Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Lately a lot of questions have come in about person. This one came into the website in October from Anna Baber: I’ve been working on a book and even though I usually use first person, I decided to try third person/second person. However, my characters seem so dead. So dead even I didn’t care about them. Do you know how I should fix this???

An exchange followed with carpelibris, who wrote, A few offhand thoughts:

Do they face challenges?
Do they do things, as opposed to having things happen to them?

Something I read once, although I can’t remember where or who wrote it: “Think of what 9 or 10 people would do in a given situation. Have your character be #10, who does something different.”

Random thought: Why do you usually write in 1st person, and what about this story made you choose to write it in 3rd?

Anna Baber responded, I love reading first person and it’s easy for character development. Aside from that, I’ve been writing for about four years and I’ve written around twenty “novels”–almost all in first person! So I’m much more comfortable in first person. What about you?

From carpelibris: I’ve tried both (even a short story in second once, but that felt weird.) I mostly default to third for novels For short stories (Runs off to do a quick check). Ok, I just did a rough, arbitrary count of my submissions in the last 6 months that weren’t Drabbles. (100-word stories.) 3 were in 1st person and 6 were in 3rd. When I do 1st it’s usually because the character comes into my head that way and their voice is a big part of the appeal, or the story’s mostly about what the POV character’s thinking and feeling.

First off, kudos to carpelibris for putting your work out in the world. And thanks for sharing your success on the blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your stories. The last one made me cry!

And congratulations to Anna for your productivity!

Next a definition: in second person, the main character, instead of being I, is you, as in, You look up from your meal. You swallow, although the gooey mass sticks in your throat and the ton of hot sauce makes tears well up. “Tastes great, Dad,” you say and put your hand in your lap to cross your fingers.

I’ve never written more than this little sample in second person. Seems hard to pull off in a longer form. The only book I’ve read in second person is a young-adult novel by A. M. Jenkins called Damage (high school and up). We need a reason to choose second person. In this case MC Austin Reid is depressed, and second person is a great way to put across his isolation, even from himself.

I love the distinction carpelibris makes between characters doing “things, as opposed to having things happen to them.” When characters are active in the face of the crises in their lives, rather than the passive recipients of events, they come to life. If our MC is hit over the head by a two-by-four, she has no choice but to go down, no matter who she is–-unless she’s a mutant with an extraordinarily thick skull. But in most disasters, our characters face choices. Suppose a tornado rips through town, cutting a narrow swath of destruction. Our MC Jacqui was visiting a friend whose house was untouched. As soon as the twister passes, she races for home. It’s a weekend, and both her parents were there, along with her older brother and the family dachshund. When she gets to her street, she hears sirens, and the house is flattened.

This is where carpelibris’s suggestion comes in, to have our character act surprisingly. What does Jacqui do?

Here’s a prompt: Write nine likely responses from Jacqui at the scene. Write one unlikely response. Write five more unlikely ones.

If Jacqui picks one of the unexpected ones, she will stop seeming dead. The reader will get interested and wonder about her character, feelings, thoughts, motives. We can then selectively reveal her inner life.

And that inner life can be as surprising as her actions. Her feelings may be something other than distress. Her thoughts may be about the neighbor’s house rather than her own. Physically, her heart may not speed up at all; tears may not well up. In third person, we can go into this with our POV character. If Jacqui is a secondary character, we can see that her eyes remain dry, but we won’t have the direct experience of her inner life. She can let us in on some of it through dialogue and whatever she may write, plus other exterior physical clues and further actions.

Of course, if our narrator is omniscient (all-knowing), we can dip in and out of everyone’s mind and heart.

To continue the prompt, write nine likely thoughts and six unlikely ones. Write five common emotional reactions and three incongruous ones.

Trying different POVs is great practice. I’ve suggested before that if a scene isn’t working in third person, rewrite it in first and then translate it back into third, including the material that made it come to life. This translation will probably lead you to see how to use the new POV effectively. You can keep doing this as you go along until third person becomes as easy as first.

More prompts:

• Translate a scene from a story you’ve been happy with in first person into third-person omniscient, bringing in the thoughts and feelings of your secondary characters. If your story takes off in a new direction, go with it.

• Translate the beginning of one of your first-person stories into second person. See if you can go all the way to the end that way.

• Maisy looks out her bedroom window. On the street below, a motorcycle strikes what seems to be one of Santa’s elves, who falls and hits his head on a fire hydrant. The street is empty. Maisy runs downstairs and does something surprising, thinks something unusual, and feels something downright strange. Write the scene in third person. If you like, write the story. You can begin with the accident or you can go back to an earlier moment. Switch back and forth from third person to first if you need to.

• Write Jacqui’s story in third person, but, again, if you need to put parts of it into first, do that, and then change back.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Merry Christmas to all!
    When retelling a fairy tale, does the popularity of a story affect the way you approach it? I saw the movie Frozen last week. Even though I loved it, I wondered why they bothered to say it was inspired by The Snow Queen. It doesn't connect to the original tale the way Tangled or Cinderella does. But then, The Snow Queen isn't as popular here in America, so most of the audience doesn't know the difference.
    Also, just for fun, I did this survey a while ago to test the popularity of certain fairy tales. I think the results are interesting.

    • One of the reasons I chose "Cinderella" when I thought about novelizing a fairy tale is that it's so well known, but its popularity didn't affect the way I approached it. I've never told the reader in the story which fairy tale I'm dealing with, but I made sure in THE PRINCESS TALES that the name of the original fairy tale appears on the copyright page so people can compare if they're interested. My faithfulness to a fairy tale varies from very to hardly at all, according to the way my story takes shape.

  2. Oh, I have a question. I need a good fairytale to retell…but not as a novel, just a shorter story. Does anyone have any ideas? I don't want to do anything done by Disney for this project, or the twelve dancing princesses. That's pretty much it.

    • Thumbelina, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Princess and the Pea, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Pied Piper of Hamalin, or The Emperor's New Clothes.

    • Ashputtel, The Many Furred Creature, Felicia and the Pot of Pinks, The Master Maid, and I'm sure that I can think of some more. One really good resource is Andrew Lang's Fairy Books. They are all in the public domain so they are free to download and read. Another good resource is Grimms Household Fairy Tales. Good Luck, I hope that this help!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Hah! I like the third prompt. So far, in my version of this prompt, Maisy has gone to help the elf, who is unconscious, imagines that he might actually be a maniac serial killer, thinks about all the scenarios that could happen if he is one, scares herself silly and drags him into her house and locks him in the bathroom. Maisy has a really over-active imagination! (Or maybe that's me.)

  4. Merry Christmas!
    Gail, thank you for the Christmas present! (I know being happy that you made somebody cry sounds weird, but in the writing sense it's a HUGE compliment.)

    If the blog lets me post this I'll be thrilled. It's been claiming it can't ID me for weeks.

  5. Can I just do a quick shout out to anyone under 13 who might be reading this? If you dream of writing a book someday, but for now all you like to do is doodle dragons in your school notebooks and invent kingdoms in the woods behind your house, SAVE IT. Map those kingdoms. Don't throw out the notebooks. Because someday you'll sit down at your laptop and think, "Okay, time to write a book. I need three countries, two monster species, and a magic system. Think fast!" It's easier if you have a world all ready. Then you just fill in the story when it comes. I'm creating a fantasy world right now and it's haaaaard.

    • Definitely. We're reading Lord of the Rings as a family, and in the back, there are tons and tons and TONS of information about Middle Earth that aren't even that important in the book! It's interesting to read it all.

  6. Hey Gail and everyone else, l just had a highlight I wanted to share. I've just written and self published my first short story and I'm starting a novel. Well, not too long ago my dad met a lady who is a author and who is co host to a talk show and she wants to mentor me and help me get published for real! 🙂

  7. That's awesome Sunny!
    I just wanted to share with everyone a good writing website called draftin. I haven't used it much yet but my brother has and it seems like it will be helpful when I finally get around to editing my nano novel. It's simple and free, hooray! The most useful features would be the one where you can have both your original and another right next to it so that you can edit while seeing the first version on the other side. Then there's something called Hemingway mode where you can't backspace at all so you can focus on just getting the words out, something I wish I'd had in Nov. I don't know if not being able to correct spelling would bother me or not, but it would be worth a try. I don't know if my explanation does it justice, so if you're interested I'd check it out yourself. Again, the website is

  8. When it comes to stories I write, usually I tend to stick to instinct, which usually has me writing first person. However, there's a steampunk story I'm working on and every time I think about trying to switch it to first person, which I'm more comfortable in, my gut reaction is 'no'. First person allows the reader to step into the character's shoes. This one, I feel, needs the distance third person allows in order to allow some of the important details to seep through.

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