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Mar 30, 2009

First Person, Third Person, Omniscient


I'm trying to decide the proper Point of View for my new novel.

This isn't the most urgent question. I still have a ton of research to do before I can commit to more than jotting down notes and hypothetical scenes. I have my Short Outline for the novel. If I wrote out a few hypothetical scenes, I could always change the Person they're in later. (That sounds so odd to say, "the Person they're in" but how else would you say it?)

There are pros and cons for each Person. The question is which will best tell this particular story?

Third Person: Third ("he said, she said") is standard and also my usual favorite. I like to have a lot of PoV characters, which rules out First. Third Person is the most flexible, and at the same time, the least obtrusive. In all probability, I will write the novel in third, unless another Person offers something to the story which third cannot. 

Omniscient: Omniscient ("he thought, she thought") used to be standard, but nowadays is frowned upon. There are advantages, however, which, in my opinion, still make this Person worth considering. An omniscient narrator can peer into the thoughts and backgrounds of any character in the story, not just the PoV character or MCs. When you have many bit parts who cannot be PoV characters, but whom you would like to reveal briefly to your reader, omni is the way to go. 

One example of a master at this is Kurt Vonnegut. He will unabashedly take a paragraph to tell you the life history of the gas station attendant washing the windows of the MCs car, even though the attendant has no other role in the story. Vonnegut's point is, "this is a person too, and don't think he doesn't have his own story even if it's not this story." A movie which attempted to do the same thing was Run, Lola, Run.

First Person: First ("I thought he said") is popular among new novelists, who over-identify with their MCs. However, it is also used by master artists, sometimes to deceive the reader with an untrustworthy narrator, other times simply to allow a degree of intimacy with the MC not possible with other methods. First person doesn't allow peeks into other heads, though a narrator may speculate about what other people are thinking. Untrustworthy narrators often tell you -- confidently -- what other people are thinking, but their speculations may be at odds with their observations, for example, in Lolita. I'm not interested in exploring untrustworthy narrators in this particular story.

Since I have four PoV characters, first person would seem to be out of bounds in any case. First limits you to one narrator, right?

Well, not necessarily. It's tricky to pull off, but one can have multiple first person narrators. Two famous examples are the noir mystery novel Laura and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.

Right now, I admit, I'm toying with doing multiple first person. I wrote several hypothetical scenes, and third person felt too distant. I loved the intimacy of first. Maybe it felt right because much of my research material is witness depositions and autobiographies, all first person. First person transforms the story from mere narration to testimony. First person also allows my characters to declare their philosophical beliefs, which are not necessarily my own -- or shared by the other characters. Stacking the different first person accounts side by side will allow the reader to see how the characters differ, not just in their experiences, but in their philosophies.

The downside is the danger of confusing the reader. If one changes PoVs, and this is announced by a new name, "Johnny wondered..." "Janey decided..." the reader can make the leap easily. If the reader has only "I wondered..." "I decided..." to go on, it might be more confusing. Of course, I would try to make things clear by writing, "Johnny, London, 1987"  on top of each new section when there is a PoV change, but in my experience, some readers will still flounder.

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For now, I'll write my draft scenes in first. It if doesn't work, I'll change them later.

Do you have a favorite? Do you always write in first or in third? If you switch, how do you determine which Person is best for which story?

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The artwork is from Digital Expressions, and can be found here, along with a lot of other lovely fractals.

15 comments:

Scott said...

Tara - I normally go with third person with a little omniscient thrown in for good measure. Also, in order not to confuse the reader too much, I limit each section to a single perspective and clearly definie where the next section begins to show the next perspective. It works for me, it might not work for you. The main problem I have with multiple perspectives in a book is when I can't always tell where one ends and the other begins. ; ) If I'm reading from Dick's perspec and suddenly I'm in Jane's perspec, and then whoa, there's Sally's perspec, it all gets a little confusing . . . at least for me.

Just my rambling thoughts on a Monday morning . . .

Litgirl01 said...

My first novel is in third person limited. However, my newest novel is in first person. I read a book lately where the narrator was in first person but it switched over to third in a couple of chapters here and there, and it worked beautifully. :-)

sraasch said...

The first novel I wrote was third person, and I swore by it until I started a novel in first person. Now, I can't imagine going back to third; it feels far too distant, and I like being up-close to my MC. I haven't tried multiple POV's in first, but it could be really cool. I say give it a shot; if it doesn't work, you can always change it to third.

Lady Glamis said...

Just so you know, your first link isn't working. :(

I think it depends on your story and your characters. And I honestly CANNOT see how you can start a story in first person and then switch to third or omniscient. In my opinion, the POV you tell the story in (first, third, or omniscient) completely changes the story. Maybe not the plot, but it would change everything else for me. The pacing, the symbolism, even the themes. So, wow, I'm in awe that you could do that!

I write in third person limited. I am not against first person, though. If I run across a story that feels like it needs that kind of narration, I'll run with it.

I also think third person can feel as close as first person if done correctly. But it probably takes more effort and telling time.

Great post! *thinks about expounding on this in a future post...*

The Screaming Guppy said...

For me, it depends on my characters. I got first person when I feel that my MC is my only MC, and that she/he will rule the book entirely. Otherwise, I go third person. I like being able to jump heads.

Windsong said...

My favorite to write in is omniscient third. I like to know what the characters are thinking and how they are feeling in the books I read, and it's no different when I write.

I think a writer can be fairly flexible in their POVs, provided they are clear. In one of my novels, I write in first person from four different POVs; however, I don't switch around. They each have their own section. I do it for a reason, and it seems to work well.

Good luck figuring out which one to use. In the one I'm querying, it started out in first, moved into omniscient, and is now in omniscient third. Not fun! >.<

David Russell Mosley said...

Well, I was going to recommend multiple First Persons, but you beat me to it. If you want to try something different go for it.

You might try a Dracula approach. In Brahm Stoker's Dracula (in case you haven't read it, if you have, please ignore) each chapter is from a different point of view through a letter, journal, phonograph recording, etc. I remember another book being made up of entirely letters, though I can't remember its name. Also, Stephen Lawhead did something similar with Scarlet where almost every other chapter was from Will Scarlet's PoV (first person) until his story and the other (third person) finally met.

ban said...

i really like the idea of multiple first person myself.
can't say i use any one style exclusively, like Lady Glamis said 'it depends on your story and characters'. i can usually tell what PoV i'll be writing from when i first work out the 'short' outline but you should always be open to change :D

scott g.f. bailey said...

In general, I use third-person limited, because I like to have a single protagonist and a focused point of view. Sometimes I use third-person omniscient if I want to get in the heads of several characters. Likely I'll use this in my next book, unless I decide to go with limited omniscient and focus on just one character (likely one of the B characters rather than the protagonist; I haven't decided). My current novel is in first-person, and I've promised myself that I'll never write another novel in first-person again, because it creates too many limitations for me as a narrator.

writtenwyrdd said...

You appear to undertand the advantages, disadvantages and the current preferences in pov quite well. But have you looked at books you really enjoyed and examined their pov usages and how that affected your perception and enjoyment? It might help you to decide which way you want to go if you do this. It is never a bad thing to look at what works for you as a reader and use it for yourself.

Also, if you are considering multiple pov characters (not a bad choice, but not necessary as often as it's used by newer writers) you might consider choosing the main character, the person who is the emotional focus of the story, as the pov character in first person. Then use 3rd person for the others. it provides the reader the intimacy for the 'moral barometer' of the 1st person pov character and yet lets them in the heads and viewpoints of the other characters.

It's fine to mix up the pov that way.

Carrie Harris said...

I love first person, but I agree that most people use it as a crutch, and I've seen so many people do it poorly. As for first person with multiple narrators, if you can do that, my hat's off to you! It makes my head spin!

Janet C. said...

First, let me say you have defined these 3 POV terms beautifully. I'm sending new writers here when they ask about POV.

Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair is written in first person and third - first being the heroine and third being the hero's POV. It took me by surprise, but when I realized what she was doing, it made the book that much better.

Barbara Kingsolver used first person for each of her main characters (the mother and 3 daughters) in The Poisonwood Bible. Another book that I loved.

So, there are lots of examples. I agree with Lady Glamis - it depends on your story and your characters.

jessie said...

I am writing in first person right now. I've been bouncing back and forth between first and third for this particular novel. But at least for my first draft, I'm finding my thoughts flow better if I write from first person. Good post. I am always asking questions about which is the best to write in. I suppose different perspectives suit different authors and different books.

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Noelle Nolan said...

Great points you made here. I'm torn in which POV my novel will be. I actually have started 2 novels. One is in First Person, no questions asked. My second one I wanted First Person, but it really doesn't work.

Thanks again. I'll check back often to read updates.