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.

Shifting Points of View (POV)

In writing there is an unspoken abomination. A writer may do this without realizing it. However, when he shows some of his work to his peers or editors, and they tear it to pieces. “Never switch point of view in the middle of a chapter! Whichever character you start with in a chapter, stay with that character throughout that chapter. Otherwise you confuse the reader.”

How many films have you watched where the shot doesn’t cut from one character’s face to another in the same scene—sometimes even in the same piece of dialogue? Each cut in the shot is a POV shift, and films have influenced the way the reader population imagines, so such shifts are not confusing. They simply have to be done right.

All right, all right—if you must shift POV, at least put an extra space between the different points of view.” In some instances this may work, but in most cases such extra white space disrupts the flow of the story and serves to confuse the reader. Extra white space indicates the shift in scene–not a shift in POV.

I bring this up now because when writing description as I have suggested, using the eyes of multiple characters gives a bigger picture of the setting. Again this is cinemagraphic writing. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to show you how it’s done. This is an example I wrote for this post specifically. It is not an ongoing story I’ve written previously.

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When they passed through security to enter the hotel ball, Marcus noted five men on duty―basic training and hired to look intimidating. He doubted they knew how to hold their guns properly, so he wasn’t worried about them but nodded to them and gestured for Olivia and Patrick to step ahead of him.

Trailing behind, he entered the grand ballroom. His eyes went straight to the ceiling where three huge crystal chandeliers lit the room and awed the guests. He noted the balcony a level up, and his eyes zeroed in on the swooping stairs at the opposite side of the room where wealthy guests ascended to or descended from the upper level. Calculating the distance, he determined the length of the room to be half a football field long, and he pocketed that thought away in case he needed to sprint to the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs on either side stood two guards dressed in tuxedos and standing attentive but casual. Marcus frowned. Elite agents―recruited from all branches of the U.S. Army and trained as assassins to protect. Nothing missed their eye, and Marcus figured they already took mental note of him and labeled him as a potential danger. Sweeping his gaze around the edges of the circular room where pillars upheld the balcony and shadows congregated, Marcus numbered five on one side of the room and another five on the other.

He looked to Patrick beside him, who took in the room with a smile. “This isn’t going to be as easy as we thought.”

Patrick frowned when Marcus said this and watched him walk off. He opened his mouth to ask for clarification, but Marcus was already out of hearing range, and a guest bumped into Patrick’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he told the elderly man, but in passing Patrick noted the high tech digital watch on the man’s wrist―small and sophisticated, but it would serve Patrick’s purpose when he needed it, and he smiled at the man then continued his survey of the room.

When he first passed through the metal detectors at the door, he identified their security system as the two-year-old version of the latest Rockston TKX system. Wireless cameras with digital feed, controlled wirelessly, and an automatic lockdown system when anything foreign taps into the main feed.

“They just couldn’t have given me a challenge.” Patrick shook his head as he dug his hand into his tux’s pocket and meandered through the mingling crowd to the refreshments. He had already mastered hacking this style of system, so he didn’t understand why Marcus was so negative. Whatever went wrong, it would not be on his part.

As he passed through the crowd, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and noted the growing list of IP addresses locating and already hacking into every cell phone in the room. Soon he would have the keys to the perfect distraction for this heist.

“Are you sure I can’t just take one painting?” Olivia fell into step with him.

Without looking up from his cell phone, Patrick shook his head. “Cameras everywhere. They’ll get your face and track you through every database available.”

“But I’m not in any databases.” This time Patrick did look up and saw Olivia pouting. Then she darted her gaze around the room and leaned in. “We’re so close! I mean, look at that beauty.” She nodded to a woman in a low-cut, curve-hugging dress, and then Olivia whacked Patrick’s arm. “The necklace, Patrick―the necklace. That’s the original Raden Diamond…and I want it.”

Draping an arm around her bare shoulders, Patrick steered Olivia away from the guests toward the refreshment table. “Yes, yes, I know you want to add more to your collection, but we’re here on a job.” He handed her a cube of cheese on a toothpick. “Stay focused.”

With a sigh, Olivia took the cheese from him and snatched wine from the tray of a passing waitress. When she caught Patrick’s disapproving look, she smirked at him. “Hey, if I can’t have fun until the job’s done, I’m at least going to relax.”

“As long as you can do your part of the job.”

Olivia made no comeback. She already located the rarest paintings on display on the walls beyond the pillars beneath the balcony―seven altogether. Each one within reach, but she knew the slightest fingerprint would trigger the security system and lockdown the ballroom. She had to wait until the system was knocked offline before daring to touch those, so in the meanwhile she did what she did best―pick people’s pockets although she had no intention to tell Patrick or Marcus that. What neither one of them knew was that she lifted their own wallets off them when they went through security, and she smiled knowing this. They would thank her later.

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In this snapshot from a scene, the POV shifts three times–from Marcus to Patrick to Olivia. Not only do you get a clearer image of the setting, but you also get a glimpse into the inner workings of each character.

Now you tell me, were the shifts choppy? Did they yank you out of the story? Or did you not even notice them because they went with the flow of the writing?

Most people will say, “Don’t switch the POV in the middle of a scene,” but keep in mind the POV is the camera of your story. If the camera swifts view, then shift POV. Always know why the switch is necessary and understand the purpose of it. If there is no purpose, and if it isn’t necessary, then no need to shift.

Are POV shifts limited to describing the setting?” No. Let’s say you’ve opened a scene through the eyes of a character who just walked on scene into a conversation. As this character is listening to the conversation unfold, he possesses secret knowledge none of the other characters know, and you don’t want your readers to know it either! If you remain in his POV, his mere thoughts can give away the secret and ruin it ahead of time. However, as an author you should be knowledgeable of who knows what, so when the crucial moment comes, you can switch to one of the other characters’ POV to keep that secret unknown to the readers. In other words, POV shifting allows you to deceive your readers.

What if I write in First Person? I can’t switch POV at will.” You’re right—you can’t, so you would have to word everything precisely. Later in this blog I’ll discuss first narrative, but first let’s continue to cover the basics of writing.