Determining the Person

Before you write a story, you must know which ‘person’ you will write it in. This isn’t as simple as “Oh, well, I wrote a story in third person last time, so I’m going to write in first person this time.” It might work out that way for you, but when you approach a new story, you must listen to your characters. Listen to the voice of the story.

I once co-wrote a story with a young writer, and our story was written in third person. As we wrote more and more, I coached her in different aspects she needed to improve. One day she revealed something to me, “I hate writing in third person. I only ever write in first person.” On the surface there is nothing wrong with a preference of person. However, if that preference gets in the way of your practice of the other persons, then it’s a problem. It’s part of the Playground Experience to play with different persons.

Let’s recap on the terminology of persons in writing:

Person: The narrative point of view in which the entire story is written. There are three kinds of ‘persons’—First Person, Second Person, and Third Person.

First Person: I, me, my, and mine, such as I watched the meteor shower last night.

First Person Plural: We, us, and ours: We watched the meteor shower last night.

Second Person: You and yours. You watched the meteor shower last night.

Third Person: Elizabeth, Samuel, he, his, him, she, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their: Elizabeth watched the meteor shower.

Third person is the most popular choice for writing novels. First person is more common for shorter pieces of fiction—especially flash fiction, but it is gaining popularity with novels.

Second person is the least popular for two reasons: it is commonly tied into present tense, which is an uncommon tense to use for writing, and it can come across as accusing the reader of actions they’d rather not do. It’s almost like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books or short videos. The last thing the reader wants is to die or get hurt in the story, but when you don’t fully understand what’s happening in the story, you can’t make choices wisely.

For instance, there might be a simple sentence in the story that reads: You went to the fridge and grabbed the milk carton. The reader might dislike milk and argues, “No, I didn’t! I’ll have the orange juice!” This pulls the reader out of the experience of the story and therefore breaks the connection.

Some people might like this, but most of us don’t, so when we see a book is written in second person, we put it down. Our life is dramatic enough. We don’t need a book on something we’ve never done but written as though we did do it.

However, every writer should practice writing second person just as a skill to have. The best time to use it is when writing stories in the form of letters although I have read some extraordinary stories written in second person in which I completely forgot they were written in that person. If a story is well-written, the person really won’t be noticeable.

Now, back to first and third person. The main difference is the limitation of POV. In first person, the point of view is limited to the character narrating the story because we as individuals cannot read other people’s minds. Third person, however, can be all-seeing, all-knowing, and wherever you want whenever you want.

These two should be distinctly different.

Or should they?

Yes, first person is limited to a single individual’s interpretation of events and people. Unless you’re a narrow-minded and lacking an imagination (in which case you really shouldn’t be a writer), you can read people—their facial expressions, body language, the aura around them—and determine their motives. The more you know about them and their background and dreams, the more you understand them. Even if you can’t pinpoint their agenda precisely, you can still get the feeling, “This person is up to no good.” Now, apply that to your writing:

I watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling my stare—she caught my gaze and smiled thanks.

How did the narrator know Elizabeth felt his stare? Have you ever stared at someone long enough that they finally turn and lock eyes with you? You never approached that person and asked, “Did you feel my stare?” You know the weight of stares, and you know it is an actual feeling. Apply your knowledge of life and your experiences to your story, and it will broaden your abilities especially in the otherwise limited first person narration.

Now, taking the same paragraph, but let’s switch it to third person.

Samuel watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across the sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling his stare—she caught his gaze and smiled thanks.

There lies the trick. Switching first person to third person without disrupting the flow of the story. When you can do this, you will fully understand both persons, but you can develop each to your preferred writing voice and style.

As an exercise, write a story you never plan to publish. Experiment using each person in the course of the story, but do so in a carefully constructed manner—not merely switching persons because it suits you. Plan it, and then achieve it. I once wrote a novella that went from third person to first person to second person back to first person and finally to third person. Sure, I likely will never publish it, but writing it helped me better understand the differences and similarities with each person.

Someone might tell me, “I can’t write in third person! I like first person better!” Having such a preference is fine and acceptable. Your writing style might consist mainly of first person or third person, but don’t think that you ‘cannot’ write one of the other persons especially when you might called upon to do so.

Remember, most people are comfortable with writing in first person because it is closest to what they wrote in their journal/diary prior to story writing. You shouldn’t eliminate third person until you have at least tried it and mastered it enough to be comfortable with it. If it’s not your preference, that’s fine, but at least you know you can do it.