First or Third Person: How to Choose

Today I thought I’d tackle that perennially difficult topic called Point of View (POV). I’m not an expert, so I’m not going to offer “expert” advice. I’m simply going to share what I’ve learned from my own writing experiences, particularly my novel (which is still in progress and probably will be until the Second Coming, she bemoaned.)

You see what I did there? That cheeky little switch from first person to third person narration?

For God’s sake shut up and get on with the post, eye-rolled her readers.

I don’t think I need to list and define the various narrative modes here: enter “Point of View” into Google and you’ve got it all covered. What I do want to tackle today is the question I hear most often at writers’ workshops / pretentious restaurants / in my own head:

How do I decide whether to write in first person or third person?

When I brought up a blank document all those months ago and started writing my novel I automatically started writing in first person. My first sentence was: On the day I died I woke early. This was an instinctive move. I wanted to be right up close to my main character, Maurice; so close I was inside his head. I wanted my story to be driven not by plot but by Maurice’s unique personality and his distinctive way of viewing the world (and Heaven, where much of the action takes place). I also wanted the plot to unfold for the reader as it unfolded for Maurice, adding to the sense of unreality, surprise and discovery.

First person narration has the added advantage, if done right, of making the reader feel rather clever. Any reader with half a brain starts to understand that they are reading a biased view of events, with everything being filtered through the narrator’s perception. And they start to sense that this perception may be unreliable, and that they might have a better handle on things than the narrator himself. They start to feel one step ahead.

One more thing: I absolutely love Maurice. I understand him, I feel for him, I adore his sarcastic sense of humour and ultimately, his emotional courage. He is clever and funny and terrified and burdened and desperate to be happy: in other words, he’s an interesting, complex character. And if you’re going to be stuck with one narrator, then that narrator has to be bloody interesting.

But here is where it starts to get really interesting. Maurice’s daughter figures in the novel as well – and I wanted to hear her point of view too. I wanted her to have her own, unfiltered voice. So what did I do? Obviously glutton for literary punishment, I decided to have two, alternating first person narrators: Maurice and his daughter. I decided they would “take turns” at telling the story.

But I didn’t stop there. I decided that Maurice’s daughter would tell her story via a series of letters. To tell you any more would give the game away, but to find out more about this kind of narration, you can google Epistolary Novels. I had to laugh at the irony of this decision, because only a few months ago I was proclaiming in my book club how much I detest novels written as a series of letters or emails (Bridget Jones’ Diary being one of the few exceptions). But it seemed the obvious choice in my novel (and once you BUY IT and read it you’ll understand why), and I think it’s working.

So. I’m happily writing in first person, when a few months in I hit the wall called “This is Not Fucking Working”, otherwise known as “I Don’t Know What the Hell I am Doing”, or, more commonly, Writer’s Block.

I splashed around wildly in the murky pool of writer’s despair before hitting upon an idea. I just couldn’t progress the story and I started to wonder A. If I was, in fact, losing my mind, and B. If I should be writing the novel in third person after all because it was all getting so fecking complicated. I took the advice of a particularly annoying writer’s website which suggested I find a way around the problem instead of sitting on my arse in front of it, wailing. Annoying yes, but admittedly useful.

I rewrote the first two chapters of the novel in the third person, just to see if that was going to solve the problem. And you know what? I hated it. To me, something vital had been lost. I just wasn’t close enough to Maurice anymore, and I missed him. And I think the story lost that vital ingredient of Maurice’s hilarious, incisive (and at times deluded) commentary on everything that was happening to him.

Now, there are advantages to the third person narrative mode. You can choose to narrate the story omnisciently, seeing and knowing everything. Or you can stick a bit closer to one particular character (third person limited). And an air of mystery can be retained as the reader sees what is happening but doesn’t have direct access to every character’s thoughts. As Nathan Branford says in his fabulous book How To Write a Novel:

in the best third person narratives, we’re piecing together motivations and feelings based on what the character is doing rather than being told every single thought that the character has. We get glimpses into their heads, but their heart will remain partially out of view. It’s sort of like looking into a well-lit house from the street.

Ultimately, however, I chose the narrative mode that felt the most “right” – first person. But I’m glad I spent a few hours on the experiment. It was extremely valuable and helped me to understand that the problems I was encountering weren’t down to POV wobbles (and even if they were, that was just too bad – I would have to find a way around them because there was no way I was changing it.)

So, here is the “expert” advice on POV that I vowed I wouldn’t give:

1. If you’re writing in first person, make sure the narrator is appealing and interesting – we’re going to be in his or her head for a long time.

2. If it’s not working, try it the other way. Something that isn’t quite right in first person may be fab in third.

3. Go with your heart. Write from the perspective you want to; the one that feels right.

4. If you’re convinced you’ve chosen well, persevere through the bad patches. Make it work.

5. Unless you are certifiably mad, don’t try to write a novel set mostly in Heaven with two alternating first person narrators, one of whom writes her account of things in a series of letters.

Shit, she said.

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