Which Person to Write In

When I’m talking about which person to write in, I don’t mean Joe or Fred, I mean 1st person, 2nd person or 3rd person. Are you going to have your narrator use ‘I’, ‘you’ or ‘he/she’?

Writing in the first person is very immediate. You can get deep into one character and very easily convey their thoughts and deeds. Of course you can mislead the reader by having an unreliable first person; someone who lies compulsively for example. In first person it is much less common to run into point of view problems in a story as it is very obvious that if the ‘I’ character is not there they cannot see what is going on and the story follows them much more closely. Writing in the first person can bring the reader closer to your character, but it does not work for everyone and some magazines specifically avoid it in their stories.

In theory, when writing a novel or story you should choose one of the persons and stick with it throughout the work. In practice there can be very good reason to break that rule. In The Appearance of Truth most of the story is told in the third person from the point of view of the lead character, Lisa Forster. It is set in 2009 and follows her story. However, interspersed through the book are a number of chapters which go back to her ‘mother’ and her story of how she came to care for Lisa and all that led up to it. These chapters are in places deeply emotional. They are set in the 1970s and cover some very difficult incidents in Maureen’s life. Because they are so clearly demarcated from the rest of the book, set apart in time as well as which is the lead character and due to the nature of the events, I chose to write those chapters in the first person. It breaks the rules for a reason and I think it works. I haven’t had a reader yet tell me it didn’t, which is a good sign.

Writing solely in the first person can make it difficult to show the range of events and characters that are needed in the story and is a good reason why many shy away from it. It is perhaps easier in a short story than a novel. If you are using third person, you can more easily switch between characters in a novel (the extent of doing this in a short story should be limited). In a crime novel for example you may wish to switch between the activities of the murderer and those of the investigator. Clearly they can’t be together all the time or there would be no story. Writing a crime novel in the first person takes away the potential to look effectively at both sides. You can tell it solely from the point of view of the investigation but that removes the possibility of giving the background story to the reader.

Writing in the second person is a difficult one. When you are tell a story and say ‘you did x’, ‘you thought y’ you are putting all the thoughts and actions onto the reader. This can work if the reader is in a position to empathise with the situation and character they are being asked to identify with. I would caution against it in a story where the lead character is in any way the bad guy, or has repulsive behaviour that will alienate the reader. The risk is that as soon as you get to something that the reader most certainly would not do then, instead of remaining lost in the world you have created, they come out of the story and are mentally saying ‘no I wouldn’t’, ‘no I didn’t’. At that point you have, as the writer, lost your audience. A story where there is a twist at the end with the lead character having a deep character flaw is going to leave the reader feeling repulsed and unhappy with themselves. They are rarely going to want to come back to your writing for more. There is also an opposite to this, even if you make your character good and nice, if they are too sickly sweet, again you may find your reader cannot identify closely enough with the character and does not want to be addressed a ‘you’ throughout the story.

  1 comment for “Which Person to Write In

  1. July 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    I’d been struggling with the dilemma of which perspective to take in my current work in progress. This post clarified my thinking, so I could move on with the writing. Thanks!

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