First or Third?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Several weeks ago, I read a chapter from my current work in progress to my writers’ group, and it sparked a discussion on point of view. Here is a sample from the manuscript.

     Fannie Stewart stabbed her fried chicken with a fork. “Why does Julia have to come here? Why can’t she stay with friends in St. Louis?”

     [The conversation continues for several paragraphs, and her mother reminds Fannie that it is only for six months.]

     Even one month with snobbish cousin Julia was too long. Julia, who thought she was so grown up. Julia, who looked down on Fannie.

     Six months would be unendurable.

This chapter is written from Fannie’s third person point of view. We know it is third person because the chapter identifies Fannie by name and uses third person pronouns—“her” in the example, but also “she” and “hers.” A first person point of view would use “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.”

But if you look at the last two paragraphs in the example, those are Fannie’s thoughts, not that of a neutral narrator. So shouldn’t I use first person or at least italicize Fannie’s thoughts?


Both first person and third person have the same major constraint—the reader can only know what the POV character knows. But it is easier to get around the disadvantages of that approach when using third person.

In first person, you are stuck in the character’s head. But third person is like a camera that can zoom in and out. It can zoom in on the person’s thoughts in a way that tells the reader that it’s a close-up shot. No italics required.

Or if you want to keep a secret, you zoom out. The reader still only sees what the character sees but doesn’t hear the chatter in the character’s head.

Large jumps are disconcerting, but small ones are barely noticeable. In the example above, the first paragraph is middle-distance or less. We are sitting at the dining room table with her, but we judge her feelings by her actions and her words rather than reading her thoughts. But just a few paragraphs later, we do. That lens adjustment is restrained enough that the change works. Or at least I think it does.

After our discussion, I did experiment with rewriting my manuscript in first person, but it sounded unnatural. Besides, I wanted my characters to have a few secrets from the readers until later in the story. If you are inside someone’s head, readers expect you to be honest with them and tell them what the character is thinking all the time. There are a few tricks a writer can use, but they wouldn’t work in my story.

I’m glad I tried first person, though, because now it’s not the right approach for this book.

But maybe my next one will be in first person.

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