The Writing Process: Which Person?

Like a Shadow the Night - Maggie Shaw - Eregendal

Which Person? – Using first, second and third person narratives in poetry and prose.

Like a Shadow the Night is a collection of poems written over the course of my life, from my mid teens through to the present. It is a deeply personal collection of poems, many of which were written in the first person singular – using I as the personal pronoun and my as the possessive determiner. The collection also contains commentaries on each of the poems. I originally wrote these in the first person too, but after reading through the initial draft, I changed the commentaries to third person narratives.

There were several reasons for this. One was the fact that so many I subjects made the book seem too self-absorbed. Converting the commentaries to third person gave them a more distant, analytical feel which contrasted with the poems they explained. This reflected the often great distances in time and experience between writing the original poem and commenting about it in the published book. Using third person also influenced the way I wrote about each poem and the type of content included.

The first person I and we gives an immediacy to any written piece, placing the reader with the writer on the path through the story. But it can give challenges. For instance, in one of my novels, the narrator dies before the story is finished – how then, could the story be told to the end? It also limits the reader to the narrator’s viewpoint, knowledge and understanding in each scene. The reader only hears one side of the story, and it is harder to presage unexpected events and future cliff-hangers.

It is much rarer to write in the second person, using you and your. During my twenties, I wrote several short stories and poems in the second person voice. It can carry a very powerful emotional charge but often comes across as petulant and complaining.

Most novels are written in the third person (he, she, it, they), enabling the author to tell the story with god-like authority. There are some dangers in this: it distances the reader from the action, and it is easier for the writer to info-dump chunks of background, slowing the pace. Its advantages include being able to cover several different characters’ storylines and to follow non-linear time and action plots.

So next time you sit down to cast your thoughts to paper, consider the voice you want to use. The one you choose will have a profound effect on the final piece.

Happy writing!


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