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First person versus third person narrative: how to choose

Should you write in the first person like Helen Fielding?

I love it when I receive queries from readers about writing. Here’s one I got recently: is writing in the first person (ie narrating ‘I woke up’ instead of ‘Clare woke up’) better for chick lit?

The first thing I’d say is that there is no ‘better’ way. It’s a question of which comes naturally to you and which seems to suit your story. I chose to write in the first person when I began my first book, simply because it seemed like the least daunting thing and most familiar. After all I write emails, blog posts etc in the first person. As I went on, I discovered that I liked it because it allowed me to present my character’s thoughts directly – so it brings her (hopefully) closer to the reader.

There is something about chick lit that does seem to lend itself to using the first person. Sophie Kinsella, Emily Giffen, Marian Keyes, Helen Fielding and Gemma Burgess all use the first person with great success. It’s informal and direct and confessional – like having a drink with the character, or being inside their head. For example I love this scene in A Girl Like You by Gemma Burgess, when you get the heroine Abigail’s nervous chatter on her date, alongside her inner thoughts:

‘So. How was your day?’ I ask when Paulie returns. Is that a good question? I don’t know. My mum would ask it.
‘Scintillating,’ he replies crisply, leaning into me. Cripes, he is definitely hot. Very dashing eyebrows.
‘What do you do?’ I am trying to smile and look interested and nice and pretty, all at the same time.
‘I work for a branding agency,’ he says. ‘I’m head of account management.’
‘Oh, how interesting,’ I say. Wow. I really do sound like my mum. ‘Where is your office?’
‘How long have you been doing that?’ But I can’t seem to stop.

It’s great because you have her external dialogue where she’s asking endless questions and her internal one where she’s kicking herself for doing that (been there.) First person also allows you to talk straight to the reader which Gemma also does to great effect in A Girl Like You: ‘I’m sure you’ve already come to the same conclusion: it was a bad date.’ I like this device – it’s sort of like talking to camera, breaking frame? – though I’ve never been bold enough to use it myself (it’s easy to get it wrong).

Having said that, first person isn’t essential. Third person allows you a bit more distance from your character, which you might want, and it allows you to show different perspectives a little more easily. If you’ve got more than one main character, for instance, you probably need third person – so for example The Devil Wears Prada is narrated in the first person, whereas Chasing Harry Winstone, by the same author, has three main characters, and we see all their different perspectives in the third person. In Jilly Cooper’s short romances (all of which are brilliant – read them immediately if you haven’t already) her dreamy, romantic, shy heroines, like Harriet and Imogen, are narrated in the third person, whereas for her feisty troublemakers (Octavia, Prudence, Emily) she uses the first person. I’m sure this choice wasn’t completely conscious, it probably just had to do with how Jilly Cooper felt she could best portray the character. Maybe she’s a feisty troublemaker herself, or maybe she just likes getting in character as one.

In conclusion though I’d say it doesn’t 100% matter which you choose, as long as you’re comfortable with it. Writing is all about finding your voice, and figuring out which style of narration suits you is a part of that. Just pick the one that seems to work for you, and you’ll probably find it was the right decision.

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