Which perspective: third person or first person, will suit a particular work of fiction? I imagine most writers have struggled with this problem at one time or another. Third person is usually such an obvious choice that there’s no need to question it. It’s been the rarely-questioned standard for fiction for so long that a novel or story written from any other perspective can instantly alienate the reader.
I’m not sufficiently history minded to know when this started changing, but the assumption that third person is the only proper perspective seems to be breaking down rather quickly and it seems to be a fairly recent change. It’s certainly getting a lot of play on the writing forum I watch, on book review blogs, and in Amazon reviews. I find it somewhat amazing that there are people who so dislike books written in first person that they will automatically reject them without taking any other qualities into account.
Over the last year or two, I’ve been struggling with one fiction project, unable to decide whether it should be in first or third person, but also without any clear idea of why one or the other is more appropriate. Until a few weeks ago. Suddenly, I realized that the story had to be told from a first person perspective, a revelation that didn’t make me too happy since more than 6,000 words would (again) have to be edited. I knew why it was necessary, but not in so many words. Those were supplied in an article I came across after making the decision.
I’ve written before about Bentham’s Dream, and the problems involved in having only two characters, who interact in a very limited setting and within a very short time frame. It’s a perfect example of having to produce something creative within the boundaries of severe constraints.
As Kerri Maher states in her article, “That paper-thin distance between a writer and her character that is preserved with third person can also help readers keep perspective, and even protect them from certain unbearable pains a character must endure.”
That’s exactly why third person is so wrong for Bentham’s Dream. Central to the story is the gradual revelation of one character’s pain, and along with it, the realization by the other character that his original judgment of the first one was invalid. The inner lives of both characters are revealed along the way, and third person would do nothing except get in the way of readers responding to that. After all, very little “happens” in the course of the story, so if a barrier goes up between the reader and the characters, not much is left.