My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.
– Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
So you want to get inside one person’s head (or at least one person at a time) in your story. Should you go for first person singular or third person singular?
Let’s look at how these can work.
First Person Point of View – the story is told from one character’s point of view, using “I,” “me,” “my” and “our.” The character could be a major player who is active in the novel, or the observer, as in F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Or an observer/major player, such as Archie in the Nero Wolfe mystery novels.
Anything that happens in the story must be what the character can see, hear, touch, feel, think, imagine or read. He or she can say what he sees about other characters but can reveal only his own feelings. He could imagine what the other character feels, but this must be clear. You can get around some of what sounds like restrictions by using emails, Facebook pages, Twitter – as long as it is either what the I POV character is doing or reading. To help keep on track, picture a video camera inside this first person narrator’s head.
My short story “16 Dorsey St.” from Beyond the Tripping Point is told using emails between two sisters, Elsa and Sylvia .with newspaper clips thrown in. The POV remains with Elsa even with Sylvia’s replies. Elsa is reading them from her computer. Here’s a short example.
E-mail from Elsa to Sylvia
3/3/1997 9.07 P.M.
Subject: Newspaper story
Sylvia, something disturbing happened. The “someone” at the door was today’s newspaper and I don’t get the paper delivered. An article on the front page of section two was circled in red. I’ve scanned it and am attaching it so you can read it.
Attachment to e-mail:
CRIME FLASHBACK—MURDER ANNIVERSARY TODAY
Today is the anniversary of one of Toronto’s most baffling murder cases. Fifty years ago, a 23-year-old woman was strangled. Lois Harkner was a honey blonde beauty, a lady who would never hurt anyone. Yet someone wanted her dead.
Harkner was found lying beside her dressing table…
(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, published by Blue Denim Press 2012)
When to use First Person POV
To move the plot forward, your readers need to know the main character’s inner thoughts.
You can reveal your main character best by telling the story from main character’s POV.
Revealing the conflict works best by showing the readers only the main character’s thoughts.
You want your readers to get up close and personal with your main character.
Third Person Point of View – the story is told from the narrator as “he/she” – you can use people’s names. Here the narrator is further from the story than the first person POV. In Third Person the story is told from that one character’s POV with only what he can observe, hear, etc.
Here’s the beginning of my short story “No Breaks” I combine what Millie hears on the radio with Millie’s inner thoughts.
“It’s a scummy Saturday morning and Highway 11 resembles fast food parking hell. If you’re making your last ditch scramble for your reserved spot in the Muskokas, try an alternate route.”
“Yeah, what alternate? Highway 400 is worse.” Millie Browne yells back at the radio announcer. She clicks off the radio.
Most of these Saturday drivers probably have air-conditioned cars. Millie isn’t blessed with air-conditioning. She isn’t blessed. She can’t even remember whether she was baptized as an infant, but today she’s going to remedy that.
(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, published by Blue Denim Press, 2012)
When to Use Third Person POV
First person POV won’t work because you need to have your narrator more distanced to report your main character’s thoughts and actions. Also use third person if first person gets in the way of showing your main character’s weaknesses. This latter is not always necessary, as some characters seem to be able to get around their egos to show and comment on their weaknesses. For example self-effacing humour, inner thoughts where they present their view as correct but they word it so you can read their weakness between the lines.
Narrator’s objectivity strengthens the main character or the story’s message.
In next week’s post we’ll go into using the omniscient Point of View as that can be complex and confusing.
Meantime, check out my short story collection and maybe purchase a copy. It is now available as an e-book. Click on the book cover above.
Sharon A. Crawford