One of the first things that we must decide when we start writing something new – or, in some cases, rewriting something old – is whether to use first, second or third person. This may seem like an easy decision, but each affects our writing and how it is received by the reader.
This month, we are talking about language. More specifically, I’d like you to consider how the language choices you make in your writing can affect your piece. Last time, we discussed speech. Today, I want to take a deeper look at how perspective can change through the use of first, second and third person.
Example: I saw him standing on the edge of the cliff, looking down at the rocks below. I couldn’t be sure, but for a moment I was convinced that he was going to jump.
The first person perspective is told from the main character’s point of view. This allows you to tell your readers what your main character is thinking and feeling in vivid detail, but it means that you cannot dive into the heads of other characters. It can help to introduce a lot of emotion into your writing, especially if you are writing about something that you have experienced yourself.
You can also write in some uncommon forms when you use the first person: diary entries, a journal, an autobiography of your character looking back on their life, just to name a few. This can help your readers to become attached to your character and deeply emote with them.
Example: You see a man standing on the edge of the cliff, looking down at the rocks below. You cannot tell, but for a moment it looks as though he might jump.
This one is probably used the least, which is a shame, because the second person can be persuasive and very involving. You’ll notice that I’ve used the present tense here (more on tenses later in the month), because for your audience the second person can make it feel as though what they are reading is happening right now. It basically turns the reader into your character: they are the one who sees the man on the cliff, and who thinks that he might jump. Again, other character’s emotions have to either be guessed or directly expressed by them, because you cannot jump around into other people’s heads.
The second person is probably the most difficult of the three to write in. I think it’s fun, but I always feel kind of limited by the second person. It is, however, extremely rewarding when you can give your readers chills or delight them by putting them into the main character’s position.
Example: He stood on the edge of the cliff and looked down at the rocks below. For a moment, he thought about jumping, but it passed before he could go through with it.
The third person is arguably the easiest to write in. Now we know what the man is thinking, because we can move from one character’s head to another and explore everybody’s inner feelings if we want to. Unlike the first and second person, which (typically) revolve around a single character, we are now free to do as we like.
The third person might make your readers feel less involved with your characters than when you write in the first or the second person. Your story or poem might feel more withdrawn from your main character or characters, because it is being told by an overhead narrator rather than by one of them. But it can be just as powerful with the right words and emotions.
Personally, I love the first and second person, but I always seem to use them in a more formal or experimental way than the third person, which I tend to use for longer pieces of writing. Which is your favourite and why?
This month’s theme is LANGUAGE. If you have written something that you would like me to share on this blog on the theme of language, then please post a link in the comments or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject: Language.