I have been meaning to write an entry on writing styles and tense for a few weeks now. Novelist Rhiannon Frater actually beat me to it on her personal blog, defending third person writing style as the more versatile style, listing the pros and cons of both. Likewise, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about why I think third person past tense is a more realistic style to write in, and why, in my opinion, first person present tense should be avoided whenever possible.
Now, as Frater observed, much of today's YA lit is relying rather heavily on the first person narrative. As a writer, I have to say, I think this is probably a bad thing. Not only does first person severely limit your vocabulary to the types of thoughts you have, your plot is restricted to the singular point of view. Namely that of the character's own POV.
The difference between first person and third person is obvious. As third party observers, we actually view the world in third person. And as things happen, they pass us in time, so we ever only ever translate real world events or experiences we have into past tense. Which means, third person past tense is the natural way to frame a narrative that involves us as the observer. Observer here could be synonymous with reader, since all a reader is is someone who uses language to piece together the events of another's experiences, either the characters in the narrative itself (fiction) or from the author's own personal experiences (in the case of non-fiction).
This is why I feel it makes the most sense to write in the third person, past tense.
More than this perhaps, the first person past tense doesn't make much sense as a real world experience except in the form of a monologue or a letter. What does this mean for a novelist? It means you either have to have a very cerebral and talkative protagonist or else you have to be good at carrying a plot through the structure of letter writing. But there is a natural tension t resist such stories, because unless we get deeply involved with the main character and their POV, the story will always remain somewhat superficial, at least in the sense that we are ever keenly aware that this is not how we actually view the world.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying I don't enjoy the occasional YA read, but when I read YA I prefer third person to first, mainly because it pushes the writer to think more about the characters and the world they are writing about, and this tends to push the writer to strive to do better than merely letting their stream of conscious become the narrative of their protagonist. Indeed, it forces the writer to use a wider set of skills. Writing in the third person means you have to step out of your head and think about the connections of the story as you weave it all together. It's not as simple as A to B, A to C, or A to D (first person). It's, technically speaking, much more involved. It's A to B and B to A. It's A to C and C to A. At the same time, it's B to C and C to B. C to A and A to C. All of these multiple perspectives are required in order to write third person. As you can see, it involves far more foresight by the author, and far more skill in getting everything to mesh.
Some might say they felt that the first person narrative really drew them in, but this isn't a comment on readability but rather it is a comment about how their own thoughts synced up well with the author's unique way of thinking.
Now I want to explain why first person present tense bothers me. Let's consider Suzanne Collin's YA masterpiece, The Hunger Games trilogy.
These books were great, and I'll be the first to defend Collins' work as first rate literature, yet here's the big BUT you knew was coming.
But, OMG!, she wrote it in first person PRESENT tense.
I could never get comfortable with the tense. Not because the author was inept in the style she was utilizing, since to the contrary, Collins is a far more experienced writer than I am, and I have nothing but respect for her, but because nobody *actually narrates every waking second of their life. It's simply unrealistic to do so.
What we do in reality is have thoughts, then long bouts of day dreaming or staring vacantly out at the sky, and our thoughts all but fade away into our subconscious, and in these times where our thoughts recede our mind goes blank and we have moments of zen.
These moments haven whenever we veg out in front of the TV or while surfing the web or while listening to good music. Have you ever watched a funny cat video on YouTube and narrated it to yourself in real time? Probably not. Wouldn't it be strange if people actually did that?
And here's my complaint. People DON'T actually do that. They only do that in novels that are written in first person present tense. Which is weird.
So I find a lot wrong with that particular style coupled with that particular tense. I will most likely avoid first person present tense as the vehicle to narrate my own stories, unless somebody is throwing money at me to do so, in which case, I would happily oblige. But otherwise, I will probably avoid coupling those two in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, I think if you want to push yourself as a writer, and try something real challenging, try writing a novel with fifty-two characters, from multiple perspectives, various personalities, and on top of it all throw on an intricate plot of interweaving story lines, then get it all to gel. I feel that managed as much with my novel Bitten: A Resurrection Thriller, and although it challenged me in almost every way, I grew more as a writer from this one book than I would have had I stuck to simple first person storytelling. That I am sure of.
Just some food for thought, you know, if you're an aspiring writer.
By day I am an educator and a cultural ambassador. By night I entertain notions of being a literary master. In reality I am just a family man and ordinary guy who works hard and loves writing just about as much as I love my family. Just about.