Writing Tips Continued: Person or persons defined

After a too-long break, I’m finally continuing on with my writing tips series of articles. Specifically, it’s time to continue with the point of view discussion.

First of all, if you don’t know this series (and you might not, as I started it months ago and took a long break) you can start here, here, here, and finally, my first two parts on point of view here and here.

We’re almost ready to look much deeper at the process and pitfalls of keeping a consistent point of view, whether you’re composing a “deep third” or “first person” narrative, there’s a lot to track.

But first, let’s take a step back and define out terms–I probably shouldn’t presume that everyone knows what I mean by “deep third person” as opposed to any other person or point of view. So before we dig deep, we’re going to get rudimentary and review some terms many of you may not have considered since elementary grammar (but it won’t be painful, I promise). If you are a reader, you probably have experienced as many as three of these four “person” narratives even if you never knew them by name.

First Person: A story told from the first person point of view has much in common with the deep third person point of view discussed further down in this article. I sometimes think of it as the “diary voice” or the blog voice (this blog is written in first person). It’s distinguished by the word “I” throughout the narrative, such as: “As I walked along the sidewalk, something grabbed at my ankles.” The story unfolds as if the character is either sitting with you and telling you the tale or as if you are reading a written account or journal of the event.

First person narratives have a long, respected history in classic and contemporary literature, going back hundreds of years , but if polls are to be believed, the style has fallen out of favor with some contemporary readers. Some (perhaps questionable) statistics say 80% or more of modern readers prefer deep third over first person and some readers feel so strongly that they will put down a novel as soon as they discover it’s written in first person, and some magazines and book publishers won’t consider first person narratives (though not significant enough to make that a deciding factor in how a writer approaches a story). (I find it interesting that the latest Nancy Drew books, historically third person narratives, have changed to a first person approach with the latest incarnation.)

But the first person voice is still relevant in contemporary literature. That the first person narrative happens to come in second in popularity in a two-style race (or some weird mixed metaphor there) the style is alive, well, and thriving. A big reason for this is that it offers an intimacy (particularly in thrillers and horror stories) that other points of view do not. My first novel Haunting Blue is told from the first person perspective of my punk girl high school protagonist Blue Shaefer.

Although I’m a fan of the form, the first person tale offers some significant restrictions, the biggest being that the style pretty much locks an author into a single character’s perspective throughout an entire story. (There are some creative cheats, and I use one in Haunting Blue, but never mind…) No novel, properly told in the first person, could ever read, “And then I dropped down into a hole and the world went black. While I lay  unconscious, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics dropped down a rope…” Nor can it include a scene such as “Meanwhile, unknown to me, the villain and his henchmen were making plans….”

OPINION: A first person narrative makes a great first project for a new writer, because problems and errors in the manuscript are relatively easy to spot in the editing process.

Note–since posting this, it seems the above paragraphs are being seen as discouraging or dismissing first person narrative. I am not. Please see my comment after this article for further clarification of my view.

Second person: You may read your entire life and never experience a book or short story told in the second person point of view. (see what I did there?) Second person is usually confined to the realm of experimental literature, though I can think of one wildly popular and commercial series that uses the second person, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” juvenile novels and various copycats.

While second person is intended to immerse a reader into a story, it more often has the opposite effect, as the narrator inserts “you” into the action. A typical second person narrative reads: “You walk into the restaurant and sit down. You look at a menu. From the corner of your eye, you notice the school bully watching you from across the room. ” You get the idea. (See what I did again?) Given the goals of this series, we won’t be looking at second person narrative; it’s included here for the sake of completeness.

Omniscient third person narrative: The omniscient voice, or the “all-knowing” perspective, originated in the telling of myths, fairy tales, and other stories passed down from oral tradition, and can be found in ancient literature and even fairly modern genre pieces of the 1800s and early 20th century. In contemporary fiction, the omniscient narrative is used quite effectively in the introductory chapters of epic fantasy and as a valid “opening” to some thriller genres. A certain anthology style genre show of classic television utilized opening a story with an omniscient narrative in every episode.

An omniscient narrative voice can still be an effective story opener (my short story The Assurance Salesman has a brief omniscient opening, as does Robot Vampire) but  the wise storyteller settles into deep third person as soon as possible. A couple good examples should help clarify the omniscient voice. Let me channel my inner JRR Tolkien and Rod Serling, two legendary storytellers that utilized the omniscient narrative to great effect:

Bagnars are extraordinarily tall creatures, and quite bulky, but that’s not what makes them so odd. In spite of their appearance, Bagnars are terrified of the dark. And while they may look ferocious, they are rather gentle in disposition.

Or this.

Portrait of a writer. Paul Hallowby, age 30; a weaver of words; a knitter of narrative. Tonight he taps out his latest composition in a futile race to fill the virtual screen with the dark ramblings of his demented dreams. In a moment, someone will knock on Hallowby’s door. Who is that someone?  In this case, call that someone “Fate.” What happens next will change one writer’s wretched world forever.

Wow, wonder who that is! I’m guessing it’s a Bagnar. Okay, moving on.

That brings us to the deep third person point-of-view (often just called third person or deep third). Third person is the most popular, most accessible, in-demand narrative approach among contemporary readers. Deep third also offers a plethora of structural pitfalls for a writer to fall into. It has a lot in common with the first person narrative.

Technically, on a scene-by-scene basis, a first person short story or novel can be rewritten into a deep third narrative by simply changing the “I’s” and adjusting as you go. “I opened my wallet, only to find that someone had taken my cash.” becomes “Joe opened his wallet, only to find that someone had taken his cash.” And so on. If you need another example, go back to my point of view article here to read an entire scene in deep third from Chip’s point of view.

But while such a conversion creates a valid deep third story, the form offers more flexibility than that. One huge advantage that deep third offers over the first person is that your point of view character can change from scene to scene without confusing the reader. It’s a fairly standard practice to present a scene from the protagonist’s point of view, then start the next scene in another location and from the point of view of the villain (with an understood or implicit “meanwhile”).

In the next article, among other things, we’ll look at popular guidelines on how often a storyteller should change points of view in novels and short stories, and the reasons why.

Deep third person offers the emmersive experience of first person without the limitation of being trapped in a single character’s head. But as I said before, that versatility comes with a number of hidden traps and easy-to-make errors–errors that even experienced writers wind up making on occasion.

In the next couple of articles in this series, I’ll take a look at a few.

Note–an earlier version of this article stated that 80% or more readers would put down a book if it is written in first person. I wrote that in error. The statement has been corrected.