In spite of my current overall weariness with the first-person trend, I really don’t dislike it at all. I’ve read quite a few books that were absolutely perfect and natural with first-person, and can’t imagine how they would’ve been in third-person. These include Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (one of the most haunting, unforgettable books I’ve ever read), several of Hermann Hesse’s novels, anything by Mark Twain, Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Adventures of Motl, the Cantor’s Son, and of course the classic Catcher in the Rye.
But since first-person has become so common in the last 5-10 years, it really seems to have lost a lot of the zing it used to have. When every other book feels like it’s first-person these days, it makes it harder for a distinctive first-person narrator to stand out. It’s really hard to capture that POV well, and there needs to be a compelling reason why this person is telling the story in the first place.
Some of my reasons for preferring to read and write third-person:
1. It obviously differs by genre, but in the genres I most prefer to read, there are many characters and storylines. You can’t cover all that ground when the story is being filtered through only one person’s POV. Breaking a complex story up into alternating narrators just feels disjointed to me, like watering the story down.
2. It feels easier to create a distinctive voice and personality for each character, even minor ones. You’re not limited to deep character development for only one person.
3. There needs to be some important reason why a story can only be told by a first-person narrator. When in doubt, use third-person. To me, it’s not about needing to feel super-duper close to a narrator and right in his or her head. It’s about the overall feel of the story. A more personal story like Demian or The Painted Bird works in first-person because it’s so focused on the journey of just one person.
4. There are some situations I’d hope that everyone, at least 21st century Westerners, would find morally repugnant, like a 13-year-old having a sexual relationship with a guy in his twenties, a 15-year-old dating a 30-year-old, or incest. But sometimes these situations arise out of very complex circumstances. It’s harder to convey that this kind of relationship is wrong and can’t end well if it’s in first-person. Third-person also gives us more backstory into it than “SQUEEE! I must be soo mature if a college guy wants to sleep with me! We’re soulmates after only two dates!”
5. The misuse of first-person leads to the unreliable narrator, someone who might be lying about everything, someone without enough maturity or distance yet to put any kind of self-reflection on things.
6. If I hate the character or find him/her boring, I don’t want to spend 300+ pages in his or her head. It’s easier to take a flawed character if there’s that distance of third-person. We have a better sense of their motivations and backstory, and don’t just have to take their word for everything.
7. If the stakes are high, I basically know a first-person narrator will survive. In third-person, the suspense is there all the time. Will this soldier survive the war? Will this family escape Vietnam? How many of these characters are going to survive the Shoah?
8. I like to see things beyond just one person. We’re stuck with one person’s experiences and voice for a whole book in first-person.
9. Third-person feels more like reading a story about someone, instead of someone telling me a story.
10. There’s a strong tendency for less-experienced writers to put too much of themselves into a first-person voice. Sometimes it feels more like the writer’s voice and opinions, not those of a fictional character.
11. If a book is set over a long period of time, it’s easier to change someone’s voice in third-person. I don’t want to read essentially the same voice from the 12-year-old in the beginning, the 16-year-old in the middle, and the 25-year-old at the end. A first-person voice needs to mature along with the character.
12. You can use more mature language and thoughts in third-person. Just because a typical 13-year-old might not know a word like gregarious, xenophilic, or pilfer doesn’t mean the narrator can’t use it when describing his or her thoughts or backstory. And if I have to see one more young narrator reflecting with a maturity way beyond his or her years…
13. I just like the objective distance that comes with third-person, and the ability to follow multiple characters and storylines.