These posts are both from Jerry Jenkins’s blog, and they are of course complementary:
5 Tips to Mastering First-Person Point of View
Writing in Third-Person Point of View
And, while we’re at it, why not add this:
Interview with Sherwood Smith on Omniscient Point of View
Because Sherwood Smith is one of the few authors I can think of who writes in Omniscient. So does Judith Merkel Riley. I can’t immediately think of anybody else, though obviously there are others. I’m sure. Um. Who else? If you can think of other authors who do omniscient well, who are they?
Anyway, what does Jenkins say about first? He says this:
Why Use the First-Person Point of View? I recommend this approach because it forces you to limit yourself to the mind, the emotions, and the senses of a single character. Limiting yourself to a single point of view character is a cardinal rule of writing.
My response: It is not.
It totally is not! Where did that even come from? Limiting yourself to a single pov character is a cardinal rule of writing, seriously? That is so blazingly, obviously not true that … I’m trying for a reasonable simile here … it’s like saying that limiting yourself to using only periods and commas is a cardinal rule of grammar. It isn’t even a little bit true! It’s totally wrong!
Here are some things that are true:
Limiting yourself to a single pov character may make your job as a writer easier in some ways, although it will make your task harder in other ways. You only need to capture one character’s unique point of view, but you will not be able to show anything happening if your one pov character is not present.
That’s how I would sum up the choice to have just one pov character. To me, the above statement encapsulates the biggest advantage and the biggest disadvantage when you limit yourself that way. This is one reason (not the only reason) that my first … let me see … eight? Eight or so novels all featured more than one pov protagonist. Because that’s dramatically easier in some ways! Especially because you can show different things happening at different places! This is obvious! How is this not obvious?
Limiting yourself to one pov character is not the thing that matters most about first person points of view! Not even close! The things that matter most about first person are:
- You have to capture the protagonist’s unique voice.
- You have to overcome the distancing that occurs when telling a story in first person.
- Verb tenses are harder to handle in first person past tense.
You always have to capture the unique voice(s) of the protagonist(s), but that’s more important in first person than any other form.
I realize that (2) is not what people think. I know that first person is supposed to draw the reader closer to the protagonist. I don’t think that is actually true. I think first person, done well, captures the character’s voice and therefore makes it super clear that this person is not the reader. This is fine! But first person is also inherently less reliable because absolutely everything is filtered through the expectations, feelings, and assumptions of the protagonist. First person is is great for making the character seem like a real person, but I don’t think first person makes the reader feel any closer to the protagonist than close third. If the reader doesn’t like the protagonist, that dislike is probably going to become much stronger if the narrative is first person rather than third. Anyway, that’s what I think can happen.
I’ve said many times that verb tenses are more challenging in first person. That’s because statements about the world usually need to be in present tense, while the story itself usually needs to be in past tense. And what does Jenkins say? Don’t switch verb tenses. I think this is the wrong advice, given in the wrong way, addressing the wrong problem. From what he says about this, he means: Don’t screw up the grammar of your sentences. That is far, far too basic to need to be said. Yes, sure, definitely don’t screw up the grammar of your sentences except on purpose to achieve a specific effect. Don’t make grammatical mistakes accidentally. There’s nothing special about first person in that regard.
Well, I’m peeved at that post. Let me look at the one that focuses on third person. Let’s see.
Third person limited vs third person omniscient. Jenkins does not recommend the latter. I think there are actually three — at least three — forms of third person:
a) Close third, also called third person limited, but I mean more than limited. I mean close, as in intimate. I mean the style where the author is using third person pronouns, but is rather seldom saying “he thought” or “he mused” or “he considered.” The point of view is so clearly within the character’s head that tags like that become largely extraneous. I mean, here’s a bit from NO FOREIGN SKY, from Taya’s point of view:
She had already learned a lot of easy words: head and eye, mouth and teeth, eat and drink, bread and sandwich and lemonade—that was a kind of sweet-tart fruit juice that Taya liked far better than the hot, bitter drink Lieutenant Lockwood had brought her. But she was feeling more awake and the headache that had been pressing behind her eyes had eased. Maybe the drink was medicinal. That would explain why people drank it.
Lieutenant Lockwood had also taught her the connecting words, which were sometimes difficult. Into, out of, beside, before, behind. Do and doing, act and action. Lieutenant Lockwood was impatient and unfriendly, but he knew what was important.
What will you do? I will walk across this room. I will throw this bread. I will catch this bread. What are you doing? I am walking, I am throwing, I am catching. What have you done? I have walked, I have thrown, I have caught. Do was for questions about actions in the future, except that sometimes it was for questions about the past. Doing was for questions about actions now. Done was always for questions about actions in the past. Verbs were like that; they changed for future and present and past, except they didn’t change all the time or all in the same way. Taya had developed a real dislike for English verbs.
This is pretty close third person.
b) Then there’s distant third, still limited, in which the author does use frequent tags such as “he thought.” The reader is farther from the protagonist. Here are the exact same paragraphs, revised into more distant third person:
She had already learned a lot of easy words: head and eye, mouth and teeth, eat and drink, bread and sandwich and lemonade—that was a kind of sweet-tart fruit juice that Taya liked far better than the hot, bitter drink Lieutenant Lockwood had brought her. But she was feeling more awake and the headache that had been pressing behind her eyes had eased. Taya thought maybe the drink was medicinal. That would explain why people drank it.
Lieutenant Lockwood had also taught her the connecting words, which Taya sometimes found difficult. Into, out of, beside, before, behind. Do and doing, act and action. She didn’t like how Lieutenant Lockwood was impatient and unfriendly, but she had decided that he knew what was important.
Taya recited English phrases to herself. What will you do? I will walk across this room. I will throw this bread. I will catch this bread. What are you doing? I am walking, I am throwing, I am catching. What have you done? I have walked, I have thrown, I have caught. She knew now that do was for questions about actions in the future, except that sometimes it was for questions about the past. Doing was for questions about actions now. Done was always for questions about actions in the past. Verbs were like that; they changed for future and present and past, except they didn’t change all the time or all in the same way. Taya had developed a real dislike for English verbs.
This is not exactly the same. The more frequent “Taya thought, she knew, Taya decided” tags push the reader a little farther from the character. This can be all right — it can be fine — it depends! When writing in third, I think most authors shift the level of intimacy up and down depending on the scene. But not always. CJ Cherryh almost always keeps the reader very close to her third person protagonists. She’s a great author to look at for examples of well-done intimate third. I’m pretty sure I started writing in closer third once someone — don’t remember who, sorry — pointed this out to me using Cherryh as the example. After that I started paying real attention to how close third person can get.
What does Jenkins say? Again, he says you shouldn’t make verb tense mistakes, which again does not really need to be said, and adds that when writing in third person, the author is probably going to have to indicate the emotions and states of mind of other characters with phrases such as, “he seemed” and “she might,” and “as though he” and so on, as only the protagonist’s emotions are going to be directly known to the reader.
Which is fine. But the reader might not have access to even the protagonist’s emotions or state of mind, because there’s also:
c) third person objective, where a neutral narrator is relating the story, but probably without access to any character’s thoughts or emotions. That’s also called camera third person, or the camera eye, where the observer — the reader — is perched on the protagonist’s shoulder, but without access to the protagonist’s feelings.
THEN, after that, there’s
d) true omniscient, where the narrator knows everything and explains not only the actions of the characters, but all their thoughts and emotions, and possibly the narrator includes commentary about all the characters as well. Now THAT is tough, or at least it would be tough for me. I’m slowly re-reading Sherwood Smith’s Inda quadrilogy, which is written in omniscient. In the linked post, Sherwood says:
With Inda—with any big, braided story—I find limited third so, um, limiting. It’s so difficult to get all the POVs in you want and not jerk the reader back and forth in time, or break the narrative into little scenes in order to properly isolate those POV changes. If you’ve got a narrator, and know why that narrator is telling the story, I think one can better see the entire structure of the novel, and determine how many POVs to use, where, and when.
It seems to me, in many of her books, Sherwood does break the narrative into little scenes. Less so in the Inda series than some others, though.
I just find it unbelievably weird to think about being in the head of multiple characters in the same scene. Writing in omniscient would be an interesting exercise for me, but it’s not something I have any inclination to try seriously.
I do recommend Judith Merkle Riley for another example of omniscient that’s really well done, though.
Obviously you should write the novel in whatever narrative style works for you and for the story. Personally, I like intimate third person and have shifted from a more distant third to a closer third over time.
I used to be unable to handle first, and now that I think about that, the biggest problem was not the voice, it was that a first-person story implies that the protagonist is telling the story to someone else after the fact. I didn’t mention this as a potential problem, but maybe I should have. First person indicates that the protagonist survived the action to tell the story, and also implies that the protagonist is speaking to someone. To whom is the protagonist speaking? And under what circumstances? I used to get distracted by those questions and then I would lose the ability to tell the story, which is why I have several unfinished stories in first person lingering on my computer from a zillion years ago.
When I started TUYO, I thought I knew the answers to those questions for Ryo. I thought he was probably telling the story to Darra. Over time, I think I have changed my mind about that, but it doesn’t matter. Having those questions semi-sorted-out in my head was enough to let me relax and write the story. When I wrote TANO, I didn’t even think about that, so I guess first person just feels more natural to me now. As perhaps one would expect, as I’ve written something on the close order of 800,000 words in first person in the TUYO world now. It’s be a bit weird if that hadn’t made a difference.
In general, I still think third is easiest and I still like intimate third best MOST of the time, for MOST stories.
My personal least favorite ever is first person present tense, which as a rule pushes me hard away from the story, and I’m glad that the trend toward that style started by The Hunger Games seems to have gradually ended, even in YA, where it was certainly popular for a while.
I agree with Jenkins and most others that omniscient is difficult for MOST authors and should not be your first choice unless you are one of the exceptions and intrinsically find omniscient easy. Should that be so, I would personally suggest you relax and let yourself write in omniscient. Done well, it’s fine, like any other narrative choice. Just as The Hunger Games brought first person present tense into vogue, a really well done series in omniscient could perfectly well do the same.
8 thoughts on “First vs Third”
One book I find that does omniscient very well is Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”, basically because if you’re going to have a tale set in WWII narrated by Death, well… he’s just about everywhere and therefore sees just about everything. But that’s naive-omniscient (not sure if this is even a thing). Death knows everything that happens, but never really completely understands what he knows… yet sometimes has moments of devastating, devastating insight. That book shattered my heart; I have never cried that much over a book before or since. It’s that uber-rare well-executed COMBINATION of two of my favourite genres: WWII and lyrical fantasy – by which I mean “fantasy tale that plays with language and/or expectations to create effect” – which is vanishingly-rare *by itself*. (Even though what happens in Book Thief isn’t fantasy at all. I only place it in fantasy because of the narrative voice and the imagery used.)
It’s a great pity that, for me, Zusak is a one-hit wonder. I can’t stand anything else he’s written. That offbeat, sidelong, naive-omniscient narrative voice is wonderful for a non-human viewpoint character viewing events from the sidelines. For a human narrator involved in the events as they unfold… much less so. I would have loved to have had a new author, but I’m now in the rather odd position of one of my Top Five books having been written by an author who’s nowhere close to making it into my Top Thirty.
C.S. Lewis wrote Narnia in omniscient. I forget whether all his other novels are in that voice, but it is a style he excelled at. I like the little asides the narrator gives directly to the reader, relating the events in the story to things in ‘regular’ life we may be familiar with. They always surprise and please me, since it’s a very unusual thing to come across in a story.
Robin McKinley also switches in and out of omniscient, I think. Spindles End and The Blue Sword both have fairly long introduction sections that are by a narrator, and she seems to have no problem switching out of limited third to omniscient within the story, to give background info the POV character wouldn’t know or faraway action. I never really thought about it until I read this post. It’s not jarring at all, it’s very well done.
I used to think that I couldn’t stand to read any book written in first person, just because I had read books from so many authors whose first-person characters all sounded the same. Later on I realized that when first person was done well I didn’t even remember that the books were written in first person!
Also you should switch verb tenses if your first-person narrator would.
If your first-person narrator comes across as speaking or writing poorly, perhaps he’s not suited for a first-person narration.
Dorothy Dunnett wrote her historicals in omniscent and didn’t have a narrator as such, as I recall.
Tolkien. More modern examples escape me. I think Steven Brust has done it, but I don’t like his work much, so don’t recall which it might have been.
I don’t think omniscent requires an identified narrator to read, although the writer may need one to keep the narrative voice on key.
Marisa de Los Santos wrote a really nice book, Love Walked In, where the POV alternates but one POV is first person and the other is third person. You have to get through the first chapter, which is a little pretentious, but the book turns out to be terrific, and it’s interesting that she incorporates both techniques successfully, imo.
Let me see if I can hit everything at once —
Alison, that sounds interesting. Hmm. Wow, looks like the ebook is much more expensive than the hardcover. Publishers certainly do make odd decisions sometimes. Fine, I’m picking up a used copy of a hardcover and then we’ll see.
Elaine, Dunnett was even more interesting than that, because she gives us insight to pretty much everyone’s thoughts and emotions except Lymond’s, and he is the protagonist. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned her.
Mary Catelli, yes, exactly! Either handle first person well or, you know, third is sitting right there and unless you have a knack for first, third is probably going to be easier.
Kathryn, right, except for me it’s first person present tense. For me, that’s VERY obtrusive and uncomfortable, but if the author is good enough, I quickly get used to that style and stop feeling uncomfortable. If the author is less skilled, then that style leads to a quick DNF.
Melanie, I certainly never noticed that in The Blue Sword, which has very smooth, invisible prose. I’m going to get that one off the shelf and re-read it!
Heather … I have to admit … I did not get into The Book Thief. I agree naive-omniscient is a thing, or at least I can imagine that narrator style and I can see how that would work well. You know what, that kind of personified Death also appears in the movie Meet Joe Black, in which I really liked this conception of Death. It’s sort of entertaining to see that multiple authors have come up with a strangely charming naive-omniscient Death.
Agree re: Dunnett and Lymond- she comes from Jerott’s pov, or Phillips’s- but never Lymond, or Sybilla, or Richard. Interesting who she picks as the pov character.
Agree re The Book Thief. I’ve tried, but never been able to finish.
Also, agree with The Blue Sword. Definitely smooth prose! I reread it recently. The beginning is quite wonderful (as is the whole book)