The Scifi Writer’s Dilemma: First Person Perspective Vs Third
There’s no escaping it. First person perspective vs. third party is possibly the biggest decision a writer faces, but very rarely makes as a conscious choice. Once you’ve overcome the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I inertia of actually spending time writing in the first place, for many people, it’s a decision that is already made on an instinctive level. Depending on their literary interests, most writers have an idea of what their story will be like, and the perspective is often an unchallenged, unconscious assumption. Especially a science fiction author. Science fiction, despite being very much an invention of modern times, has tended to be dominated by third person perspectives. Which is strange because the third person viewpoint is a very traditional form.
Arguably, science fiction emerged during the mass industrialisation of the 19th Century. Before that, we could cite many works that pawed at scifi, but didn’t quite push the big red launch button. Presumably because they didn’t have big red buttons back then. There’s no doubt the traditions of Utopian and Dystopian literature (which is a somewhat meaningless distinction as More’s original Utopia was in fact, a dystopia) marked the beginnings of scifi. Before that there were a couple of philosophical works (Campanella’s City Of the Sun, for example) that defined realistic alternative versions of human civilisation, but most other-worldly tales were works of fantasy, or clever political satire, like Gulliver’s Travels.
As a genre, before the age of science and machinery, speculative fiction was mostly folk tales, rich with superstition and the spiritual paranormal, not belt and braces “reverse the polarity of the neutron inverter” science fiction. But as the industrialised world emerged, so these tales of alternate realities and lives in the not-so-distant future, filled with wondrous mechanical marvels (as immortalised by Jules Verne) sowed the seeds of modern science fiction as we know it today.
Perhaps, notably the likes of H.G Wells took the speculative literature of Jules Verne and moved the genre towards scifi as we know it. Everyone with an interest in the topic has their own reference point, but given how often his works have inspired mass media adaptations of science fiction, I put Wells at the top of my list. But even so, despite being separated by fifty years, both Wells’ and Verne’s works share mostly a third person perspective. Wells’ great innovation on this score was to introduce the unnamed narrator in the Time Machine, to give it more of a mash-up between the first and third, but that’s about as far as it went. We never really encounter an oeuvre of works in early scifi that are written from the viewpoint of the protagonist. And even today, the first person viewpoint has never become the norm. The legendary Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favourites) pushed a lot of barriers in scifi, never really attempted to break that fourth wall between the audience and the actors. Like Wells, he occasionally put the narrator into a bit part, most notably in Slaughterhouse 5 where the narrator remarks “that was me” when describing scene from the Dresden fire storm.
On my quest for an agent, I have often been asked if my story is written in the first person. The reason being that third person perspective novels are considered a bit old hat. There’s an element of logic about that view. The ratio of scene setting and description to plot and narrative is weighted towards the former in the third person. Dialogue, which to my mind, is where the written story is closest to film, is less important in the third person too. The result? A first person perspective can save paper and sell better to modern expectations of drama. Perhaps.
It’s hardly a fast rule. Russell Hoban’s outstanding The Medusa Frequency is a novella that demonstrates the power of brevity afforded by the first person perspective, his first person Riddley Walker on the other hand, shows the reverse. It’s a chewy one, but ask yourself if Riddley Walker would have been easier to read in the third person, given it’s strange dialect. The answer might be yes, but the tale would be lost in the rewriting.
My first manuscript, Supervillain was always going to be written in the first person. It never occurred to me that choosing first person point of view versus third was a critical component of how my story would unfold. I’m just not very good at writing in the third person. It always feels a bit laborious. Contrived. You can’t express the emotions, or speak the dialogue in the way you want the reader to experience it, lost in the moment, putting themselves into the drama.
It’s as though the third person narrator’s voice distances you from the story, in the way classic novels often do. In science fiction, horror, fantasy and urban fiction, the narrator’s voice always feels a bit like that old guy in smoking jacket, sitting by the fireside in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The ever present narrator becomes an inert protagonist who curiously, plays no part in the tale. It trades the voyuerism of feeling like you are there in the moment for the rather less exciting prospect of listening to someone tell you all about it after the event.
As he paused for thought, Ake’s thoughts drifted back to the day it all began. He was just about to leave the house when suddenly he was gripped by the story. He raced to his laptop and blatted out three hundred words like a man possessed. He sat back and looked at what he’d done, slightly unsure of what had just happened. The type at the top of the screen read Supervillain. Chapter 1 “Super”.
See what I mean?
It’s not easy being the voice of a protagonist.
For science fiction and fantasy, first person perspective is a challenge. There are books that take this angle, but most of the works that comprise the geek library (we’ve all got one of them, right?) are third person narratives. It’s an an artery that runs through the genre, pulsing with new works all the time. Graphic novels and comic books are almost always third person, television and films too. Those visual media define a storytelling form that shapes our expectations of the written genre. But it’s forgetting the power of the word over the image: films and comics are very hard to present in the first person, but books do it easily.
I’ve been getting feedback recently from various test readers for Supervillain, and the perspective issue has been raised. There is a view that in the third person, the true fan can immerse themselves more imaginatively in the world you’ve created. Daydream their own stories in your imaginary universe. That’s a huge draw for many scifi fans. It taps into the way we grew up, playing with action figures inspired by the shows we loved so much. I am no exception to that rule. Which, ironically, is how my story came to be first person. I immersed myself in my own imaginary world. I played out a story, played with my own mental action figures, so to speak, inspired by the tale. I became the main character. Which means, obviously, when I wrote the story I wrote it as him. Hence the book is in the first person. But also, I wanted to write a story where we got to see the world through a superheroes eyes. It’s the one place fans of the genre never really get to go.
There’s an undeniable immediacy about first person perspective. It also creates a much stronger emotional connection for the reader by virtue of the fact the narrative can’t avoid being emotional when in written in the voice of the first person. However, those storytelling strengths are challenged by the biggest problem with writing first person, namely the inability to build a film-like narrative where the reader can follow different characters in parallel. The first person narrator only sees what it’s possible for him or her to see. But there’s a workaround for this dilemma. The first person has to inherit a third person perspective to service the mechanics of the story. Put simply, your narrator has to borrow a third eye. As the other characters interact with him, they narrate their own parts of the story, tell anecdotes, explain themselves and in doing so, the writer can borrow a third person perspective to break out of the first person narration.
This is hardly a new idea. In fact, many great novelists of the past, notably Herman Melville, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson used this approach. A character is introduced and then at some point, tells their own tale to the first person narrator, and so the third person is co-opted into the first person perspective. But there’s another element of borrowed perspective that the first person narrative enjoys. The narrator’s descriptions of scenes, people and inner thoughts are often (oddly) a form of third person perspective too. It sounds a bit clumsy but actually feels very natural, after all, that’s how we actually experience life and construct our own personal narratives by default. It can cause problems, make for some bulky dialogue, which takes a lot of thought and crafting, but it’s doable. Plus, of course, character development is somehow richer and more credible if it’s first person, at least, it seemed that way to me.
I guess the whole first/third person decision depends on the kind of story you want to tell. If it’s more personal journey than a grand sweeping story arc, first works better. If it’s slanted the other way, perhaps third is best. If, like me, you’ve tried to do both at the same time, then you’ve got to hybridise the perspective somehow. So far, I see how that works if you lead with the first person, but presumably the same could be said of the third. The main thing I’ve learned is not to make an arbitrary choice, or to leave your unconscious assumption of perspective unchallenged. In the self-published scifi and speculative world, there is an overwhelming abundance of third person perspectives. It’s become almost the default position for scifi and fantasy. And it can work very well, but it can also stifle good ideas and feel artificial, predictable and contrived. It takes a very keen, attentive author’s eye to craft a third person perspective to avoid a story that feels a bit same-old-same-old. Probably because the third person perspective in science fiction is actually old and commonplace.