Last week, I attempted an exercise I have not tried in years: I wrote a short story in the third person point of view.
Woopideedoo, you might be thinking while rolling your eyes and threatening to your browser. But hear me out.
When I started writing, when I was 12, all I could write was in the first person POV. Meaning, all of my stories were told from the perspective of the main character, who used “I” to refer to themselves. I read a lot of YA novels back then, and in the late 90s, almost all of the YA books (or at least the ones I read) were in the first person. I got the constant “I” experience: seeing the world the way someone else sees it.
As I started reading more adult literature in high school and college, I gravitated more toward those “I” stories, which were primarily stories about twentysomething women who lived in New York and worked in fashion and/or publishing (also known as “chicklit”). But when I read more literary fiction – the kind that’s considered good “art” as far as literature goes – I saw that it was primarily in the third person, probably because it’s mostly written by men who may or may not lack introspective insight. (Just sayin’.)
To me, the third person is the view that God takes of our lives. You see everything going on from the perspective of someone outside of the main characters. The narrator might home in on one particular character so you follow them around closely without being in the other characters’ heads, but the narrator still isn’t that person. There’s no “I,” only “he,” “she,” “they.”
During this time that I’m taking between writers’ conferences and moving, I decided to take up fiction again because I love fiction waaaaay more than memoir and essays. There’s just something about pretending to be someone else, going somewhere else in my mind. In the class I’m taking, we get two workshopping sessions for our writing. So I had to hurry up and write some fiction because I haven’t in forever. I decided to challenge myself: what if I wrote something that was semi-autobiographical, but told it in the third person, as that sort of God-like narrator who can see everything and everyone?
Reader, it turned out disastrous. The characters aren’t visibly clear to me, their dialogue feels forced, and the plot feels even more forced. (I have my workshop tonight, and I’m bracing myself for all of the comments I’m going to get.) In a word, I’m not happy with the way it turned out, and I could only keep asking myself, why I can’t seem to write outside of “I”?
I’m an observant person. I always have been. My eyes are big on purpose, I say: the better to see the whole bleeding world. When I tell my husband about something I saw on the Metro, I tell him what I saw, the way I saw it. Stepping outside of myself when telling a story is extremely difficult because I don’t know another way of seeing the world. I’ve never seen anything from God’s perspective, only my own, out of my very small, very judgmental lens.
The real reason why I wanted to try writing in the third person is because I write memoir and essays now: everything I write is about me, not “I.” When I write from the perspective of “I,” I don’t want readers to get confused. “I” isn’t always me; in fiction, it never is. See? Confusing already.
So, I decided that, since I’m having fun with this fiction class, I’m going back to write stories in first person. I’m setting aside this pseudo-fear of people getting my story and my stories confused. And this isn’t to say that I’m not going to challenge myself in the future; I totally will. I just want to have a good time, making things up, and the only way to do that is to tell “I” tell us what went down. Stay tuned for new fiction writing!