Tuesday, February 21, 2012

First Person versus Third Person

Checking my notes at the writersandcritters conference

Today I'm sharing the recording of a short conversation on the merits of writing in first, second or third person that we got into after my talk at the writersandcritters conference.

Briefly speaking, writers typically employ first person point of view for memoir and personal essay as it is the most intimate and natural choice. It is, however, by its very nature rather close, and, when writing, it can be hard to differentiate between the "I" in the story and the "I" of the writer. Switching to third person can help you gain that perspective and see yourself as a character. You can always switch back to first person later. Using second person can have a similar effect, although in English "you" serves two purposes, and so it can be hard not to seem to be addressing the reader, unless you're writing in letter form and are meaning to do that.

I found the issue of using the impersonal pronoun particularly interesting and you will see, if you listen to the short podcast, that we had a little back and forth about that. English doesn't really have a designated word for the impersonal like other languages do, and we discussed the perils of using "you" versus "one." I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about that.


  1. Second person is jarring to me. It may just be that I'm not used to it though. Who knows? Maybe a trend will start and more second person novels will show up.

  2. I think the use of 2nd person has become more common within the gaming community. Your RPG characters relate to objects within the game from this viewpoint: You found a magic item! You journey to the diamond alter! You gained 250 experience points, etc.

    We had to write an assignment in 2nd person and I thought it was a lot of fun.

  3. This was an interesting podcast- I liked what was said about the need to set the stage and make sure to not "start with a weather report"- I tend to do that- start out with things that don't really go in the direction of the piece I am writing.

    As far as second person- hmmmm...yes, I think it tends to be a bit awkward.

  4. Kelly - second person is hard to pull off, especially in an entire piece, but it can be done. Marr Karr wrote her second memoir, Cherry, in second person, but many people don't like it for that very reason.

    Diane - very interesting observation about the common use of second person in gaming. But clearly in that case seems to be addressing the player, right?

    Anjuli - thanks. The weather report comment actually comes from my other podcast about finding focus in writing from the same conference talk. It's a good tip to keep in mind.

    1. Second person is very hard to pull of and I am not sure I actually like it; I find it rather awkward as well. First person is my preference in reading and writing, although I agree that there can be too much overlap between "I" the writer and "I" the character.

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