view over another. The first, quite honestly, might be comfort level,
especially when a writer is a beginner. When I began writing, I came at
it as a reader, but also with some small amount of experience in
theater. The easiest way for me to see, feel, taste, touch, and smell
the story was to inhabit a character much the way I had when performing a
monologue. I began by writing in first person, as a character on stage
First Person: A Crooked Kind of Perfect
My first novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect,
is about a ten-almost-eleven year old girl, Zoe, who wants to play the
piano but receives what she describes as a “wood-grained, vinyl-seated,
wheeze-bag organ” instead. One of the themes of this book is about how
our real world often conflicts with that which we might dream about.
First person helped illuminate that theme because I was able to
articulate her rather fantastic expectations in her own voice — one that
never admitted how unrealistic those dreams were. While some readers
might recognize that Zoe is engaged in fantasy, the first person
narration does not encourage the reader to do so. Instead, it invites the reader to engage in the fantasy as if it were his own. To become the “I”.
The format of the book also lent itself to first person. The
chapters are short — sometimes only a paragraph or two. They have been
called vignettes. To my mind, they are the sort of stories that you tell
your friends about what happened at lunch yesterday, or what your mom
said when she was driving to the party, or how you found out that boy
liked you. I wanted the book to feel as if Zoe was telling a friend a
series of these stories and I wanted the reader to piece them together
into something bigger — a process that is replicated by Zoe herself as
begins to see that the world is a bit larger and more complicated than
she initially imagines. So, first person helped me demonstrate
character development, too, as Zoe’s stories reveal more detailed and
sympathetic descriptions of the people around her as the book
Also, Zoe is funny. She doesn’t tell jokes, but in she makes a lot
of witty observations that show up in internal monologue. If this story
had been in third person, I might have been able to put some of these
observations into dialogue — but not many, unless I wanted to seriously
alter the character (A person who makes such observations aloud,
regardless of who is listening, is quite different from a person who
thinks these things, but keeps them to herself) — or cluttered up the
prose with too many she thoughts and imagined Zoes.
I don’t want to suggest that I thought about all this in advance.
First person narration was simply what was comfortable to start with,
and once I started letting Zoe talk, the story and themes shaped
themselves around her.
So, if first person was so darn comfortable, why did I write my second novel in third person?
Third Person — Hound Dog True
Dog True began as a picture book and in third person. When I decided
to expand it into a novel, I tested out some of the initial scenes in
first person. It was a useful experiment and one that I recommend to
other writers who are trying to get to know their characters. Those
first person scenes helped me to understand my main character, to feel
what she felt, to speak as she spoke. But it became clear early on that
first person would not work for this character, not for an entire novel.
Here’s why: Hound Dog True is about Mattie Breen,
an extraordinarily shy girl. She doesn’t interact with many people.
She doesn’t talk a lot. To have her story told in first person, even if
it was clear that the narrative was not really being “spoken” by her,
might feel like a contradiction of that essential part of her
character. If you’re supposed to be so quiet and shy, the reader might ask, how come you keep blabbing on about it?
Mattie lives in her head and worries a lot and when it comes time to
speak, her words stack up on top of one another (one example: things
don’t twist or turn for Mattie, they twist-turn) or break off before a
thought is complete. If I wrote the book in first person, a great
majority of the sentences would begin with “I” and be followed by some
statement of worry or anxiety. I wanted readers to align themselves
with Mattie and to care about her, and so many sad “I” sentences would
test the patience of even the most sympathetic reader. Mattie might
seem whiny or self-centered, rather than worried and self-protecting.
Likewise, it can feel claustrophobic to spend an entire novel in the
mind of someone who is continually attempting to shelter herself.
Third person can put distance between the narrator and the point of
view character and can offer readers that same distance. The degree of
that space can vary, even within a single book. Sometimes the narration
is so far from the point of view character as to feel objective,
sometimes it more closely reflects the point-of-view character’s
attitudes and emotions, and sometimes it is so close as to give the
impression of being fused with that character’s mind so that the
narrative replicates his thoughts and speech patterns in much the same
way that first person does.
Hound Dog True is told in very close third person
throughout the novel. It feels like first person, really. It uses
language and sentence structure that replicate Mattie’s voice and
thought patterns. We are given no information that Mattie does not
possess, but the sliver of distance between narrator and Mattie, and
reader and Mattie, allows for a bit of perspective checking. We are
more likely as readers to ask: Was it really like that? Was it as
bad as Mattie thinks it was? Is that neighbor girl as grown-up and
matter-of-fact as Mattie says she is? It was important to me that
the reader be able to identify with Mattie, but also to recognize the
limits of her understanding of the world. The small distance between
character and reader permitted the reader find hope where Mattie could
not (yet); to root for her, rather than feeling her to be doomed.
Close third person worked well for this story of a shy girl taking
small brave steps. So why not stick with that for my next novel? Why
move to an omniscient narrator?
I’ll tell you why.
Omniscient Narration — The Center of Everything
book started with an image I had one summer afternoon. In my mind I
saw a girl — the back of her head, actually. She had small sweaty curls
poking out under a ponytail. She was standing on the sidewalk, waiting
for a parade to pass by. Who was she? What was she waiting for? And
what would happen when it came?
The Center of Everything is about Ruby Pepperdine,
this year’s Bunning Day Essay Girl. She has made an important wish, one
linked to the last moments she spent with her dying grandmother, one
she believes will come true the moment she steps on the Bunning
Schoolhouse float and reads her essay to the crowd.
The story, as I’ve described it above, could easily be told in first
person or third, but one of the major themes of the book — the
connections we make in a life*– led me to consider an omniscient
narrator, one that could go backward and forward in time, could explain
town traditions and legends, could jump into the heads of characters
other than the main character, Ruby. An omniscient narrator could make
those connections — big and little, known and unnoticed — clear, in the
way that a twelve-year-old girl puzzling out the intricacies of
wish-making could not.
Here’s an example: early in the book, as the parade begins, the
narrator describes the approach of the high school band and their “flag
girls”. They are described as wearing sleeveless sweaters and pleated
skirts. “In November,” says the narrator, “they will wear those
sweaters over turtlenecks and wave their flags at football games and
wish that they were warmer, but now, in the late June heat, the girls
have lobster-red faces and each is using her own favorite curse word to
swear she will never try out for flag again. Next year, thinks Talia O’Hare, I am joining show choir instead.”
Some moments in the story are even narrated twice. Just after Ruby
has asked for a “clear, simple,un-mix-up-able sign” that things will
turn out okay, we begin a chapter that introduces a local banker, Mr.
Victor Gomez, who has dressed up as the town founder for the parade. In
this chapter, we follow Mr. Gomez’s rather grandiose thoughts and
daydreams and understand the reasons he nods and gestures as he does.
In the next chapter, we experience that same moment through Ruby’s
eyes. We see her draw conclusions about the banker’s actions that are
completely different from the motivations we have been privy to pages
earlier. I could not have made this work in a first person novel, or
even one told in close third, but these overlapping moments were useful
in the exploration of another of the book’s themes: the question of
whether or not things happen as they are “supposed to” or whether there
is a “supposed to” at all (and if so, can we ever know what that
“supposed to” is?).
There are challenges in using such a visible narrator, of course.
Some warn that it creates the feeling of a filter between the reader and
the character, or that such a narrator is an unwelcome reminder that
the story is “made-up”. I tried in this book to balance that with many
scenes where the narration takes on a third person point of view, often a
close one, and during Ruby’s most pivotal scenes, an extremely close
So, What’s Next?
For the book I’m working on now, a fantasy adventure, I’ve gone back
to third person. Or maybe omniscience. Sort of. I’m still figuring it
out. In the end, it will come down to how close or far away I want the
narrator and reader to be to the main character. How wide a view do I
want readers to have of the world? How important is it that readers
understand the motivations of other characters? How much needs to be
explained that would not normally be a part of what my main character
would know or understand or share? How best can I make this character
and his adventure come alive for my reader?
We’ll see. We’ll see.
Already this post is too long, but I want to recommend some fabulous
books that provide great examples of point of view, too. So, how about
this: Next week I’ll start posting some lists of my favorites and a few
reasons why. Meanwhile, if you have any books you want to recommend,
feel free to leave a comment below.
*that’s a reference to a quote from Mister Rogers that I use as the
book’s epigraph. “The connections we make in a life — maybe that’s what