I’d heard a lot about The Cruel Prince by Holly Black in the months prior to me purchasing the novel (which was way back in March if I remember correctly). It’s taken me a while to get to it because I can’t seem to stop myself from buying books this year, but I finally got to it on my list, opened it up, and read two chapters of it before deciding to skip it, at least for now.
A few different elements went into my deciding to DNF it, which isn’t something that I usually do, but one of the main things was the narrative style, by which I mean tense and point of view. The mode of storytelling is just as important as its plot, characters, and setting, primarily because a reader can’t get immersed enough in the story itself if they get distracted by the narrative style. Choosing well makes the words into windows; choose poorly, and the words become a wall instead.
Of course, fantasy can be written in first person, present tense. Theoretically, a fantasy novel could work with any combination of narrative style out there, but before you decide one way or another, it’s important to realize that choosing to go against the grain doesn’t just make a book “quirky.” Like practically everything else with books, tense and point of view are going to affect the book’s tone and reader accessibility. So I thought we’d spend today looking at different examples and see if we can come to any conclusions about where the different styles fit best.
An Overview of Narrative Styles and the Fantasy Genre
Fantasy started off pretty much exclusively written in third person, past tense. In fact, I think up until recently, most books were written in that same style, regardless of genre. But fantasy stuck it out longer than the others. Even now, a majority of adult fantasy is written in third person, past tense, and you’ll find the same as often as not in the young adult section as well.
But it goes deeper than the YA/adult divide. Subgenre matters.
Back in 2008, Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, revolutionizing YA in a way that hadn’t really been done since 1997 when the first Harry Potter novel came out. It may seem strange to talk about dystopian YA in a post about fantasy, but it’s important to recognize, both as an author and a reader, that genres can influence each other. It’s why, although I focus heavily on fantasy, I do like to read outside the genre from time to time to get a feel for the market as a whole.
Collins’s intent with The Hunger Games was probably not to jump-start a subgenre craze. It almost certainly would not have been to generate further experimentation with narrative style. But when a series is popular, it should come as no surprise that authors will want to pick it apart, see what made it successful, and attempt to translate that onto their own works.
Of course, Collins is not the first to write in this narrative style, but it brought attention to various modes of story-telling even in the more speculative of fiction. It gave a lot of attention to the possibility of future fantasy authors in the way they might present their story. But there’s something to be said about the fact that dystopian novels takes place in the real world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, even with the most recent fantasy publications, the books that are most likely to be written in first person (past or present) are urban fantasy whereas high fantasy is most likely still written in third person, past.
The Effects of Perspective on Narrative
So obviously there are different layers of “proximity” to the narrator (generally, the protagonist). Theoretically, first person point of view should allow the reader to get into the headspace of the protagonist. It is supposed to allow for a more in-depth perspective of the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions. Not because third person perspective cannot write an intense emotional scene, but rather because when it’s in first person, it feels more personal. It’s the difference between your best friend telling you about something that happens to them and your best friend telling you about something that happened to someone else. Even if the story is the same, the effect is different. It feels more personal. Theoretically.
But fantasy is tricky, because for first person to do its job, you have to actively understand the world in which the protagonist operates. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the conflicts and trials if you do not share the protagonist’s same history and culture, or at least a general understanding of how their (your) world works. It’s not to say that it’s impossible to world-build and build stakes and tension using first person in an epic fantasy; it’s just to say that it’s much harder. Urban fantasy incorporates magic into the “real world,” but a reader’s understanding of that world is still very much based on their own reality. There are fewer inconsistencies and differences with which the reader must account for.
We also have to understand that just because first person point of view gets the reader “closer” to the protagonist does not mean that it is the superior point of view. We sometimes think of progress as a straight line, but to paraphrase a Doctor (10, to be precise), it’s actually a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. To translate, just because third person, past tense is “traditional” and first person (past or present) is more “modern” does not mean that the former is better than the latter, and that the former is just people being resistant to change.
What does third person offer readers? Well, truth be told, my friend analogy from before isn’t entirely accurate. Because to imply that third person narration is like reading about a friend of a friend suggests that the story could not be as emotionally charged as first person, that a reader will always be more emotionally invested in a narrative written in first person, and that’s just not the case. It goes back to the reader’s understanding of the world. Taking a step back, so to speak, and giving the reader that small distance between themselves and the protagonist in the epic/high fantasy novels allows for easier comprehension of this new world with its conflicts and its cultural disparities.
Some Case Studies
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (“Urban” Fantasy; 1st person, present)
Considering this is the book to start it all, it’s only appropriate that this should be my first case study. Now, I can’t speak to it fully because I didn’t get more than three chapters in, but I did flip through at random to make sure I didn’t make an absolute fool of myself with the points I wanted to make. The first of which is that, although it appears to be an urban fantasy novel with a hidden world setting, Black could have easily extracted the “real-world” portion of it and simply made it epic fantasy with only a few adjustments to character backstory. What does this mean for the narrative style? Well, it means that simply calling a novel “urban fantasy” does not mean the first person, present-tense narrative style is going to work.
One of the main drawbacks with first person narration is that it is, oddly, rather difficult to write well. Using the subject “I” instead of “character name” or “him/her,” etc, strangely makes sentence variance a bit difficult. Moreover, it’s easy to fall into the tell-not-show trap of “[emotion] coursed through me,” etc., which, for me, at least, is even more annoying than letting out breaths they didn’t know they were holding. As for The Cruel Prince in particular, I didn’t get far enough in to say too much about the writing quality. What I read seemed decent enough. But the world-building seemed simplistic, the graphics a bit childish, so that the narrative seemed geared more towards MG audiences (even though I know it’s not), which made me hesitant to trust the overall narrative quality. This is the kinds of impressions that narrative style can give the reader.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (High Fantasy; 1st person, present)
Speaking of writing technicalities, this particular book was well-written and would perhaps be a good study for someone trying to write fantasy with this particular narrative style. But, set in a fictional world as it is, this goes back to the difficulties in relating to a character on such a personal level when that character is from a different world with different laws and cultures.
It wasn’t that Ngan didn’t offer world-building. It was that, weirdly enough, I couldn’t bring myself to be interested in what was given, skimming over most of it even though it was well-incorporated into the narrative as opposed to massive info-dumps. I think it’s not the author choosing first person, present tense because it makes things more personal; I think that, if written well, the narrative style unintentionally zeroes in so completely on the protagonist that it’s difficult to care about anything else. (This coming from a person who is normally obsessed with world-building, by the way.) Which would then explain why this particular narrative style doesn’t always mesh well with fantasy, especially secondary world type fantasy. It may be alright for high fantasy whose world-building is minimal (which seems to be counter-productive and counter-intuitive, but that’s not to say there isn’t some audience for it), but if you want to write an expansive world and have that effort pay off, first person narration is going to clash with that intent.
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas (High Fantasy, 1st person, past)
Unlike our previous example, I don’t think Maas intended to have an incredibly rich, inspiring setting. She drew heavily from her previous series, A Throne of Glass, and from a pretty basic understanding of fantasy tropes. Where Maas does excel is her characters. If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know where I’m going with this. Because the novel fell into the strengths of first person narration, it didn’t hurt the story to write it that way.
I would say that it might’ve been better in third person, but that is likely my own bias showing.
It’s worth noting that, as far as I can remember, the only narrator is the protagonist, Feyre. (There might be a few Rhysand chapters in later books, but I can’t remember. Either way, I’m pretty sure Feyre gets vastly more page time.) On the flip side, A Throne of Glass will eventually accumulate multiple perspectives. This is another thing to bear in mind when choosing a narrative style. Having two or more perspectives in first person is incredibly difficult simply because it requires a more distinctive difference between voices than multiple third person narrators does. (It is theoretically possible to mix first and third person points of view with the protagonist vs the more minor characters, but if I’ve seen it done before, I couldn’t name any titles.) So if you’re planning on writing from multiple PoVs, that may be another point in third person’s favor.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (Historical Fantasy, 3d person, present)
This is not something you’re likely to come across very often. As far as I can recall, this is the only novel I’ve written with this narrative style. In a way, it almost seems to be the best of both worlds. The present tense almost offers the same proximity as first person narration, but with the variance in sentence structure that is best found in third. That proximity comes from the reader’s ability to watch the story unfold in “real time.”
However, it’s worth noting that although this is fantasy, and perhaps one that takes place in an alternate world, it does still, in effect, work as an urban fantasy novel. With three different perspectives, it perhaps does work best in third person over first, but an argument could be made for either.
Additionally, with the importance of fairy tales and passed down nursery rhymes to the overall plot, I would be willing to bed that this stylistic choice was made so that the narration felt similarly whimsical. And there is some whimsy to the narration, but I would say that it failed overall, and that the narrative style will probably be difficult for readers to get acclimated to.
If that was a lot to throw at you at once, let me offer you something of a TL;DR. I think that, as authors, we don’t really think too much about how we’re going to present our novel idea. I think a lot of the times the brain just decides on its own. But if you are trying to think it through before starting a project, or if something isn’t working with your current draft and you want to try somethign different, then here are some things to consider:
First person narration is best if you want to get hyper-focused on the protagonist’s character arc. It is less good if you have a rich setting that you want your reader to experience.
Third person narration is best if you have multiple perspectives which you want to write from. The expectation to diversify the voices of your narrators will be smaller.
First person can be used with little trouble for urban fantasy novels, or any novels that take place on earth or something very like it. It’s harder to write good epic/high fantasy with the same style, a subgenre that may be better written in third.
Lastly, when it comes to actual writing technicalities, while first person may seem simpler, it is very easy to over-simplify the writing. In general, third person allows for more colorful, vibrant descriptions because it can focus on whatever the author feels compelled to describe and does not require the protagonist’s focus in order to bring a topic innto the story.
Of course, all of these are generalizations, and, as I always say, each project is its own thing with its own needs. I am also basing these conclusions from what has worked and not worked for me as a reader, although I am looking at these books from a (hopefully) objective standpoint. If you have anything to add, any points to content, please feel free to do so below.