Narrative Writing technique: Should I write in the First-person or Third-person perspective?

A common dilemma that troubles writers throughout the years is making the choice of writing a story in a first-person (using the pronoun “I”) or third-person perspective – be it stories or novel writing. Most writers seem to prefer the third-person perspective, as there is more freedom for expression among the various characters. Writing in the first-person perspective can be restrictive and limiting, especially if it’s through the eyes of an eight-year-old.

Personally, I feel that there is no standard solution for this. It really depends on the nature of the story and the way the writers want the story to play out. Age constraints aside, I really do love the “first-person narrative” technique when it comes to movies though. Films such as Forest Gump spring to mind. Such filming technique is not common and if you run a check through search engines, you will probably see what I mean. Nevertheless, there’s a certain degree of closeness between the narrator and the audience in first-person perspective movies that usually produce cinematic magic. This amazing and mesmerising effect never loses its allure even when it’s translated into writing. In fact, writing in the first-person perspective within the context of an autobiography or biography does evoke a certain sense of poignancy of life’s unpredictability as well as the ups and downs of human experiences. Put it in another way, writing in the first-person perspective gives a very humanistic touch to the narrator, usually the primary protagonist of the story.

Consider the following example written in the first-person perspective:

I eyed the stylish pen on the shelf in the bookshop. It’s covered in chrome and I can almost imagine myself walking out of the shop with the pen in my pocket, penning my thoughts onto a journal, showing it off to my friends in school…I reached out for it and grabbed it in my left hand for a while to let the feelings sink in. I will have it, that’s a yes. I did a quick scan of the surroundings – no security guards, no surveillance cameras and no staff is around.

The perfect chance.

But then a thought disrupted my intention to steal it…the thought of my mum.

“You will not steal from anybody, you hear me? Theft is something that a good man will not do. And I didn’t spend my life bringing up a bad boy.”

I put the pen back on the shelf feeling a pang of regret but heaving with a sigh of relief.

A clear conscious is worth more than anything else in life.


Now, consider the same scene written in the third-person perspective:

John eyed the stylish pen on the shelf in the bookshop. It’s covered in chrome and he can almost imagine myself walking out of the shop with the pen in his pocket, penning his thoughts onto a journal, showing it off to his friends in school…he reached out for it and grabbed it in his left hand for a while to let the feelings sink in. He will have it, that’s a yes. He did a quick scan of the surroundings – no security guards, no surveillance cameras and no staff is around.

The perfect chance.

But then a thought disrupted his intention of stealing it…the thought of his mum.

“You will not steal from anybody, you hear me? Theft is something that a good man will not do. And I didn’t spend my life bringing up a bad boy.”

He put the pen back on the shelf feeling a pang of regret but heaving with a sigh of relief.

His clear conscious is worth more than anything else in life.

Now, I will like to ask you a question: Which is the better writing style?

In my opinion, both writing style works fine. But, you might realise that for emotional writing, a first-person perspective does have a slight edge over the third-person perspective because it creates a stronger and deeper bond of intimacy between the character and the readers. If the scene is emotional in tone AND primarily describes the main character’s thoughts as shown above, the impact is even greater.

However, if several characters are involved in a scene or happening, then the first-person perspective writing loses its impact to affect its viewers because the effectiveness of the narrator has been somewhat diluted by the actions and thoughts of the other characters.  So, it is best to blend first-person and third-person perspective in any form of narrative writing to create an effective and memorable story – just like the directing style of Forest Gump.

To me, the choice between first-person perspective and third-person perspective is not really a choice at all.  As writers, we just go with the flow. Years of writing experiences, intuition and gut feel works well here. Of course, there is always the option of a rewrite (which is the practice of many great and acclaimed writers).

More importantly, hard work is required. James Joyce’s Ulysses is one example.

And as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

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