Serious readers have several preferences they employ — consciously or not — when it comes to enjoying what they read. One of these involves the narrator of the book and whether that narration is told in first or third person.
I recently discussed this topic with some young writers and then spent some time thinking about it myself.
When reading a book, I don’t have a strong preference; I simply want the narration to be understandable. However, as a writer, I firmly sit on the third-person narration side.
I perused all the Pulitzer winners of fiction to see where the award-winning authors tend to lie, and I found that just under one-third of the books have first-person narrators while a smidge over two-thirds contain third-person narration. I doubt the narration style had any strong bearing on whether each book won the prize, but it made for an interesting study on my part.
There’s a popular trend for writers to use what’s called unreliable first-person narrators, and some of those books have done very well.
A few of the recent bestsellers have been “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon, and “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins.
Many would argue that every first-person narrator is unreliable simply because that person can only tell the story from his or her perspective, so there is no way for the narrator to fully understand all that happens in the story — thus, he or she isn’t to be completely trusted.
While this is true to a certain extent, some authors choose to make their first-person narrators particularly unreliable.
I’m not a huge fan of this type of narrator because I want to immerse myself in a story and believe what I’m being told.
I think this is why I prefer to write using third-person narration; however, I don’t like to write from an omniscient perspective.
I use what is called third-person limited, which means that the story is told only from one person’s perspective, but the author can essentially read that person’s thoughts and share them with the reader.
Third-person omniscient narration is enjoyable to read because it lets us in on everyone’s perspective, but if you want a little bit of mystery without the unreliability that often comes with first-person narration, then third-person limited is for you.
Sometimes, writers will use third-person limited, but they will shift from character to character via chapters; this technique is often used with first-person narrators, too, where one chapter is told from one main character’s point of view while the next is from another’s.
I’d guess that many readers don’t really give a lot of conscious thought to whether they prefer first or third person when it comes to who’s narrating their favorite books as long as the stories are good and well-told.
However, I believe that, if you occasionally take the time to notice the techniques the author used to create such a spell-binding tale, you can also appreciate the story for the piece of art it is.
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This month’s reading selection is “All the Gallant Men” by Donald Stratton with Ken Gire.
Contact Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.