Points of View Part One: First and Third Person, Intimacy vs Clarity?
Point of View or Narrative Perspective is a central stylistic choice that is superficially simple but contains hidden difficulties and subtleties. In the two parts of this article I will explore the three main types of narrative mode (first (I said), second (you said) and third (he said) person perspective), how to use perspective to manage the balance between intimacy and clarity, and how small shifts in point of view can be used to position the reader. This won’t be a comprehensive overview, but I will be exploring some of the things I find interesting about the choice of narrative perspective.
First person perspective or Point of View (PoV) is written as if told by one or more of the central characters, either using “I” (first-person singular) or “we” (first person plural); “I said, I picked up the knife, we walked out of the door.” Third person PoV is written from outside of the character; “he said, she picked up the knife, they walked out the door.” But what difference does it make choosing one approach over the other?
An effective example of First Person PoV comes from one of my favourite novels:
“A sudden chill came over me. There was a loud shriek from a woman behind. I half turned, keeping my eyes fixed upon the cylinder still, from which other tentacles were no projecting, and began pushing my way back from the edge of the pit.”
HG Wells, The War of the Worlds, Chapter 4 – The Cylinder Opens
First person perspective gives us instant access to the world of the story. It brings with it immediacy and intimacy, something that is highly sought after in contemporary literature (and is a factor in HG Well’s ongoing popularity). Because we see the world through the eyes of the character, it is easy to build empathy with them and feel like the story is actually happening. That can be especially helpful if you are dealing with a world or plot that is inherently unbelievable, like invasion by Martians, but is always a quick way to get the reader involved.
The impact of first person perspective can be shown in the difference between the films and the books of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. In the films, the character of Katniss Everdeen can come across as somewhat myopic about the whole revolution thing. Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant and manages to pull it off, but Katniss’s obsession with her love triangle feels odd and out of place when the rest of the world is literally coming apart (Peta! Peeeetaaaaa! Good grief.)
The books, however, avoid this problem because they are in a relentless first person present tense. We know right from the start that we are living this story through the eyes and actions of a young girl. She has had to grow up very fast while experiencing a bunch of mind-blowingly horrible stuff, but she is still a young person with a young person’s perspectives. Her obsessions and opinions are easier to accept because we experience them along with her. Collins’ choice to keep the reader in first person perspective allows a level of closeness to a character that conventional moviemaking simply cannot achieve.
It may seem to go without saying that the character you follow has to be developed and interesting enough that the reader wants to spend time with them. But this is a double-edged sword. Because the reader sees the story through the eyes of the character, they experience much of the story as if they are the character[i]. If your character starts doing things that the reader doesn’t think they should, or even doesn’t think that they (the reader) would do in the same situation, it breaks down the level of immersion because it undermines the connection through which the reader is experiencing the story. Thus, in terms of pure intimacy, the very best immersion is created via everyman heroes; people that everyone can identify with but who exert little in terms of personal idiosyncrasies upon the world around them. HG Well’s journalist in The War of the Worlds is a perfect example – the poor chap isn’t even given a name.
This is not to say that using an everyman as an avatar is the only or even the best way to tell a story in first person perspective. The close connection the reader feels to the storyteller is a wonderful opportunity to mess with their heads or to take them to places that they will never go (or would never want to go). Iain Banks protagonist in The Wasp Factory has many surprises in store for the reader. They regularly snap the reader out of the text, but because it is so well written that gives us the chance to experience a life like no other. If you’re brave enough for a real journey to the dark side of first person perspective, try out Boris Vian’s “I Spit on your Graves” (J’irai cracher sur vos tombes.)[ii]
But it takes a great deal of focus to make this sort of writing work. You can only show what the character sees and explain what the character understands. The more complex, limited or skewed the characters worldview, the more difficult it is both for you to write from their perspective and for the reader to follow. For better or for worse you are trapped in that character, unable to easily skip from one viewpoint to another, your plot stuck following your protagonist and the voice of the story constrained by the voice of one person.
This may be one of the reasons why Third Person Point of View (PoV) is used more often than First Person PoV. In Third Person PoV you are outside the character: “He said, he picked up the knife, he walked out of the door.” The reader is kept at a distance from the character, reminded that the character is someone distinct from themselves. This makes it easier to show who characters are in relation to each other, and to switch perspective from one character to another. For example, while the First Person PoV makes The Hunger Games feel intimate, Third Person PoV is a better choice in the Song of Ice and Fire books by GRR Martin because it emphasises the epic scope and constantly has us questioning who is hero and who is villain.[iii]
This make it seem like there is a simple contrast between narrative intimacy in the first person, and narrative clarity in the third. But third person PoV does not entirely separate the reader from the character. The reader looks over the characters shoulder, but the reader sees how the character sees, feels and experience the world. For example:
“Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.”
Dickens C, A Christmas Carol
We see Scrooge from the outside, but we are told of his timidity, we are told that he does not want to meet the eyes of the spirit. This is not the article to talk about the subtleties of showing vs telling. But what is clear is that within third person perspective the author has a great deal of choice regarding the balance between distance and intimacy. We see both the outside and the inside of Scrooge.
Thus, even when writing in Third Person PoV, the writer is not spared from making hard choices about how his characters understand the world and the extent to which this will be reflected in the writing. If your lead character finds gothic architecture ugly, do you describe it as ugly? To what extent to the character’s biases and opinions filter into your descriptions of the world? Third Person PoV gives you a wide range of interesting choices to make; made consciously and consistently they can lead to some very powerful writing.
I struggled with this choice about perspective and the balance between intimacy and clarity in a story I recently had shortlisted in the Fowey Festival. You can read the version entered into the competition here. The competition sought to celebrate the work of Daphne De Maurier, who wrote her major works in first person perspective and embraced the potential for submerging her readers in the central characters confusion, misapprehension and even insanity. So, naturally, I took a swing at doing the same thing.
An example of a paragraph from an early draft is here[iv]:
“When I came too I was lying on the floor with boxes all about me and nobody had come to check if I was alright. I had stars in front of my eyes. I blinked hard. One remained. Right above my nose floated a spark. I blinked again. It was hovering like a fairy light, so close it was making me cross-eyed. I blew. It didn’t move. Then, as if to prove that it could, it began to move, quickly, along the line of the cable and up through the wall. I wasn’t in any pain. I got to my feet, and followed it, out of the storeroom and next to the stage.”
I enjoyed this way of telling the story. It was fast to write, which I often find to be a good sign, and it was easy to feel involved in the central character Terry’s growing panic and confusion as his experiences become progressively more bizarre and dangerous. But I also found that the story was quickly spiralling out of control. There were three central problems.
- First Person PoV easily slipped into stream of consciousness, which is a lovely way to write but can be hard work for the reader to follow.
- Terry’s physical and emotional experiences were described side by side such that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other.
- The necessity of working through the character’s thought processes rather than just showing the action meant it was taking a lot more words to say the same thing.
I am not suggesting that these are problems inherent to the First Person PoV – they were problems I was having using it in this story. The problems became urgent because I had a deadline, and, importantly, a word limit. As it stood, the story made no sense to anybody but me, and was 3000 words over the 2000 word limit. My solution was to switch to Third Person PoV and start cutting:
“He saw a burst of sparks the moment before he felt the shock, and fell with a crash to the storeroom floor. One spark, sustained somehow, floated down and hovered over his nose. Terry stared at it. After a moment’s paused, it lifted up and floated back to the main room. His head still buzzing, he followed the spark back through the door and up onto the stage.”
Here, third person is clearer and more concise. The repetition of the word “moment” is unfortunate – a nasty tick in my writing I’m trying to iron out. But asides from a few stylistic faults the story as a whole was much easier to follow. This is not a small thing. If the reader does not understand what is going on they will give up and go read something else. Third Person PoV makes it easier to establish things as being “real”, rather than just perceived by the central character. In First Person you are always performing an act of translation between the character and the action. Third Person makes this superficially easier by telling you directly what is happening. So, the choice of perspective may well rest on whether you want the reader focussed on motive or action.
With hindsight, I rather regret the switch from First Person to Third Person. I think the story was better when told more centrally from Terry’s rather confused point of view, and that it benefited from taking more time with him on his journey with the spark. But in the early drafts, some of the action scenes were incomprehensible in First Person PoV. I sacrificed the intimacy of seeing events through Terry’s eyes for the clarity of watching them happen over Terry’s shoulder. First Person might have told a better story in the long run, and with a lot more work, but Third Person got the story told that I needed to tell right now.
[i] This is a cognitive poetics phenomenon, which I talked about a little bit more here – and should really write some more about in the future!
[ii] Not to be confused with any of the films of the same name.
[iii] Not really. Tyrion is the hero. Obviously.
[iv] I’m a bit nervous about this. Sharing drafts is like showing people what goes into a sausage. I’m doing all this writing about writing so that I get better at writing, and I’m not exactly the finished article yet. Nonetheless, seeing the problems written large across early drafts is an easier way to understand than only using quotes from finished work by great writers. So, be to my faults a little kind, or whatsit.
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