Who’s On First?

Not Irish Firebrands. It’s on Third. Or, to be more accurate, it’s in Third: Third Person Point-of-View (3PPOV).

Writing in 3PPOV confers advantages over writing in First Person Point-of-View (1PPOV). For one thing, 3PPOV offers the option of getting inside the head of more than one character, by means of the characters’ ruminations, and the insights of a partially or wholly omniscient, anonymous narrator.

In 1PPOV, the writer (and the reader) can be privy to only one person’s thoughts, and cannot know what’s happening inside another character’s head, unless and until it comes out of the other character’s mouth, or the character does something. This limitation requires quite skillful writing in order to prevent forward momentum from stalling, or making readers merely experience the main frustration of daily life: when the antics of our associates make us wonder what on Earth is going on inside their heads!

A writer who is having trouble managing 1PPOV can be identified by the tendency for POV to “wander.” A wandering POV suddenly shifts within the same scene, without warning or reason, from the POV character to that of another character (or to the “voice” of an anonymous narrator who wasn’t there before). It usually happens in an effort to explain the behavior of the second character, when the main character wouldn’t have a clue as to what that explanation would be. This not only distracts the reader, thereby interrupting suspension of disbelief, but also it undermines the plausibility of the story and the credibility of the storyteller.

The better-written multiple 1PPOV stories make a clear division between shifts in point-of-view, such as by means of a scene break, or better still, a complete change in chapter (Treasure Island is a good example). This is also how well-written multiple 3PPOV stories are composed. Of course, a wandering POV can also afflict a 3PPOV narrative, usually because the writer couldn’t decide whose POV was the best one to portray a particular scene.

Why do so many inexperienced writers attempt to write in 1PPOV?

It’s seductively simple: after all, don’t individuals live as “I” and “me,” every day? So wouldn’t a story written in 1PPOV help a reader identify more closely with the main character? And if it seems important to express another character’s POV, then why not have that character take over talking in 1PPOV? Besides, isn’t the story already inside the writer’s own head? So, what could be easier than to just write it the way the author mentally experiences it?

In reality, vicarious identification with a character has more to do with other aspects of characterization that enable the reader to easily suspend disbelief (such as the interface between the character’s beliefs and behavior), than it does with whether a story is narrated as “I” and “me” instead of in terms of “he” and “she.” If this were not so, then writers and readers (and by extension, viewers) would not be able to identify with book (and movie) characters who are not of the same sex as themselves (nor with non-human characters) – but this is not the case.

This is amply borne out by the behavior of an audience watching a motion picture: Munching popcorn in an auditorium, it’s obvious that they’re just observers of the drama, not participants; nevertheless, they still gasp and groan, laugh and weep, cry out warnings, hiss, boo and applaud.

Moreover, switching between multiple 1PPOVs can be confusing to readers, because of the limitations of normal human psychology: There can really only ever be one “I” or “me.” All others are “he,” “she,” “it” and “you” and their plurals, which includes the fine line of psychological “otherness” within “we” (meaning “me” and somebody who is “not me,” whose feelings, motives and behavior are similar to mine, but are not identical with mine). This makes the use of multiple 1PPOV a complicated literary device.

That’s why it’s easier for readers to switch between multiple 3PPOVs: the reader naturally assumes the role of the unidentified narrator, enjoying the narrator’s inside information; and then safely engaging with shifts in 3PPOV, thereby fulfilling the fantasy of finding out what’s going on inside another person’s head. (Psychology also limits the number of 3PPOVs in a story to seven or fewer – one of which is that of the anonymous narrator – because seven is the maximum number of things that human brains can effectively remember and pay attention to simultaneously.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my favorite books are in 1PPOV, and they’re very well written. But from what I’ve seen produced by aspiring authors, my old favorites probably benefited from a large amount of editorial assistance. It’s difficult enough for a debut author to effectively write in a singular 1PPOV (Harper Lee took 10 years to write To Kill a Mockingbird), so it doesn’t seem realistic for most inexperienced writers to attempt the kind of mental manipulation that goes with multiple 1PPOVs.

Using 1PPOV also causes difficulty with providing personal physical descriptions, to provide character background, or to otherwise supplement characterization. In particular, having the “voice” character in a 1PPOV narrative describe his or her own appearance comes across as awkward, unnatural, and narcissistic. Such descriptions should only be done by another character or an unidentified narrator, and fit the context of a scene. (There are “how to” writers out there who insist that physical descriptions of persons are completely unnecessary, but they apparently failed to solicit the opinions of the many readers who enjoy writing that paints pictures inside their heads, or who like to read illustrated fiction.)

Finally, writing in 1PPOV can feel psychologically threatening to the author, especially if the character who tells the story witnesses or participates in violence against others, or engages in other unseemly behavior.

So, are you writing in the First Person, but you’re having trouble with maintaining the “voice” character’s thought processes; or managing descriptive passages; or feeling discomfort with writing self-reported behavior or experiences?

Switching from First to Third may get you Home.


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