Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 7: I or He or is it Me?

Welcome! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month seven:

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“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 7: I or He or is it Me?

Decisions, decisions…

When you are writing a novel,  decisions are part of the process. One of the most important decisions you as a novelist have to make is how to present your main character(s) to your readers. That presentation is commonly known as point-of-view. You will see point-of-view abbreviated in many writers’ blogs and how-to books as pov.

With pov you have two basic choices – first person point-of-view and third person point-of-view.

I went for a walk, and I met my enemy. First person pov

He went for a walk, and he met his enemy. Third person pov

Now you can get a little fancy or funky and use second person, but second person (You go for a walk and you meet your enemy.) is generally used within the context of a first person point-of-view presentation or, on occasion, to convey the thoughts of a character being presented in the third-person-point-of-view. So we’ll delegate a discussion of second person point-of-view to  another time and another place.

To make your pov decision, you need to know what each pov offers to your novel, because they both have strengths and weaknesses. Let’s talk about some of those.

First Person Point-of-View Strengths:

  • First person generally pulls the reader into the protagonist’s mind more quickly, so the reader identifies more easily with the main character.
  • First person is often best for readers who prefer their novels to follow only one main character.
  • First person is usually (not always) the POV of choice for literary novels because stream-of-consciousness and an unusual “voice” (My next “Writing the Third Dimension” will be about voice.) are often very important to literary novels, and for most novelists stream-of-consciousness and an unusual voice are more easily achieved through first person pov presentations.
  • First person is often used for mysteries in which the novelist wants both the reader and the protagonist to be struggling to figure out who-dun-it.
  • Novelists who write in the young adult genre often use first person pov because a certain percentage of their readers are not reading by choice. They are reading by assignment, and thus they are more antagonistic to characters and plot. A first person presentation, with its limited pov and strong emotional pull, captures them more easily.

Third Person Point-of-View Strengths:

  • In multi-character novels with a wide historical or geographic scope, third person pov makes for an easier presentation of extensive ideas and a wide variety of cultures and characters.
  • With third person pov, the reader feels more distance between himself/herself and the characters, which means the writer can more readily present some of the action through the eyes and mind of a villain without grossing out a sensitive reader. This is a who-is-your-audience situation and will depend on your novel’s genre. In the horror genre, writers don’t hesitate to convey a villain’s thoughts from a first person pov. In an inspirational genre, that might not work so well.
  • In some suspense and mystery novels, the writer wants the reader to know what is going on while the protagonist remains clueless. In third person pov, secondary characters can provide information through conversations or thoughts that are presented to the reader but not to  the protagonist.

First Person Point-of-View Weaknesses:

  • Some readers refuse to read books written in first person pov. This is a personal preference, but I’ve yet to find a reader who refuses to read a book written in third person pov.
  • The writer can’t suddenly hop into another character’s mind in first person pov. If the character telling the story doesn’t know some fact, that character can’t suddenly present that fact to the reader. Now I know there are successful exceptions to this rule, but 98% of the time, in first person pov, if the main character doesn’t know something then it can’t be presented to the reader.
  • In first person pov, it’s very easy to fall into “telling” the story rather than “showing” what’s going on. If this concept is confusing to you, please refer to my last “Writing the Third Dimension” post (June 2013)  entitled “20/20.”

Third Person Point-of-View Weaknesses:

  • In third person pov, it sometimes takes a reader longer to feel an emotional bond with the main characters.
  • Novels written in third person are often more complex in plot, which for some readers is a disadvantage.

When I’m deciding which point-of-view to use in a short story or a novel, I sometimes write the first chapter both ways. Then I can tell which one flows better, and I make my decision according to that.

Point-of-view is a complex topic, so, if I’ve managed to do nothing more than confuse you, please feel free to ask questions. Otherwise, as a reader, do you have a preference – first person point-of-view or third person point-of-view?

Sue

*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back August 22, 2013, for part 8.

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5 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 7: I or He or is it Me?

  1. Question – what are some of the “successful exceptions” about jumping into a villian’s mind in 1st POV (I’ve read 1 book (The Trouble With Chickens) with that type of thing.) I’m just curious. 🙂

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  2. You made this all very clear. I read books in first or third person POV and enjoy both. What I don’t like is when an author switches back and forth in the same book. That can drive me crazy.

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    • Quite a few people don’t enjoy that POV change back and forth in a novel, Darlene. Writers generally use that to portray a slightly off-kilter situation, kind of like those circular camera pans that are so popular in movies nowadays. They make you dizzy to let you know that it’s an upsetting situation.

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