First-person, Third-person

In the days of yore, before this cavernous century yawned open, writers employed one of two choices of narrative attack: first-person or third-person. The attempts to mingle the two made clear distinctions, such as those containing letters. The advantage of the first-person voice lies in its direct approach to the reader. The obstacle is that everything that happens must be experienced by one person. 

If you are writing an action-oriented book, characterization is not as vital. The point of view narrating suspenseful events does not change that much from first-person to third-person. So it was only a matter of time before an author decided to dispense with the formalities. One character would own the first-person voice and the others would be third-person.

Yet you should be aware that such an approach puts every character other than the one owning the first-person voice at a distinct disadvantage. A reader naturally wants to be with the character whose storytelling is most vibrant. All the others are relegated to the second rank automatically. For that reason I am wary of the first-person, third-person strategy, but I’m not a purist.

You can use easy fixes. Say Emily is the first-person narrator, and you want to tell a long story from another point of view, call her Joan. You could, at the end of the chapters prior to the first Joan chapters, explicitly tell the reader that Joan started telling Emily her story. Once you establish a narrative rhythm of any sort, a reader will go along. So after the first few times, she could simply jump from first-person to third-person chapters without a handing-off device.

Not every novel can be handled as deftly. I edit books in which the first-person narrator has no way of knowing what the third-person is doing. If you decide to use this approach, you need to be cognizant of the discomfort caused every time the story switches between voices. Your best course is to use longer scenes. That way each voice has enough time to gain its own command over the reader. After all, readers enjoy both types of writing. But don’t force us to stand with one foot on unequal planes, bobbing back and forth. You’re just calling attention to the strategy’s deficiencies. 

Exercise: I wince when I see the first-person point of view violated for only a few paragraphs. I feel like I was riding happily in a narrative flow until the author rudely yanked me out of the stream for some third-person yammering—and then dumped me back in. Is the disruption in the rhythm you have created really worth the scant material in those paragraphs? This is one lazy-writer shortcut to be avoided at all costs.

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