What is first person? What’s third person? What’s all this about limited vs omniscient? And what do I actually need to know to write this damn novel of mine?
How you tell a story – or what points of view you choose when writing fiction – can make all the difference to its appeal. Bridget Jones’s Diary just wouldn’t work in third person: it needed Bridget herself as narrator.
The Harry Potter series on the other hand wouldn’t work so well as first person (ie: with Harry Potter himself narrating the action) because you wouldn’t necessarily want a child’s voice as narrator – we’re in much better hands with JK Rowling’s own warmly witty narration.
We’ll get into some specifics in a second, but let’s start with an obvious – but crucial – point:
Novels aren’t films.
A movie camera is totally promiscuous. It’ll jump from Handsome Hero to Leading Lady to Vile Villain, and back again. It’ll give real consideration to porters, and dockhands, and taxi-drivers, and Passenger #3s. It doesn’t even care about where the close-ups are. Sure, Handsome Hero and Leading Lady will dominate most of the screentime, so they’ll get most of the close-ups too. But if it’s important to see what Passenger #3 is doing in any given second, the camera will just jump there.
It doesn’t care.
It’s a flirt.
Fiction is different:
Novels are conservative in their points of view
Movies can do bigger bangs, better special effects. (And they can afford to hire Daniel Craig or Jennifer Lawrence.)
But they can’t jump inside a character’s head. They can show emotions via the look on someone’s face, and via dialogue, but they can’t just jump inside and say, “this is what this character is thinking / feeling / remembering NOW.”
Novelists can do that – and must do that. Its our superpower. It’s why readers still bother with books.
But the flipside of that superpower is that we have to be conservative in the way we use it. If we jump into the heads of every character we come across and reveal their thoughts / feelings / memories, the reader will end up not knowing who they’re meant to attach to, and the result is they’ll attach to no one.
So the first key rule for handling points of view in fiction is:
Stay conservative. Don’t try to handle too many points of view in a novel.
It’s fine if you have just one point of view. If you have more than three, you are quite likely heading for disaster.
(And yes, there are a few exceptions to these rules, but not many. If you are already skilful enough to be one of those exceptions, then you have nothing to learn from this blog post! Most first time writers should avoid messing about.)
For what it’s worth, my first novel had three (or three and a half) points of view. Three of them have had two. Six of them (and the most succesful six) have had just one. And the one with the most individual points of view was also the worst novel of the lot..
OK, so much for the preamble and the word of warning.
First-person narration shares action as seen through the eyes of your narrator. A narrator can therefore only narrate scenes in which he or she is present.
Coming-of-age novels – Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower – work exceptionally well in first-person narration, as can romances, or ghost stories with a sense of claustrophobia like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
If you want to know what first person sounds like – well, it’s anything with lots of “I said . . . I saw . . . I did” in it. Here, by way of example, is a chunk from my book, The Deepest Grave. (I’ve made some short edits for length, but mostly this is as it appears in the finished book.)
You’ll notice that every single observation is either made neutrally (eg: the description of what Katie is wearing) or from the first person – “I” – perspective, or point of view. The narrator is Fiona Griffiths, my detective protagonist.
I’m a little earlier than I said, but it’s not long before I hear the sound of approaching feet.
Katie appears. Sees me up here on my bank. I raise a hand and smile welcome.
Impressively torn black jeans. Black cowboy boots, well-used. Dark vest-top worn under an almost military kahki shirt. A chunky necklace. One of those broad-brimmed Aussie-style hats with a leather band. […]
The look has attitude and personality and toughness, without quite dipping into angry hippy counterculture.
Also: she walks with a ski-stick, a mobility aid not a fashion statement.
She comes up the bank towards me. Sits beside me.
I say, ‘You hurt your ankle?’
You’ll notice that it’s not just that the observations are made by Fiona. (eg: “not long before I hear the sound of approaching feet”). It’s also that the character of those observations is shaped 100% by Fiona herself. So yes, the list of clothes that Katie is wearing is a fairly neutral list (though the very short sentences and lack of any verbs – that’s all Fiona). But that summary comment about the overall effect (“the look has attitude . . .without quite dipping into angry hippy counterculture”) is what Fiona thinks about Katie’s look. I can’t comment myself, because this is Fiona’s narration. She’s in charge.
For the same reason, if there were, let’s say, a lion in the undergrowth about to spring out on Fiona, the book couldn’t say anything about the lion, until Fiona herself had seen / heard / smelled / witnessed it in some way.
Does that sound claustrophobic? Needlessly restrictive?
Well, maybe. But I’m now halfway into writing novel #7 in that series, and when that book’s complete I’ll be close to 1,000,000 words published in the series. And every single one of those words, without exception, comes from Fiona’s voice. There is no other perspective anywhere in the series.
In other words, the restriction of first person is real, but you can still write at length, and successfully in that style.
First person narration, pros and cons
.This is quite easy, really! The pro is the opposite of the con and vice versa.
Pro: First person narration gives you intense, personal familiarity with the narrator. The reader can’t – short of putting the book down – separate from the narrator’s voice, their thoughts, their commentary, their feelings etc.
Con: You lose flexibility. If there’s a lion in the undergrowth, you can’t say so, until your narrator has seen the damn thing. If a key thing happens in your plot without your narrator in the room, then tough. he or she can only talk about it when they encounter the consequences down the road.
My comment: I’ve written books both ways. There’s no right or wrong here. I love both. One good tip is to use first person narration mostly when you have a distinctive narrator with a strong voice. Most thrillers are written third person (so they can flip between different points of view (eg: investigator / victim / perpetrator), but there’s no absolute rule. I write mine first person. Likewise, a lot of romance stories are written first person . . . but you can go either way there too.
First person, Multiple perspectives
With this option, you are still working in the first person . . . but with multiple narrators, each of them saying, “I . . . I . . .I . . .”
All the action is seen through the eyes of your narrator (whichever one is in charge for that particular chapter), but the narrators switch around.
This is certainly technically possible, but it is harder to make a go of it.
Good examples would be:
John Fowles’ thriller The Collector, for instance, is narrated by a kidnapper, Fred, and the girl he kidnaps, Miranda. It only works because the story facilitates the narration. It’s a shared experience. Readers live it, literally, as good-versus-evil.
Or Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife, where both Clare and Henry have their turns to narrate.
Another relationship novel that does the same thing (but much more darkly!) would be Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
It’s no coincidence that all of these books are relationship novels in some form. The Time Traveler’s Wife is an out-and-out love story. Gone Girl is about a conventional marriage gone bad. And The Collector is also about a relationship of a sort, albeit that it’s abductor / abductee.
If you feel like opting for the dual first person approach, you absolutely can. The two rules that you basically have to follow are:
Give your narrators individual voices, so they sound like individuals. If your narrators all sound the same, you’ll end up flattening and deadening your fiction.
Make it blisteringly clear who is speaking when. Audrey Nifenegger just started her chapters with a name: Clare or Henry, so you always knew who was talking when. Multiple narrators risk confusing the reader, so you have to be laser-like in your focus on maintaining clarity.
Simple first person point of view: summary
If you pick first person, you may be onto something.
Simple first-person narration (ie: just one narrator through the whole book) probably offers fewer pitfalls than the alternatives, and much of the world’s great literature has been written this way.
If it feels right to you, it probably is right. You can get too complex about these things and we like it simple!
Third person narration (the simple version)
Third person narration – definition and example
Third person narration uses “he” or “she”, where a first person narrator would say, “I”.
Here’s an example taken from (and this is a blast from the past for me!) my first novel, The Money Makers:
They spoke of other things until it was late. They damped down the fire, cleared away the dishes, and walked upstairs. Fiona went right on into the one usable bedroom. Matthew stopped at the door, where his bag lay.
‘Fiona,’ he said. ‘You remember you said you would never ever lie for me again?’
‘Any chance of your lying for me right now?’ He looked at the inviting double bed, heaped high with clean linen and feather quilts.
She smiled. Once again, ambiguity flickered in frightened eyes, but her answer was clear. She walked right up to Matthew and stopped a few inches from him. Her long dark hair fell around her shoulders, and her face was only inches from his.
This scene (and the whole chapter) is written from Matthew’s perspective. So, yes, much of the factual data here (“they spoke of other things until it was late”) was available to both Fiona and Matthew in this scene.
At the same time, when they step up close and get intimate, it’s Matthew we’re with, not Fiona. (How do we know this? Because when we get to “ambiguity flickered in frightened eyes”, it’s Matthew that sees this, not Fiona. If that little bit had been written from Fiona’s perspective, it would have had to say, “she felt ambivalent and frightened”, or something like that.
Third Person: One Point of View
So far, so simple. And it can stay simple too.
So all the Harry Potter books are written almost exclusively from Harry Potter’s point of view. It’s third person, yes, but still limited – nearly always – to just the single viewpoint. Nothing wrong with that. If it’s good enough for JK Rowling . . . well, it’s just plain good enough, period.
And notice that ‘nearly always’ exception.
Even when you stick, mostly, to one third person point of view, there can be reasons to flip over to another perspective (Voldemort’s, for example), and it’s easy to do so without making the reader gasp in horror. Readers probably don’t even notice the shift of gear: it’s just part of the natural reading process.
In fact, it’s because narrative flexibility is so welcome to the author that truly narrow – one point of view – third person narrations are rare. Most writers opt either for First Person / Single Narrator or Third Person / Multiple Points of View.
Let’s therefore dive over to the multiple perspective option and take a look at that.
Third Person: Multiple Points of View
The main limitation we found with the first person narrative approach was its restrictiveness. My and my Fiona Griffiths books, with every one of those 1,000,000 words locked into one voice, one point of view.
So most writers adopting the third person approach will use multiple perspectives. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is one famous example. The same goes for much of nineteenth century fiction, especially of the more epic variety: Dickens, War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Henry James, you name it.
What you get from those many perspectives is the ability to see into many hearts, many minds, many souls. That multi-viewpoint narration gives your novel:
Richness – all those multiple perspectives
Flexibility – you can set your movie camera up wherever the action is happening. You avoid the restrictions of narrow first person narration.
Potentially something epic in scale – because all those characters and voices lend a depth and scale to your story.
Also notice this:
There are types of suspense you just can’t deliver in a first person novel. So Hitchcock famously distinguished between surprise and suspense.
If two people are sitting in a cafe, when a bomb detonates – that’s a surprise.
But let’s restructure that same episode with multiple viewpoints, and you get something completely different. So we might see (Point of View #1) a terrorist planting a bomb in the cafe, then switch perspectives to (Point of View #2) the innocent couple drinking coffee right by the ticking bomb. IN that case, the simple scene of two people drinking coffee becomes laden with suspense.
The reader knows the bomb is there. The couple don’t. What’s going to happen . . .?
That’s a type of suspense that we first-personeers (or single perspective third personeers) just can’t deliver.
Consequently, third person / multiple viewpoint novels are particularly common with:
thrillers and suspense novels
anything epic in scale. We’ve mentioned some nineteenth century fiction already, but George RR Martin and his Game of Thrones series is a perfect example of modern and big. Ditto any door-stopper by Tom Clancy.
Third person point of view: Summary
Most third person novels are written with multiple perspectives, even if (as in Harry Potter) the point of view stays mostly with a single central character.
Advantages and disadvantages? Well, essentially you get the opposite of the first person pros and cons. So third person / multi-viewpoint narration:
Is flexible. You can pop the camera anywhere you want. You can deliver suspense as well as surprise.
Enlarges your book. It can move you from a narrow-focus/small book to a wide-focus/epic one.
Loses intimacy. In particular, if your camera gets too promiscuous – if you just use too many viewpoints – you risk breaking the reader’s bond with your central character(s). If that happens, your book dies!
Third person narration: The Golden Rules
We said above that the main risk of multiple viewpoints is that you break the reader’s bond with your main character and as a result you end up losing the reader completely.
Bad outcome, right? A book killer.
Multiple points of view: three golden rules
Fiction is about inner worlds and inner journeys, and you need to respect that. So here are the rules:
GOLDEN RULE #1 Limit your number of primary characters
I’d suggest that, for almost any new novelist, you should not go above three. My first book was a story about three sons, although the sister too had a significant secondary viewpoint. I’d say that count of three-and-a-half viewpoints represents the upper limit for any first novel by all but the most gifted novelists.
You can go higher than that. I think of books that run to dozens of viewpoints. But as a place to start?
Nope, that kind of thing is too dangerous for 99.9% of you. (And the 0.1% are talented enough, that I don’t really know why they’re reading this!)
Your next rule follows from the first:
GOLDEN RULE #2 Never go more than 3-4 pages before returning to your primary characters.
We’ve all watched movies where the leading couple is so incredibly strong that the movie starts to die as soon as one of them is off-screen. Or take that great first series of Homeland, where Carrie (Claire Danes) and Nicholas Brody (Damian Green) had a mesmeric quality together. You could have scenes with both of them in (great!). Or scenes with just one of them in (very good!). But scenes with neither? They flagged very quickly.
And sure: you need some filler scenes just to make sense of the story. But if you stay away from your main characters for too long, the book dies. And just because I said “3-4 pages” in the rule above doesn’t mean that you have that much space every time you take a break. You don’t. You need to keep those non-protagonist scenes as short and tight as possible. Three pages is better than four. Two pages is better than three.
And our next rule follows from the first two – and from absolutely everything we know about why stories work as they do.
GOLDEN RULE #3 Every main character (every protagonist) needs their own fully developed story arc.
If you use any Point of view repeatedly, the character needs a fully developed inner life, a fully developed arc, a full set of challenges, encounters and personal change – and relevance, too. Is this person relevant to your collective story material?
So take my first book, The Money Makers, with its three (and a bit) protagonists. Every single one of those three needed:
A set of external obstacles (ie: things in the world)
A set of internal obstacles (ie: things in their character that blocked them from accomplishing their goals)
A crisis, linked to all the things in the list so far
In effect, to write a three-handed story, you have to write three stories, each perfectly structured in their own right.
That sounds like a scary undertaking, and yes, I guess it is. But because a book can be only so long, if you write from three points of view, each one of the stories you are telling can afford to be quite simple – the kind of thing that would seem a bit flat if told on its own.
As it happens, I love third person / multiple viewpoint narration almost as much as I love first person. There isn’t a right or a wrong in the choice; it’s only a question of how you want to write and how your story wants to be written.
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