Today’s guest is Tokyo-based Exiled Aussie Andrez Bergen, who talks about writing in first versus third person point of view…
Let’s talk about first-person narrative (basically someone speaking to you about their experiences or travails, representing the point of view) versus third-person (being from someone outside the story, referring to he, she, it) when it comes to writing your fiction, regardless if it’s a novel or a short story.
I’m not going to implode here by getting into the idea of first-person-plural, or the second-person narrative used, for example, in the opening and closing of the movie Zentropa (“You are on a train in Germany,” etc, etc).
Look them up on Wikipedia.
In journalism, particularly interviews – which I did at least a thousand of between 1994 and 2009, I kid you not – the ‘I’s rarely have it unless it’s the interviewee speaking (obviously) and the journo tries to hold a torch to objectivism without burning themselves. The subjectivism, however, is between the lines and rooted in the initial questions and the final write-up.
But from about 2005 I started to focus on articles without another mouth to bounce off, pieces that identified my experiences as a foreigner in Japan, and thus placed myself in the role of narrator. So, when I finally returned my sights on fiction, first-person came more naturally.
Some of my favourite novels are first-person excursions: The Last King of Scotland, The Big Sleep, Shooting Elvis, Veronica, the first two-thirds of Year of Wonders (sadly, I actually can’t stand the final third of that book). It feels more personal, direct, and I tend to find myself involved in the story – if I get past the roadblock of potentially annoying mouthpieces.
So I used the technique without thinking in my first two novels Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat and One Hundred Years of Vicissitude.
With my latest tome, I felt tired of this approach and I don’t think I particularly closely identify with a 15-year-old anymore (the fact I did identify with a 72-year-old narrator for One Hundred Years is, however, a worry).
I’d heard that third-person narrative offers more flexibility and was more commonly used, Dashiell Hammett employed it in one of my most-read faves (The Maltese Falcon), and I decided it was well nigh time to try the critter out.
So although the initial version of Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? was written in first-person, I dumped that and rewrote the lot in third-person – which, while liberating (I could look at the feelings and individual stance of multiple characters) offered the editing problem that I kept missing personal pronouns (I, me, my, etc) from the original version.
I’m still finding strays in the final manuscript.
The lesson to learn here? Yes, Virginia, there is a lesson. Decide the narrative style before you start writing. It’s easier, safer, and less likely to do in your precious noggin.
Andrez Bergen is an expat Australian writer, journalist, DJ, and ad hoc saké connoisseur who’s been entrenched in Tokyo, Japan, for the past decade. He makes music as Little Nobody and ran Melbourne record label IF? for 15 years. He published noir/sci-fi novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat in 2011 through Another Sky Press and the surreal fantasy One Hundred Years of Vicissitude via Perfect Edge Books in 2012.
He’s recently finished a third novel, titled Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?, and is plowing into #4 (The Mercury Drinkers). Bergen has published short stories through Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, Snubnose Press, Solarcide, Weird Noir, Big Pulp and All Due Respect, and worked on translating and adapting the scripts for feature films by Mamoru Oshii, Kazuchika Kise and Naoyoshi Shiotani with Production I.G.
Andrez and I share writing space in two anthologies: