Resist both 1st & 3rd points of view

half-portraits-2
Stare at the photo for 15 seconds. Is it a side or front view?

Is it possible to write a novel using both first and third person points of view at the same time? An interesting proposition, though one would urge writers to resist.

Given the perils of writing first-person present tense, mainly the difficulties of remaining consistent in viewpoint, consistent in tense, and your characters not knowing what they cannot know, I should imaging writing a novel which includes both a first and third person point of view would be very difficult. But not impossible.

In fact, it sounds like an interesting project. The key would be how well you know your characters and how rigorously you understand your different character’s point of views.

For instance, describing another character happens very differently in the two points of view: In the first person, your character can only know what they directly experience about the other person, or what they suspect based on their own prejudices and emotions. But in the third person, the narrator can accurately describe a person’s character so the reader understands fully what drives them.

e.g. ‘Mary didn’t like me, she always treated me with disdain. Personally, I think she had a problem with authority figures,’ is very different from, ‘Mary was very shy. She struggled to express herself in even the simplest of ways, especially around men, and even more so with people she admired, like her boss John.’

Both these descriptions are of Mary, but the reader is left with totally different perception of the same character. I imagine resolving this story would present problems. First you need to decide whose story you wish to resolve, Mary overcoming her shyness or John realising Mary’s attitude is not about him? Or is the story all about John coming to appreciate what the reader knows from the very first? If the latter, how do you keep the reader’s interest long enough for them to stick with the story?

Also, would readers be willing to invest mental energy into a story which constantly changes viewpoint – some find the concept of time travel challenging enough, but to have such a challenge written into an alternating point of view might be more than some readers can bear. Given my experience writing novels in the first person present tense, I suspect may readers would not tolerate such an alternating point of view.

The more I think about this, the more challenging the story elements become. The only situations in which I can see this working are romance or comedy, or comedy romance. It could, though, be a useful exercise to help a writer hone their focus on a particular point of view.

If you are tempted to have a go at writing in both the first and third person points of view at the same time, I would recommend writing a few short stories this way first and testing reader reception before launching into a full novel.  It may be best to resist the temptation – except for your own amusement.

Nick

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