It all depends on perspective…

Despite being crazy busy, I managed to find the time to take a quick look at a manuscript sent to me by another aspiring author. It’s the second time in recent weeks that I’ve read the first few pages of a draft and recommended that an author re-think the points of view they’ve chosen.

You all understand what I mean by point of view, yes? POV for short, it refers to writing in the first person (‘I watched, I walked’) or the third person (“He threw down the knife.”)

Some authors, like Michael Connolly in The Lincoln Lawyer, use first person POV pretty much throughout the story. (I think he has maybe two chapters that are written in the third person.)

Same with James Lee Burke. He writes from the first person POV of his main character, Dave Robicheaux, but sometimes has Clete Purcell, the sidekick, experiencing life when Robicheaux isn’t around. When that happens, and Clete goes off to kick some butt, it’s always written in the third person.

The two manuscripts sent to me were written in the first person, but more than one character used that POV to tell their story. In other words, the writers had decided to use first person point of view, not just for their main protagonist, but for all their characters. And I think that’s a mistake.

Each time, in Chapter One, I was enjoying a well-written story and getting inside the head of an interesting character and then, wham! — along came Chapter Two and I was called on to jump inside someone else’s first person thoughts. Jarring? You bet.

We ask a lot from our readers when we switch perspectives from one character to another. But a first person narrative is intimate and personal. We start to feel and think like that character. If I turn a page and am asked to now take on the persona of another character altogether with that same intimacy, it’s quite a jolt.  

I much prefer third person narrative. It allows you to tell a story without following one protagonist around all the time, for one thing. But it’s a matter of choice.

That said, I think if you’re going to write a book in the first person, you should either tell the whole story from only one person’s perspective (which is hard to do, because it means being inside their head the entire time) or switch into third person when you decide the action needs to take place somewhere else for a while.

Be warned: the latter doesn’t always work all that well, particularly if your character is unique or interesting. In first person POV, you can’t easily describe how others see you. Much easier to have third person thoughts in those circumstances, don’t you think?

The Beggar’s Opera was written in first person/third person in early drafts. It’s now in third person POV all the way through. When I made that massive change, and believe me, it’s not an easy one, I finally started to get traction. And now that I’m asked to take a look at other people’s manuscripts from time to time, I can see why.

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