In first-person POV, the narrator is the lens through which the reader perceives the story. This point of view positions the reader inside the narrator. The reader experiences the story world (fictional or real) through the narrator’s eyes and ears and nose and skin and mouth, through their thoughts and feelings, their reactions and actions. First-person POV can create intimacy, a strong bond between narrator and reader.
What first-person POV can’t do is get inside anyone else’s head, show the narrator from the outside, or reveal things the narrator can’t see or know. In other words, the reader can’t go anywhere the narrator doesn’t go; the narrator must be present in all scenes.
The types of writing that lend themselves to first-person POV include memoir and personal essay, travel and other types of non-fiction where the writer’s experiences are key to the treatment of the topic. In fiction, first person works best where the narrator’s lens is important to the story, and where this lens amplifies what the story is about.
The most prevalent type of POV employed in fiction is third-person, often with a close focus, as if the reader is sitting on the POV character’s shoulder seeing the world from their perspective, with access to the point of view character’s mind. There is a whole suite of variations of third-person POV with an astonishing array of labels attached; the technicalities can be overwhelming. What’s key here is that third-person POV positions the reader outside the narrator allowing the reader to observe the point of view character in action as well as see the world from their perspective.
Mixing first- and third-person POV
So what about using a mix of first-person and third-person point of view? I’ve been surprised at how many manuscripts I’ve come across in the last few years taking this approach. While there are no rules about it, it’s not easy to pull off as you are juggling two different types of relationships the reader has with the characters and the events of the story. Shifting between them creates a bump in the reading experience. You can use this purposefully, but it is difficult to erase.
When I talk with writers about why they’ve made the first + third POV choice, the response is usually something along the lines of wanting to build intimacy with one main character, hence first-person, but also wanting to show the reader things that happen when that character is not present, hence third-person. I understand this thinking, although third-person POV can also promote intimacy, and can bring the reader right inside the narrator’s mind, using what I call an extreme close-up where the narration adopts the point of view character’s own language and the narration slides insidethe character. I discuss this in my blog on point of view distance.
Sometimes the overall reading experience is smoother and more engaging if you work at finessing this close focus third-person point of view to bring the reader as close as possible to the character, rather than employing the potentially clunky shift from first to third. This is a matter of skill and craft, but ultimately, the decision on which point of view to adopt should be embedded in your understanding of the story you are telling, rather than linked to your understanding of first- and third-person POV.
Choosing point of view
If you’re not sure you’ve got the POV quite right, experiment. Ask yourself Whose story is this? Which character/s has the most at stake? What information needs to be revealed, and to whom? What information needs to be concealed, and from whom? One writer I worked with was on her third draft of a novel using close-focus third-person singular point of view. She’d had a few knock backs from agents and decided to rewrite her opening chapter in first person. It was a revelation. Suddenly the scene and the characters came to life in a completely different way. The first-person POV version was subsequently picked up by a publisher.
The overarching questions to ask yourself are: What’s the story really about? What do I want the reader to feel? What do I want the reader to think? Your responses will inform the relationship the reader has to the characters and events of the story.
One writer who was using first + third POV had a story tracking an ensemble cast of friends whose lives tangled up with each other. She was exploring the ways in which we are shaped by others and in which we, in turn, shape those we are close to. She had chosen first-person POV for one character she saw as the central protagonist, and third-person POV for three others. But by privileging one character with first-person POV, she had separated that character out from the others in a distinct and specific way, undermining the theme of entanglement. After we discussed the work and the relationship she wanted the reader to have to the story, she decided to stick with third-person point of view, following two key characters.
Point of view impacts the ways in which the reader responds emotionally and intellectually to the narrative and it can take multiple drafts to finesse it, even once you have determined first or third (or second). Look out for how other writers handle point of view and the effects on you as a reader.
See also the other blogs in this series –