I feel like I may make some people mad with this post, so I’m going to disclaimer it right away: I don’t like first person. I can get past it in contemporary, but it sometimes makes me not read a book when it’s in fantasy. This is purely subjective, and it does not reflect these books in any way–though my personal belief is that first person in fantasy is a poor writing choice, for many reasons, some of which we’ll get into here–and I want you to still enjoy first person books if that’s what you love! There is, however, a very definite shift from first person to third person in a writer’s career that I’ve noticed, so that’s mostly what we’re going to be talking about.
Honestly, I think there’s a pretty clear reason why we start out as first person writers. Because if you look at any of your favorite authors with several published books, the earliest ones are probably in first person. I think that this trend is likely going away because, as a collective, we seemed to have moved away from enjoying first person, especially in fantasy, though it does still crop up every once in a while. But I can so bring myself back to the early 2000s, when I was first starting out writing. Back then, everyone wrote first person fanfiction because almost all of us were actually writing self-inserts. Even if the first person narrative was meant to be one of the canonical characters in the fandom, we still saw enough of ourselves in those characters that we were mostly writing ourselves into the stories. And self-inserts are phenomenal, I’m not knocking them at all. It’s just–we only write self-inserts as baby authors. When we’re first starting out on our careers, no matter the age, self-inserts sound like the best thing in the world to write.
But there’s a definite shift away from that narrative as our relationship with writing continues to grow and expand. Look at any of these books pictured above. Many of Maggie Stiefvater’s first novels are in first person, and while she does a nifty workaround of still utilizing multiple POVs in order to maintain a fuller kind of story, they’re all still in first person, and the narrative becomes really limited in terms of building the world. We’re reliant on so many characters who don’t know anything about the magic of the world, and thus we have to discover everything through their limited perspective rather than witnessing the world building happening on a larger scale.
With books like Shadow & Bone, this is a little different because while we’re getting to see all the world building through Alina’s eyes, and thus getting to know it at a slow, even pace, we’re also not seeing anyone else. What I wouldn’t give to have seen what Mal was up to while Alina was in the Little Palace, or Genya’s life away from Alina. I think of the Crows & Nikolai duology, and those stories are so much bigger. There’s so much more inside of them, and it’s because of the perspective shift.
Any of these pictured books would be so much less if they were in first person. There’s no way that you can convince me that we would have received the same kind of elegant world building in Strange the Dreamer–or any of Laini Taylor’s books, for that matter–if it wasn’t in third person. And though Taylor doesn’t have a book in first person, there’s still a definite shift in the narrative from Karou to Lazlo. There’s something bigger. Not bolder, necessarily, but wider. It’s the same kind of shift we see with Clary as a narrator to Emma, now, as a narrator. There’s so much more to the story.
And this is, in its essence, just noting the growth of a writer. The more you write, the better you get. Everyone’s first novel sucks. Everyone’s second and third probably sucks, too, and they almost never get published because they’re just not good. It takes time to get good at this weird, difficult rollercoaster we throw ourselves on. But that growth is so visible in the shift from first person to third person. I think back, sometimes, on that shift in authors like Maggie Stiefvater and VE Schwab. The growth in their writing is phenomenal, and though it’s not at all attributed to outgrowing first person, there is a definite outgrowing happening there.
The deeper we get in our careers, the less likely we are to write self-inserts, to seek that very personal connection that first person gives us. As we start to grow into third person, it’s because we’ve finally learned to separate ourselves from our characters, to let them grow outside of us. I doubt there’s a single main character out there that doesn’t have a bit of their authors still in them, but they’re no longer wholly us. And while, yes, I think you can probably write a first person that’s not directly reflective of you as a person, I can’t actually say, with confidence, that I’ve read one of those? Because any of the fantasies that I read that are in first person generally feel like very early novels in a writer’s career, and the path from first person to third person is so clear that I know I’m going to see that growth eventually.
Not gonna lie, none of us would love Six of Crows as much as we do if it was in first person. That separation between author and story allows us just enough distance that we can see the story as a whole, rather than the story told in parts. If Leigh Bardugo had done what Stiefvater did in those early days and wrote in several first person narratives, we’d get a little closer to the story as a whole, but there’s a limit on what you can reasonably do in first person, and that limit takes away from the overall world building in a way that doesn’t quite reach the level that third person can.
Like I said at the beginning, I mostly shrug at contemporaries written in first person because they’re generally one POV anyway, and while there are certainly one POV fantasies out there, the better ones are multiple POV and they’re in third person, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles in my world. Which, hey! I talked about multiple vs single POV recently, and it goes neatly hand-in-hand with this discussion.
Overall, while I do think there’s a time and a place for first person, I think it’s also pretty indicative of where a writer is in their career. Like I said at the beginning, this is all subjective, and if you love first person and are now rankled by me, please remember that different people have different opinions! First person, honestly, feels pretty juvenile to me, and the books that I find are far superior in writing are always those written in third person.
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