A Problem of Perspective: Who’s On 1st? What’s on Third?

Emma just wouldn’t stop talking long enough for me to put my foot down. It was like I wasn’t even there anymore.

Finally, I threw my hands up in frustration and decided to turn to you, dear friends, for answers.

It started out so simple.

I’d just finished fist pumping in celebration after completing a chapter of my novel. It ended pretty dramatically, and I had already jotted down ideas for the next chapter (using a Mind Map no less: see Why A Mind Map Just Might Save Your Life for more on that).

I felt I had enough energy to get crackin’ on the next chapter, so I opened up a Word document, bit into a Kit Kat, and put fingertips to keyboard keys.

And that’s when Emma started acting up.

Aaron, who some of you may remember as the protagonist in my novel, was supposed to begin the scene; it would be told from his point of view and within the 3rd person limited perspective.

I was trying to remain consistent from my last chapter like a good ol’ chap.

But then Emma decided she didn’t want to be spoken about by Aaron. She had her own voice, and she’d be damned if some novice writer tried to stifle it.

And so she began talking. That in itself isn’t too bad. Plenty of books have been written from the perspectives of different characters, most recently The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and A Game of Thrones.

However, and this is key, she wasn’t playing nice and analyzing the world in the third person along with her fellow characters. She was going for the throat . . .

She was talking in the FIRST PERSON.

I admit, for a moment I flipped. Is this what Scorsese has to deal with whenever he tells Leonardo DeCaprio to do something?

I tried to reign Emma in; I reassured her that Aaron would put her in a good light (that might’ve been a lie, but I did plead!). She just wouldn’t listen, and the page kept filling up.

So now I sit and seek the assistance of fellow writers, fellow artists, designers, musicians, anyone who has ever created something with their hands (or feet) and felt it veer in a completely different direction:

Should I keep trying to reign her in to keep the novel consistently in the third person?


Should I let Emma have her way and see what kind of novel is produced after the first person chaos?

Admittedly, her emotions and observations are very different in tone than Aaron’s, so it also seems like a shift in genre. But the more I read it, the more pure it seems, and the more I wonder if this odd turn of events is somehow fortuitous.

Thoughts, insults, sticks and stones. I’ll take them all now.



16 comments on “A Problem of Perspective: Who’s On 1st? What’s on Third?

  1. One of the strongest rules in writing is to trust yourself. Use common sense and know the rules, but when it comes to making the final call about where you’re going with your story, do what feels right.

    That said, I have yet to read a book that jumps POV from 1st to 3rd (or one that shifts tenses) between characters that worked. In fact, the only thing the few books I’ve read that did that had in common was me feeling like screaming each time the novel hopped from one POV to the other.

    Perhaps the solution lies in a different direction–perhaps the reason the two character voices aren’t playing nice are because they both deserve their own novels/stories? Or perhaps Emma wants her own book?

    In the end, go with your gut. And if your gut tells you to make it all 1st person, do eeeet.

    • Thank you for your advice.

      If you can remember those books that switched perspectives, I’d love to give them a look to understand what the writer did.

      I’ve read a few books where sections are written in a different tense, of course: a journal entry is found or some other device is used to explain the shift in point of view.

      But I can’t think of a novel that I’ve read that featured a shift not just for supplementary material but as part of the main story.

      I’m curious as to why it isn’t considered good to do so. I can understand it being jarring, but why? We receive information all the time from several different perspectives, from the same person, about the same story. If someone’s telling you about something they witnessed, they explain both what they see other people do and what they themselves felt and did. Is that jarring as well?

      Hmm, you’ve given me food for thought indeed. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

      • I want to say L. E. Modesitt was the one who I remember switching between present and past tense (the main story was 3rd person limited past tense, and there were interlude chapters that followed the baddies in present tense). However, I do remember finishing all of the books in the Spellsong series, so I could be wrong…

        I heard that Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip has five or so character all of whom are presented in first person. I haven’t read the book, but I hear it was done well.

        A quick internet search tells me that The Bartimaeus Trilogy alternates chapters between third person and first person, and Donna Jo Napoli’s, Zel switches for each character (have not read either). I’m trying to think of book titles that I’ve actually read that do POV switches from 1st to 3rd and my mind is blanking out (perhaps to protect itself). But I will say that I only mind it when it’s done without a narrative reason (ie, if its framed in terms of someone discovering a diary or reading letters within the book, I am completely comfortable with that).

        I think in the end, switching between tenses annoys me more than switching between POV. Here is a list of fiction the internet spat out at me: http://ask.metafilter.com/146248/First-and-third-person-stories

        (Some of those may be incorrect; I am pretty sure the Poisonwood Bible doesn’t do it, for example).

      • Oh, I had another thought: it will also likely depend on what genre you’re writing. Me, I’m reader of fantasy, sci-fi and YA genre fiction. If you’re doing literary fiction, you’re probably fine. Of course, the standards of prose quality when you’re trying to hit the lit fic bar are higher too, so maybe that’s why it’s more common and acceptable there.

  2. Wow, thank you so much! I’m definitely going to have to track down those books to see how the authors handled the switch. Really, it was kind of you to go through the trouble. 🙂

    My novel would fall into the fantasy genre; no lit fic here. I’m a pretty big fantasy fan, but I hadn’t run into a novel that switched points of view.

    I did a small search myself on the subject, but it’s such a subjective debate that the choice in the end remains with me.

    I’ll take a look at the books you recommended and definitely consider the purpose of the shift in the story before I make a decision. Off the top of my head, the purpose is to 1) give a different perspective of Aaron, the main character, through the eyes of his lover, Emma, and 2) to explain a loss that has strained their relationship for years from her perspective since it affected her more than Aaron.

    Thanks again for all your input. 🙂

  3. I’m personally a fan of the third person limited. But growing up my favorite series was Animorphs and they were all written in first person. So now I find that when I write, I tend to go with the third person limited but still go deep into the characters mind. I write in the third person limited but everything I write is limited to the character I’m focused on. I write it like it’s the character writing about their life but for some strange reason, they are talking about themselves in the third person. Would that work?

    • Hey Rolando,

      You know, I’m pretty much writing like that for my main character, Aaron. Makes sense that I would use that style for the next chapter too, right?

      For some reason I just feel drawn to write in the first person for her. I’m not sure why.

      But you know what? You’ve convinced me to write the scene twice, or at least a part of it twice: one in 3rd person limited, the other in first person, and see which one I like better.

      Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

  4. My thoughts are as such: If you have a character that you are more interested in (she keeps jumping to mind, you keep wanting to write her, etc…), there’s a chance that a reader would also be more interested in said character than the one you are trying to force. If the character feels more natural in first person, then that’s what you have.

    If you intend on jumping perspectives, I would suggest to do so on a chapter by chapter basis. Everything focusing on Emma can be first person for her, while Aaron’s portions can stay firmly in third person. Seeing as I don’t know the extent of what your plans are, I don’t know how well that would work.

    I’ll have to agree with some of the previous sentiments: do what feels right. Art comes from the gut, and too much devotion to the standards of “what should be” can stifle you. That said, the more experimental you get, the more you have to show that you understand the fundamentals by creating something which leaves your audience (and most importantly, you) satisfied.

    Think of Avant-garde fashion: at once it requires a designer to be innovative but also show that they are able actually execute something that engages their audience.

    I hope this helps.

    In the end, just make sure that you are happy and fulfilled.


    • Thanks for the reply, Harry. I was thinking on doing just what you suggested: one chapter in third person for Aaron, one in first for Emma.

      I have to say, I especially appreciate your candid insight into experimenting with language (which I’m sure applies to any kind of experimentation): leave ’em satisfied. Show that you’re a pro (or at least seem like one :P).

      Your advice definitely helps, and I appreciate you stopping by.

      Next time, there will be punch and pie. I promise. 🙂

  5. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Regarding your Emma Dilemma… My artwork often turns out differently than I’d originally planned. Some little thing will ignite a spark of inspiration, sending me off somewhere unexpected. That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just a small tangent; a different camera angle, maybe. Other times it will be more drastic, and I’ll scrap the whole thing and start over. So I say see what Emma has to say, in her own way. You can always re-write later. And, if you’re like most writers, you probably will end up doing so. 🙂

    • See? This is why I enjoy hearing from artists; you have a different way of framing things that I really respect.

      Thanks for your advice and for checking out my blog. I’ll certainly let Emma do her thing for awhile (women, am I right?).

  6. Late to the party, but I do have my two cents.

    The best writing does not call attention to itself. If your readers are paying more attention to gimmicks, devices, or formatting, then you have a problem.

    Switching perspectives makes a narrative less seamless. I’m all for debating the virtues of pursuing change in the medium of writing (look at Chaucer), but unless you want readers to be looking at the story’s form more than the story, I’d say you need to choose a perspective.

    Following rules is often much more important in art than one might think. It’s hard to recognise when you are legitimately pushing boundaries, or just cutting corners. Particularly when you have some writing you know does not belong, but you don’t want to negate that effort.

    • Hmmm, you make a good point, cookiemonger. I’ll be honest in that I’m not much for following “rules” in writing (outside of grammar) since most seem pretty subjective. That doesn’t make them bad in and of themselves, but they aren’t guidelines to always be followed.

      The idea that the best writing doesn’t call attention to itself for example. It’s one that I’ve read about quite consistently in creative writing books. Yet some of the best writers of all time have used techniques that stand out and could arguably be considered “calling attention to itself.” Stephen King is one author that comes to mind. His writing style in some of his earlier works (I haven’t read anything he’s written in the past 7 years or so) could fall under that category.

      I guess what I’m thinking is that what draws attention for one person is just entertaining for another, you know? You just never really know how your audience would react to a shift in perspective since not everyone would be turned off by it.

      Hmmm, more food for thought. I’m playing contrarian here, but your words have certainly driven their point. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

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