Let’s get personal

Okay, not that personal. I want to talk about point of view. Who is telling the story? Why would you pick one point of view over another?

When I first started writing, I always used third person for the same reason I always typed on the computer: because it looked more like a real book. Third person is very common; it’s professional; it fits what readers expect from a work of fiction.

Later I got addicted to first person, for the exact same reason: it’s less professional, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading a book. When you read a first-person narrative, it feels like something a friend might tell you over a cup of coffee. That makes it feel more real.

I’m not even going to talk about second person, because I hate it, with one exception: when the narrator is an actual character, and when the protagonist is called “you,” it’s because the narrator is talking to someone for a specific reason. Examples of this include The Fifth Season and Harrow the Ninth. It’s not a technique for amateurs to try, though. It can so easily turn out obnoxious.

Third person

Third person is the old basic standby. It makes it easier to describe your protagonist, because you’re not actually looking out of their eyes. You can hint that the narrator is unreliable; you can throw in important details about the world; you can explain things the protagonist would never think to explain.

It’s especially helpful when you’re telling the story from more than one point of view; for instance, two or three protagonists trading off chapters. You’ll never be confused about who the chapter is about, because their name is right there.

It can be less immediate and intimate than first person. “She looked over and saw the soldier. She knew he could snap her spine in half as easily as look at her.” Compare to, “The soldier was right there. He could snap my spine in half as soon as look at me.”

But you may notice, it’s not just the pronouns that are different here. There’s no rule that you can’t bring that same immediacy into third person; in fact, “close third” is many people’s favorite kind. You could say, “The soldier was right there. He could snap her spine as soon as look at her.” There is no real necessity to constantly remind the reader who it is who sees and knows things–it’s obviously the POV character! Likewise, even in third you can use the metaphors and linguistic tics (like swearing) that the POV character uses in their dialogue.

However, I do find it’s more difficult to write close, immediate narration in third. Something about being in third brings me out of the character’s head a bit, and I start writing, “The place might or might not host smugglers, but it was clearly unfamiliar with health inspectors,” when the character would probably say, “The place was full of shit and probably smugglers too.” What’s that wry, talky voice? That’s mine, not a space pirate’s.

First person

First person makes it easy to dive right into a character’s head and voice. Everything you say is obviously stuff they know, so those unnecessary “he knew” and “she saw”s don’t even show up. If there’s necessary exposition, they can just tell you: “On Mars, we don’t have fossil fuels, so we use hydrogen.” “The worst thing about space is not getting to snuggle under a heavy comforter.” Whatever they would say, if they were talking to someone ignorant about their world, is what you say.

The downside is that you can’t describe anything that’s of no interest to your narrator. If your narrator has amazing D-cups, they probably don’t notice them unless they’re jogging and need a better bra. If they’re emotionally repressed, they can’t tell you they’re repressing their feelings. Best you can do is, “I wasn’t jealous of course, it was just a little odd” or “I felt queasy, probably bad sushi.” See how clever your readers are, if they pick up on that.

I love throwing in as much as possible of a character’s voice. Like instead of, “She was uncomfortable calling the religious leader by her first name,” I can say, “You don’t pretend to be friends with the pope.” Plus, first person narrators cuss. As a person who doesn’t swear in real life, it can be really fun to write narration full of profanity.

The traditional wisdom is that you can’t have more than one first-person narrator in a book. If you have first person, you have to stay in the same point of view the entire book. But that’s not strictly true. You could have one first and one third. Or you can have two first-person points of view, provided you label each one clearly at the top. You could even tell the story in different people’s personal logs, each one labeled with a name and time stamp at the beginning. The only really hard rule, I’d say, is to make sure the first-person narrators have noticeably different voices. That both shows your skill as a writer (proving neither one was just your own voice) and helps the reader keep things straight.

These days, I write almost everything in first. Sometimes I go back after and change it into third, for one reason or another. That way I do all the voicey things I do in first, while using third in the final draft.

So which should you use? Whichever one works. I’m a big believer in “sketch-writing”–trying to write the story different ways before you officially start the first draft. Try things out! See what works for the story you’re telling.