Q: How do you decide when to write a story in first-person versus third? Are there aspects you consciously look for, or do you just think “that’d sound better in first person”?
A: I have a Magic 8-ball here…
Good question. You’re asking about point of view (POV).
First of all, it’s not so simple. There’s more than two choices for POV. I’ve heard as many as fourteen–but for this question, let’s stick to the four most common ones. Those are:
- First-person: “I” is the narrator. We only hear what the narrator wants to tell us about.
- Third-person (aligned): One person is the central subject. We hear his/her thoughts and opinions.
- Third-person (panoramic): Think movie camera. You see what the characters are doing, but you don’t hear any of their thoughts.
- Third-person (omniscient) You see what the characters do, and also hear different thoughts from all of them.
So, to choose what POV to use for my story, the first question I ask is, “How much information do I want to give the reader? If I want to give everyone’s thoughts, I choose third-person (omniscient). If I don’t want to give anyone’s thoughts, I choose third-person (panoramic). Easy enough.
The difference between first-person and third-person (aligned) is more subtle. I consider several different things when deciding between those two. Honestly, I think they’re more interchangeable than most people would. So you can write in whichever feels right. Indicators that first-person might work well:
- the character has an unusual voice or speech pattern that would give the story color
- the narrator is unreliable (telling the story from a skewed perspective) and you want the reader to notice the difference between events and his description
- the character’s gender or name needs to be masked for some reason
Indicators that third-person aligned might work well:
- the character is hard to identify with in some way, such as a very strange alien
- you need to offer slight perspective on the character that he would never notice himself
- the character dies at the end of the story
Those are just a few things to consider.Final words: I think most beginning writers should stick with first-person and third-person aligned. 80% of stories are perfectly fine from one of these two perspectives. If you learn to write them well, you’ll do better when you start exploring other POVs.
In particular, consider the importance of filtering the narrative through the character you’re aligned with. Make sure that you only describe things he sees and experiences. A common mistake is to have the protagonist see someone else “smile at the memory.” Nope. He can’t see that (unless maybe she’s his wife of fifty years). What he sees is her smiling–not her thoughts. It’s the job of the writer to show her in a way that the reader infers her thoughts–and then show the reader what the protagonist thinks in response.
Also, consider how your character’s experience will influence what s/he notices in the world. Consider a hotel ballroom. What’s the first thing a CIA agent would notice when he walked in? Exits and hiding places, maybe, and where he should stand to watch everyone. How about a teenage girl, at her first ball? Maybe the grand staircase, and the glittering chandelier. What about a waiter serving punch? He’d notice the layout of the buffet table, and where the clearest paths are for walking through the room. If you’re really into your character’s head, you’ll notice the same things they would. And you’ll avoid mentioning things they wouldn’t notice–the waiter, for example, wouldn’t notice the familiar chandelier unless there’s something unusual about it. The closer you can match the character’s POV, the more real that character will feel–and the better your story will be as a result.
So in conclusion: Choose the best POV to tell the story you want to tell. Regardless of which you choose, be consistent, and you’ll be fine.