Master of Horror

Which Person Are You?

First, apologies for not blogging for several days. My only excuse is that writers’ block gets all of us at one time or another.

But now to the subject of ‘person’ – that is, whether to write in the first, second or third person. I think we all have a natural ‘person’ in which we choose to write, and it usually turns out to be the one you feel most comfortable with – the one you normally ‘collapse’ into as soon as you pick up the pen.

Raymond Chandler (creator of the highly-successful Philip Marlowe series of crime novels) wrote in the first person. But the problem with this is the protagonist can’t possibly know what’s taking place elsewhere, unless he/she is some kind of psychic. So you’re restricted to launching surprise after surprise on the poor guy. The other problem is that you can’t really create an all-defeating, all-conquering Jame Bond type or the reader will soon get sick of the constant bragging (which is what victory after victory will come to look like). For myself, I wrote one series of novels – the Society of Vampires series – in the first person, and thoroughly enjoyed it, because I could beat ‘myself’ up unmercifully, put ‘me’ through all degrees of Hell, yet come out on top in the end. It’s worth a look, at least, if you’re considering trying  writing in this style. And didn’t Hannibal Lecter say ‘we should all try everything at least once?’

The second person is interesting: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very successful at it, in having the ever-present Dr Watson write about what he saw his ‘friend,’ Sherlock Holmes, doing. In this person, you can make the protagonist – Dr Watson – look like a real twit, and get away with it as he is constantly astounded by Holmes’ brilliance. Another writer who used it successfully was Rex Stout: he had Archie Goodwin, butler and all-around gopher, doing the dirty work for his boss, Nero Wolf, who always revealed the real crim in the final chapter, as all good detectives should. It’s a technique I’ve never used, but constantly keep promising myself someday I will.  

Now we come to the most popular, as far as writers are concerned, and that is the third person: in this format, you can be all-knowing, as you’re telling the tale from the point-of-view of someone who is reporting what is happening all the time, everywhere – there is nothing you don’t know, but at the same time you can totally confuse your protagonist, leave him/her dumbfounded, and get away with it. You can also make your protagonist the most heroic, muscle-bound, deadly person who ever walked or, conversely, the most evil, sadistic person the world ever will see, and you – the teller – are not ‘held to blame’ for what that protagonist does. Nor are you ‘held to blame’ for what another character does to the protagonist. It’s a bit like being a reporter – carrying the message of what happened in that awful car-crash, causing the reader to feel the emotions you want them to feel, be they sadness, deep sorrow or raging happiness – and that’s all you are: the messenger. It is, by far, the easiest person in which to write. And, to judge from the number of novelists who’ve chosen to write in the third person, the most popular for the very reason I stated: it allows the writer to know all that is happening, even if those events are in six places at once.

But the best advice I can give, my friends, is try them all: find the one in which you feel the most comfortable, and go for it. But don’t do yourself the dis-service of not, at least, trying them all. I mean, if it was good enough for old Dr Lecter, then who are we to say ‘nay’?

Adrian Scott  


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