1st Versus 3rd Person

There is a sad misconception that 3rd person distances the reader from the character, whereas 1st person puts you inside the character’s head. That’s not true. What is being described as “distance” is, in fact, sloppy writing.

The decision to use 1st or 3rd person comes down to a narrative choice. Granted, reading a book in the 1st person provides a continuous dialog with the Main Character (MC), whether that translates to intimacy depends on the writer. We see what the MC sees, feels what s/he feels. Conversely, we are limited to what they pay attention to. We get no opposing viewpoints, no complementary points of view.

Now, the author can switch MCs in chapters, writing in multiple first persons. This is difficult to do well. However, if executed if a non-confusing way, can overcome some of the limitations of a single-view dialog.

So what is the advantage over 3rd person? None, if we write in intimate 3rd person. Stephen King has used this device in many of his books, to great effect. Even in writing a 3rd-person point of view, we can “hear” the writer’s asides, can read his thoughts. Third person does not dictate distance. Rather, it dictates only where the main pronouns used are “he or she” versus “I.”

You can add to this dynamic what I call “mixed person.” In rare instances a 1st person narrative can tell a story in 3rd person, say, if the MC is explaining something that happened to another person. I find it hard to do, but I’ve seen it done well. What is much easier, through the device I mentioned earlier, to inject 1st-person viewpoints into a 3rd-person narrative. An example is below, from my book, “Discovery.”

From the front of the bus, Charlie could hear the female bus driver honking the horn, and ranting, “Move! Stupid freaking sheep!”

I’ve heard that lady’s voice before.

Charlie tried to recall her name, but it danced just out of reach. Whatever the name, her voice made him shudder.

Standing, he strained to see what halted the bus, but it was too dark, and the fog surrounding the bus obscured his view. Charlie sat, slid along the seat, and craned his neck through the open window. The air was crisp, cool, and smelled of wet wool. There were no sheep, but rather an immense flock of small children slowly crossing the wide highway. They were moaning, their cries echoing in the morning stillness like the bleating of a hundred sheep. The flock was herded by shepherds in hooded cloaks.

The italicized sentence is part of a running dialog in the MC’s head. In fact, given this character’s significant internal conflict, he even gives voice (and name) to the opposing viewpoints in his own head. It is as intimate as one can get. I also switch viewpoints in key chapters, sometimes painting an incident from another perspective. In so doing, we get both the 3rd person description without the awkwardness of the MC’s looking at everything, and vocalizing what he sees. In addition, we know what he knows, hear what he thinks, feel what he is feeling.

Keep in mind, writers, that point-of-view does not equal intimacy. If you want an intimate dialog between your reader and MC, then you must create that. If you write in 1st person, write as though the MC is speaking with their best friend or non-judging counsel. Let the narrative flow from the understanding you would have your reader take from your character.

If you write in 3rd person, remember you can allow as much (or as little) intimacy as you wish. In key chapters, where you wish to allow for a little mystery, simply inject more space between your MC and his or her thoughts. Where you wish a deep understanding, write about their expressions, the tell-tale mannerisms that betray their thoughts. Or, simply, share those thoughts with the reader.

As a writer and a reader, I find deep 3rd person far more flexible, and much more interesting than 1st person. However, as with most things, it’s a personal choice.