Walking past the cottonwood, its silver limbs drooping and still barren, I check the bush. Fenced by a criss cross of grey metal, their pale branches yet bear the dead leaves of last autumn. Blinking amidst brown and dulled red: shoots of green.
If you didn’t notice or mind that was first person, present-tense, then I did my job as a writer.
First person present tense is one of the most loathed tenses. Many people complain — and perhaps rightly so — that it is “artificial”. Third person past tense is preferable in and superior in all ways, I have been told time and time again. If you must write a story, write it in third person past tense, for goddesses’ sake. It is clearer, more transparent, more “natural” to a reader.
Not so, I would contend.
Third person past tense is the favored tense and point of view of contemporary, Western and colonized literatures. It’s just something the publishing market has embraced because it seems to sell books for the time being. Prior to our modern sensibilities of what makes literature, such considerations were considered well, differently. The notion of rigid points of view and tenses is very much a marketing and publishing gimmick. Certain points of view are not superior to others. They are simply just what publishers and agents want right now. The favoritism cast upon third person past tense is more a product of our time than it is about the superiority of third person past tense.
As for the complaints that first person present tense is “unnatural” by contrast to other tenses, particularly third person past tense: it’s true it can sound unnatural when written poorly. Part of this is because, third person past being the favored tense of our time, we are groomed to anticipate it in the majority of modern literature. We unconsciously measure writing against that. In doing so, we do not stop to think about the merits of other tenses. Some people see first person present tense and immediately shut the book rather than continue. Because they have been conditioned into third person past.
Part of the writing first person present is also because, writers, having been saturated in third person past, have to unlearn this. We do not have an intuitive grasp of what first person present can look like and what makes it work. Instead we end up writing a very poor first person present, something that is basically third person present with an “I” tacked on. A good example is The Hunger Games. I rather liked The Hunger Games, and the writing was serviceable. It had a good reason to be first person present: to increase narrative tension and emphasize the precariousness of Katniss’ life and the lives of those around her. In that way it is effective. But it is still third person present with an “I” tacked on. It pauses action the way third person would to describe things, for instance. Why would Katniss pause her own internal thoughts to describe things? That seems odd. It has third person quirks like “first this happens and then this happens”. How can Katniss, in first person, tell what will happen in what order like that? Again, odd.
And that is what makes first person present odd for many. It’s not actually the fact that first person present is bad; it’s just that it’s been poorly written. It’s not really first person present.
I think of good first person present as more of an impressionistic blur of sights, sounds, smells, sensations, all bound together by a single consciousness which filters everything. The consciousnesses directs and interprets everything that happens, everything that is seen and done. I also think of good first person the way I think of drama: something of a monologue binding together the real world which the character experiences.
But I’m not here to tell you how to write in first person present tense. Ivyblossom has some lovely posts about that here and here. I’m here to justify the idea that third person present is not superior or more natural to first person present.
Because if we are talking about what is most “natural” in terms of what is perceived or experienced, third person past is by far one of the most unnatural. We do not live our lives talking and thinking about ourselves in third person (well, usually). And neither do we live our lives talking and thinking about ourselves in the past (again, usually). We live our lives in the present, in the now. And we speak and think of ourselves with an “I”.
Ergo, first person present tense is the tense of how we actually live. It captures the melodies of everyday life well and breaks down the comfortable barrier between reader and text/character. It invites us to walk around in someone else’s shoes, to live as they live, see as they see, think as they think.
Third person past tense has to work much harder to accomplish what first person present tense does naturally.
One last point about the relative naturalness and unnaturalness of first person present tense: one must also consider it’s part of a piece of writing. It is already somewhat artificial in that it’s been written down rather than something that is organic, like thoughts. Much like third person past tense is very artificial when written down. Therefore, just like third person past tense, one should give first person present tense some leeway, some suspension of disbelief. It’s a story, after all. If you’re that worried about how unnatural a certain point of view and tense is before you’ve even read it, I question how you can accept that dragons or an entire cast of white, heterosexual characters are somehow more natural in another story?