Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter is a central skill in writing fiction. Close engagement with a character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your reader with you.
Writing in the first, second or third person is a stylistic choice for you as author. Sometimes it’s altered in later drafts at a publisher’s or agent’s suggestion, or because of your own gut feeling that something else might work better. It’s worth playing with it to see where you’re comfortable for this story and these characters.
Which ‘person’ is which?
In a handful of lines, describe a car crash involving one of your favourite characters. Then:
- Invite that character soon after the event to come to you for a scribble-chat to tell you about it as if you’re best friends. Start with something like, ‘I don’t know why it happened but …’
- You’re a paramedic telling a colleague about the crash in the hospital just afterwards.
- Write a police report of the same incident.
- Describe the crash in the past tense as if you are a god-like story-teller who watched it all from above: he did this, she did that.
- A close friend is sitting beside a patient in hospital in a coma. Write what the friend says as s/he talks to the silent patient recounting what happened at the scene of the accident, e.g.: ‘You had the kids in the back and everything and then this lunatic, I don’t know how you survived it, love, I really don’t.’
The first is writing as I is the first person. So is the paramedic.
The police report is in the third person, using s/he.
Your omniscient narrator is third person too, either keeping a certain distance from events or zooming in for a closer encounter with minds and hearts.
The friend talking to the patient is using you, the second person.
1st = I, we, me, us.
2nd = you.
3rd = he, she, her, him, it, they, them.
Choose your approach and stick with it throughout your draft, knowing you can change the tilt of it later. Clarity and consistency keep your readers with you.
THIRD PERSON – advantages
- We’re all used to third person storytelling. Most books do it this way.
- It combines distance with being able to get in close. Both are useful.
- An authorial voice can be useful too, either impersonal or another character.
Third person – disadvantage
- A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’
So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.
This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Dear Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person; we’re right in among Alice’s dreamy thoughts, using she and Alice’s name as subject.
Try writing it again changing ‘Alice’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ (3rd person) to ‘I’ and ‘me’ (1st person).
How does that feel? Try reading both versions aloud to see what you decide about the difference in effect. This is not about exam answers. Trying it all on for size is what’s important.
Here is the opening of The Sign of Four written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890. This time try rewriting it, deleting ‘I’ (1st person) each time and replacing it with ‘Watson’, ‘he’ or ‘him’ (3rd):
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.
What do you notice this time? Does using first person makes it easier to distinguish the two men in a reader’s mind? What else feels different?
SECOND PERSON (you) is rare because it’s tricky to pull off in a full-length novel. Advantages are the jolt of the unusual and, up to a point, it can feel friendly and conversational. Disadvantages are that it can feel preachy. It’s better when it has a context like a letter or a speech in court.
FIRST PERSON narrative has a long tradition including Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’), Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Here are the famous opening lines of Jane Eyre:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
Dickens was very fond of it too.
First person – advantages:
- Your character’s voice – tone, accent and content – is clear without being rationed to sections of dialogue.
- Readers feel can feel as if the character is confiding in them.
- Internal uncertainty comes easily. Here is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, a timely piece (though it was written in 1936) which isn’t for the squeamish but which displays beautifully how internal debate can be written.
- If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you can blend into first person accounts easily.
- Your ‘I’ can be honest or an unreliable narrator who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out.
- Writing in the ‘I’ of your character keeps you and your own personal agenda out of the way. Usually a good thing for the flow of your writing and the result.
First person – disadvantages:
- Your character needs to be someone the reader wants to be with for a whole book.
- While a confiding tone is easy, distance is more difficult to achieve.
It’s time to reach for your bookshelf, online or otherwise, and choose one of your favourite novels:
- Notice first, through two or three chapters, ‘whose head are we in?’
- Is it from a single viewpoint or many?
- Whose story is it? By that, I mean who has the most crucial place in the story arc? Some characters are fascinating but they come in briefly as catalysts, that’s not what I mean. Who is the character who is most challenged and developed, who is it really about?
- Is the story told from inside that person’s head and heart? If no, why do you think not? If yes, what does that give the reader?
- Finally, does the author use the first, second or third person to tell the story? Why do you think that’s what the author chose? Try to rewrite some of it in another person and see how it feels. Now try the same with a piece of your own draft.
As I said, it’s not about exam answers. It’s about what seasons the pot best. It’s your pot and your decision.
Next week we’ll be back to character work. There’s lots more still to do there.