Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter, is a central skill in writing fiction. Keeping closely inside that character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your readers with you. (This is Point of View, made easy with exercises and tips, yesterday.)
Sometimes your publisher or agent will ask you to alter from 1st to 3rd person (or vice versa) because they think it will improve the storytelling. Or maybe your own gut feeling will guide you into a change, to see if it 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:
· 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, writing as ‘I’ – that’s 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.
· 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.
· A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?
This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Wonderful Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person, yet 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):
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?
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.
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:
· 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.
· If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you’ll find first person accounts easy.
· Your ‘I’ can be honest (like Holmes’s friend Watson) 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.
· 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?
· 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?
· 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.