Writing From Within vs. Writing From a Distance

I'm currently rereading Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. It's one of my favorite books, though it's been a few years since I read it last and I had sort of forgotten how much I enjoy it.

If you haven't read Player Piano, it's a book that has managed to become both outdated and relevant to our current society. It's outdated in it's technology (punch cards and vacuum tubes), but relevant in the way it explores what happens when people (and their jobs) are displaced by machines.

Player Piano is also an excellent example of third person semi-omniscient storytelling. While the book is all third person (he, she, they) instead of first person (I, me, my), it is largely limited to the protagonist's perspective—except when it isn't.

Occasionally the storytelling shifts into the perspective of other, more minor characters. That lets you, the reader, see a wider picture of the world. It makes it easier to consider the characters (and events) from multiple points of view, and it creates a sense of distance.

In third person writing, there's an unnamed, unknown narrator describing the people and events in the story. This distant narrator is sometimes considered a fly on the wall. (Though it's often a fly that can see into people's minds, which is an odd thought.)

My first book, The Insistence of Memory, was written in third person and the distance of an unknown narrator made it easier to describe the story as if watching a movie unfold. I tend to like writing in third person because it does feel like I'm simply sitting back and telling a story from a safe distance. In an odd sense, I'm merely an observer, like you, the reader.

The book I'm currently working on (title TBD) has first person narration. It's told through the voice of one character. (As in: The Catcher in the Rye, The Handmaid's Tale, or Ready Player One)

Switching to this approach has been interesting. Or maybe challenging is the better word. It's a good challenge, and I'm enjoying the effort, but the experience is very different than when writing in third person.

When writing in first person, there's no distance. The entire story filters through a character's direct perspective. I am not writing as a fly-on-the-wall storyteller. I am writing from within a single character.

It can take some extra effort to get inside the mindset of a particular character and I've often heavily revised entire chapters because the voice felt a little off. It does feel more vulnerable to attempt to tell a story from within a fictional character and it can be a little strange to describe thoughts and feelings that are not my own with first person language (I, me, my, etc.).

Another one of the challenges, and freedoms, of first person writing is letting go of a need for accuracy. Since the story is shaped by one character's narration, it can be completely biased. In first person narration, it's up to the reader to both look through the main character's eyes and decide whether to agree or disagree with their slant on the events that unfold.

It can be hard, as a writer, to trust that it's okay for readers to have the freedom to make their own decisions about what is, and isn't, true in a story.

Sometimes first person narrators are unreliable, like in Lolita, where the story is told through the twisted eyes of a pedophile. Everything he says is designed to frame his 12-year-old victim as a willing temptress. But we, the readers, (hopefully) use our own experience to realize that that is not true.

More often it's hard to tell how reliable a narrator may be. In first person novels, there is no slipping into the narration of a minor character to backup the story or to look at the protagonist in a different light. We, as readers, have to decide what we believe ourselves based on nothing more than the narrator's own words.

To me, a biased or flawed perspective is one of the strengths of first person narration.

If we realize that a narrator has a flawed outlook, perhaps we might wonder if anyone can actually be a reliable narrator of their own story. Maybe that helps us see the value in finding some distance and outside perspectives when considering our own experiences of the world around us.


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