In the last two years I’ve thought a lot about what point of view and which tense I should be using in my fiction.1 The two options that I’ve seriously considered have been, first person with the present tense, and third person with the past tense.
There’s no right or wrong. Some of the most immersive, and thrilling reads I’ve experienced have used a variety of viewpoints and tense. Done well, almost any combination can work effectively.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best examples of what a writer can achieve using the first person with the present tense. Another excellent, and very different example is The Hunger Games. In some ways, young adult fiction is where first person with present tense shines best, but not always. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood is another example.
For third person, past tense, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is an outstanding example. It’s a third person past tense novel that really gets inside the main character’s head. It has the intimacy of a first person viewpoint. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is a great example of how the third person can explore a character with subtlety, controlling how the reader perceives the protagonist. Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, and Lee Child’s One Shot are two more examples, both illustrating how the third person can be used to deliver a more dramatic and richer storytelling experience. There’s also Stieg Larsson’s excellent The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
First person, present tense has real immediacy. When you open up a book and read the first paragraph, you immediately meet the character. The present tense accentuates the real-time experience of living in the character’s thoughts. It’s a journal-like viewpoint — I did this, I did that, these things are happening to me.
The snag is that the reader is stuck in the character’s thoughts, which can feel claustrophobic. Also, the first person viewpoint cuts down on the available information the writer can provide to the reader (conversely, the lack of a character’s situational awareness can be used to create an unreliable narrator, and a sense of the reader experiencing the story at the same time as the character). But, it is, by definition, a limiting way of telling a story. It’s like filming with only one camera. The single viewpoint directly connects the prose style and tone to the character.
The third person past tense combination breaks that direct link. It opens up how the writer can explain what is happening by providing the potential to include a lot more information. Using the film analogy again, it’s like having a multi-camera setup. This doesn’t mean that there has to be multiple character viewpoints. It is possible to stick to a single character viewpoint and use it to provide a more defined, information rich, situational awareness. Part of the freedom and benefit it offers comes from not being constrained by the language and tone of the character2 , although that can be inferred.
2 It is a paradoxical irony of the first person viewpoint that the author is writing it but presenting it as coming from the character (which the author has invented).