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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

TARA K. HARPER
WRITER'S WORKSHOP
First Person or Third?

First person, second, or third -- what's the difference?
Which form is better?
Multiple points of view
Omniscence - an example

Inside the mind - an example


First Person, Second, or Third--What's the Difference?
    

First person narrative means writing from the "I" point of view.  As in:  I walked down the alley, I picked up the phone, I told Tony that he was going down if he didn't cough up the money by Saturday.  I thought about it, then shook my head.  I told myself I didn't care, but I picked up the paper anyway and glanced over the business column.

Third person narrative form is writing from the omniscent point of view.  Here, you use the he-she form.  As in:  he walked down the alley, she picked up the phone, and Jason told Tony that he was going down if he didn't cough up the money.  Mort thought about it, then shook his head.  And Cleary told himself that he didn't care, but picked up the paper anyway.

Second-person is the least-used form in novels, mainly because it usually reads more awkwardly.  Second person is the "you" point of view, the imperative (command) form, the way this web site is written.  For example:  "If you're looking for an agent, consider reading the info in the agent's file.  Then check out the agents information and cautions on the following sites..."

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Which Form Is Better?
    

Some people instinctively think of storytelling in the "I" form.  They find it easier to unfold a story from the personal point of view.  Others want to offer readers the additional insight they can achieve in the "he-she" form.  For some writers, it's simply impossible to write in first person.  Others find it mandatory for their craft.  (In both school and at the university, I was always writing in the opposite point of view as everyone else.  When everyone else wrote in first person, I wrote in third; when everyone else wrote in third person, I wrote in first or second.  I could never figure out what I had missed in the assignments that made it so much easier for everyone else to write in the opposite voice.)

For the most part, I recommend writing in third person when you're starting out.  Why?  Because I've noticed that the "I" form to a new writer is like the temptation of the suicide ending--it's not usually done well when you're first starting to write.  In first person, it's easy to be stilted and boring in your delivery.  It's easy to use too many "I did X" sentence structures.  It's easy to forget how to include description and emotion; easy to spend far too much time thinking, and not enough time in the here-and-now of the story.

First person can also force you to contrive trite or unbelievable situations so that the character overhears, sees, or somehow finds out about things which you (the author) want the reader to know.  This is where the overused ploys come in.  For example, picking up the phone when someone else is on the line, while that other person never notices the other open receiver.  Or walking by the open office door during a sensitive conversation.  Overhearing the murderer conveniently incriminate himself.  Correctly guessing the bad guy's password in three tries, in order to access the encrypted data that was, of course, conveniently left in a directory titled something like "Villainy", etc, and which can be copied directly to disk without having to reset any permissions.  You can see where this is going.  First person stories can be executed very poorly when it comes to unfolding motivations and plots.

You might ask why first person so pervasively requires such contrived settings and situations.  Simple.  Because the main character in the "I" form cannot be inside the heads of the other characters.  It's obvious, but first person doesn't allow hero to see or hear anything the bad guy is doing if he's not right there to see and hear the bad guy himself.  That limits the way the villain and other characters' motivations are unfolded.

In contrast, in third person, the narrator is in the minds of all characters.  This allows the narrator to use a simple description or hint of expression, or even a side scene to give the reader the information that the main character can't know, but which the reader must know in order to follow the story.

Third person is often perceived as 'harder' by new writers, since they now have to deal with all characters, not just the main character.  However, if that's your reason for wanting to stick with first person, that in itself indicates that you're not using the first-person form correctly.

First person doesn't mean you can ignore the other characters.  It means you somehow have to develop them all, with depth and realism, through the eyes of a single viewpoint.  Yes, that's often harder.  If you can't do realistic, believable character development in first person, then work with third person until you improve your skills.  Experiment with the first and second person in short pieces, exercises, or in an experimental novella.  Once your characterization skills improve, you should be able to tell a story from any narrative view (first, second, or third) and still have a solid tale.

Is one narrative form actually better in general than the others?  No.  Third person is more popular, certainly.  Second person is least popular.  However, it's how well you tell the story, not which viewpoint you choose, which is most important.

Is one narrative form better than others for a particular type of story?  This depends again on your skill level as a writer, in the type of story you want to tell, and on the tone you want to set.
Do you want more intimacy with all characters?  Do you have a more sweeping canvas than a single, narrow view?  Then perhaps you should pick third person.          
Do you want the single-eye view of the world?  Do you want the reader to 'wallow' or be immersed in a single man's fallacies, triumphs, and fears?  Consider first person.

Consider what you want the reader (and you) to get out of the story, where you want the depth of characterization to come from, then choose the appropriate narrative form.

Shelly Shapiro, Editorial Director of Del Rey Books,
explains why she advises writers to avoid first person when starting out
.

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Multiple Points of View
    

Writing in the third person allows the writer to be omniscient, to see and understand all elements and characters in the story, to show the story from more than one set of eyes.  This may be as simple as including a few lines about the people left in the room after the main character exits.  It may be as in-depth as showing complete scenes and events for which the main character isn't present.

However, being omiscient does not mean that you should scatter the focus of your story.  It is a common misconception that writing in third person allows you to show the POV of all characters fairly equally.  The reality is, you can show them fairly, but not usually equally--readers still need something specific with which to identify.  (Refer to the article on multiple points of view in the Writer's Workshop.)

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Omniscence - An Example
    

The power of the omniscient view is not the ability to get into more than one mind, but the ability to point out elements to the reader that the main character might not have noticed or cannot (because of the circumstances) have noticed.  This is the overview, the information, the 'big picture' that you can give the reader until the main character catches up with you at the end.  For example, third person allows you to find out what else is going on even if the main character:
   a) had turned away.
   b) had just stepped out of the room.
   c) was on the phone with X and so couldn't see X's expression, etc.
   d) isn't in the scene at all, etc.

When the main character (Joe) is interacting with other characters (Ester and Marlin), third person allows you to record the reactions of those other characters for the reader. You should never be "telling" what is going on in someone's head.  But, you can say things like this:
  Joe reached down to pick up the shards of glass around Ester's bare feet.  Bright, tiny beads of red welled up from between her toes.  She didn't move, but the sting of the splinters was like a file to the anger she hid with her smile.  Fine, she thought nastily.  He could dump her, alright, just as soon as he paid the bill he'd racked up on her credit card for that Germany trip.  Until then, he'd be lucky to use the bathroom without her behind him.  "It's alright," she said with deliberate calm.

At her feet, he gathered the glass too quickly and caught a shard in his thumb.  Ester felt her stomach clench with satisfaction.  Now they both bled on what was left of the sculpture.   "Joe, you've cut yourself," she said quickly.

"It's just a scratch."  He looked up.  "I'll get the broom.  Don't move."  He glanced at the splinters and turned away before Ester saw what he really wanted to say.  God, but he wanted her out of his bed, out of his house, but she could make a scene like a dozen harpies, and his son was due home any moment.  He'd been an idiot to think that smile had ever been for him, not his wallet.  Five minutes, he thought, and he'd have her out the door.  Then his biggest problem would be explaining to Tommy why the bi--the girlfriend, he corrected, wasn't coming back, and trying to say that without grinning.

Ester smiled brightly at his back, shrugged casually, and kept her voice smooth as she reassured, "I'm not going anywhere."  She wanted to laugh as she saw his shoulders almost flinch.  And as her ex-lover stood and hurried to the trash, her green eyes followed him coldly.  She looked down at the glass that now burned in her toes, then deliberately ground it in more firmly.

       

In third person, you get the scene from both points of view.  We also get some tension because both characters are blind to something the other party knows.  In this case, Joe doesn't see Ester's cold gaze and doesn't see her grind the glass into her own skin.  Ester doesn't know about little Tommy due home, nor that he's going to try to kick her out of the house in spite of the glass splinters.  Each little detail that isn't known by one or the other character can be built on to create or resolve more tension, can be used to forward the story.  In third person, the reader can see all of these little tensions, not just the ones from Joe's point of view.

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Inside the Mind - An Example
    

The power of first person is the intimacy you can develop with the reader.  It is the "I" story, the ultimate in being submerged in another mind.  This doesn't mean that you should spend the book thinking or remembering or wallowing in that mind.  It means you can use that intimacy to provide insight that would not otherwise be apparent to the characters or readers of the story.

Consider the previous example of Joe and Ester, but in first person:
  I reached down to pick up the shards of glass around Ester's bare feet.  She didn't move, but her tension was like the skin on the bright, tiny beads of blood.  I stifled my curse, and, like an idiot, grabbed at a piece of glass.  It pierced my thumb like a knife.

"Joe, you've cut yourself."

"It's just a scratch," I said impatiently.  I must have looked up too quickly--I could have sworn there was something in her expression other than that smile on those perfect lips.  "I'll get the broom.  Don't move."

I glanced at the splinters that sprayed out across the floor and got to my feet.  I wasn't about to admit that my thumb now stung like hell, not when Tommy was due home any minute--Ester could stretch out a mothering spell for an hour.

She smiled brightly and shrugged.  "I'm not going anywhere," she reassured.

Like hell, I thought.  You're going out that door like an unwanted cat, as soon as I get a bandage.

       

In first person, you get a different perspective on the scene, since Ester's point of view is no longer available.  We see her only through Joe's eyes, and so lose her anger about the unpaid bill, her determination to stay, etc.  This first-person scene is not better or worse than the third-person scene; it's just different.  Figure out why you want to write first- or third-person, and then see if your story lends itself to that form of narrative.


Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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