In the Person Hood

Before the post: When I’m in New York City, I’m always aware of homeless people. I read their signs and often drop a quarter in their cups. Last week, I passed a young woman, sitting against a building on Fifth Avenue. Her placard described her sad circumstances, which I won’t burden you with. I had no change and walked on. A few blocks later, a man swayed in the middle of the sidewalk. He had no shoes; his socks were just holes at the heels; his shorts bagged; his tee shirt showed an inch of skin at the waist. His hand on his begging cup trembled. I couldn’t ignore him. I stuffed a bill in his cup. I meant it to be a single, but I may have given him a ten. I didn’t care.

As I rushed into Grand Central Station and tried to recover my composure, the realization hit. I had just seen a writing maxim brought to life: Show, don’t tell.

(Of course, as has been stated here many times, writers have to do both, but the contrast between those two homeless people revealed the raw power of showing.)

On April 23, 2016, the Florid Sword wrote, How does one know which view to use? Picking POV characters and MCs is never the problem for me, but sometimes I have trouble figuring out whether to use first person or third person. Second person really appeals to me, but I’m not brave enough to try it. How does one pick a person view?

A few of you offered ideas:

Christie V Powell: I think it might depend on you. I’ve tried first person, but it just wouldn’t click for me. In third I can be a little more descriptive and have more fun with imagery, which is a strength of mine. Here’s a line from my WIP:

The predawn gray was silent except for the river’s roar, and Keita was alone in an empty yard.

Maybe I could switch “Keita” to “I”, but I feel like if it were 100% in her voice she’d be more pragmatic. She notices things, and thinks about them that way, but if she were the one putting them into words instead of me she’d say it differently. Maybe: “This was the perfect time to practice walking again, when no one else was awake to watch me fall.

Melissa Mead: I find first person most helpful when the MC has a really distinct personality/voice, and that’s a big part of the story.

Bookworm: Just start writing. Don’t bother with POV yet, and that will come naturally.
For one of the novels that I abandoned, I’d been trying to write in 1st Person POV. It turned into 2nd person POV, so I kinda went with it. It was so much fun, and then I got stuck, so sadly, like I said, I did abandon it in the end. . .

I applaud Bookworm’s willingness to experiment. I haven’t written in second person, because I haven’t had a story that seemed to call for it, but I did read a YA novel in that POV, and it immediately set the story apart. The book was about the MC’s depression, which was embodied in the way she (or he–I don’t remember) couldn’t seem to own herself with an I.

What I suspect is hard about second person is the danger of confusion. We want to be sure that the reader always knows to whom the you refers, whether it’s to our narrator or to someone else. So if we decide to go that route, we need to examine every sentence until we’re certain that clarity prevails.

I’m dreaming up other reasons we might use second person:

∙ a group-think kind of culture in which people are discouraged from individualism.

∙ a traumatized MC who wants to distance himself from his pain.

∙ someone, say, whose parents always called her You rather than by name, and she’s come to think of herself that way.

∙ our MC is ambitious but reluctant to own her ambition. She finds it easier to work out her schemes (for good or ill) in second person, as in, You say this. He says that. You shake his hand. He believes he’s found an ally in you. She begins to think of herself this way even when she isn’t scheming.

I agree with Christie V Powell that some writers may instinctively prefer either first person or third, and we can make a good case for following our natural bent. Writing a story is hard enough without forcing ourselves in every possible way.

On the other hand, we may want to challenge ourselves sometimes and try an uncomfortable voice. As Christie V Powell demonstrates with her examples, the different voices can bring different character and story aspects to the fore.

If we’ve decided to write in third person, we need to keep in mind the difference between omniscient and limited third person. In omniscient third, the narrator can relate the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. In limited, unless our MC has ESP, the narrator can reveal only the inner life of the POV character. I sometimes read books in which the author occasionally forgets, and I get pulled right out of the story. The mistake can be subtle, and many readers won’t notice, but we should still get it right.

But if our story needs us to inhabit more than one character in a scene, then omniscient third may be the way to go. Let’s imagine, for example, a panel of judges who are deciding the fate of our MC, who has committed some crime according to this society. Even though she’s guilty, she’s an ethical person, and we want the judges to understand that and not give her a long prison sentence or–gasp!–death in the viper pit. We may want to use omniscient third in our story so that when we get to this scene, we can jump in and out of the judges’ perspectives to heighten the suspense.

Even in first person, we can make a POV-jumping error. Our MC Jackie can be with her best friend Carly; they’ve known each other for years. Something happens that gets the friend mad. Jackie knows she’ll have this reaction to this stimulus. In my opinion we still shouldn’t write, Carly saw red, because the reader may think, How does Jackie know that? Better is, Carly’s chin went up. I knew from experience what that meant. She was seeing scarlet. Now we haven’t switched POVs because Jackie has explained how she knows Carly is angry.

We can write a contemporary now-feeling story in either first person or third, but I think it’s harder to write a story with an old-fashioned tone in first. I may believe this because the classics of my long-ago childhood–Heidi, Bambi, Peter Pan, Anne of Green Gables, Black Beauty–are all in third, and I can’t think of a single example in first. So the tone we’re aiming for can guide our choice.

I don’t mean we can’t write in first person and set our story in the past or in a fairy tale world as I’ve done many times. I just mean that there will be a more modern mood. Ella, for example, may wear a bodice and live in a manor, but she still has the perspective of a late twentieth century girl. In my books for the Disney Fairy series, I was trying for that days-of-yore mood, so they’re all in third person.

I find it easier to get inside my MC’s mind and heart when I write in first person. In third, I have to keep reminding myself that she has thoughts and feelings about whatever action is going forward. It can be done, and I’ve done it, but it’s more effortful. More effortful for me, maybe not for other writers. I’m more inside her when I’m using I, and that’s a factor in my choice of first person or third.

Here are four prompts:

∙ You think of another reason to choose second person. Write a scene in the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Use one of my reasons for second person. Write a scene. If you like, keep going.

∙ Write the scene in omniscient third person with the panel of judges.

∙ Write the fairy’s dining scene in “Sleeping Beauty” from the first person point of view of one of the fairies, who can read minds.

Have fun, and save what you write!


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!