narrator’s head, and this means having a good handle on the character’s background and personality in order to create a believable three-dimensional character.

That’s not easy to do. I’ve seen too many writers assume that writing in first person will automatically cause the reader to more closely identify with the narrator, but too many writers end up simply having the narrator TELL the reader what he or she is feeling instead of showing and sharing the character’s emotions. For this reason, I caution new writers to be sure they understand what’s required to write a compelling first-person story before attempting it.

When you’re ready to begin a new story and have tentatively chosen the point of view, challenge yourself to consider whether another perspective might work better. Try writing the opening in one or more different points of view before making a final decision. You might be surprised at what you discover.

–Rick

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