Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Third Person vs First

Naturally, proud Gramma had to include this one!
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When I was growing up, the Gothic novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney were the reads for female fiction-lovers. The prolific number of books by these authors were all written in first person, with the heroine telling the story from her point of view only. I was also a great fan of the Johnson Johnson mystery series by Dorothy Dunnett, also written in first person. These were highly unusual mysteries, as they were not told from the hero's point of view but always from the POV of another character. We saw Johnson Johnson only through the eyes of others.

And then one day when I picked up Ms Dunnett's latest, it didn't have the right feel. It wasn't as wickedly clever or downright hilarious. Huh? And then I realized it was written in third person. Oh no! I'd heard of the trend toward third-person books, but how could an editor or publisher demand such a change from an author of Ms Dunnett's stature? Her two historical series, alone, put her in the upper echelons of world-class authors. Perhaps from proper Scots stubbornness, or possibly due to failing health, that was the last Johnson Johnson mystery. Satisfaction came only after Ms Dunnett's death, as I discovered when I bought the book for my Kindle and saw that it had been reissued in first person.

So what on earth is the problem with first person? My mother put me through college, after all, writing first-person stories for Modern Romances.

I think it may have been the Harlequin/Silhouette mindset and their enormous influence on the romance market. Somehow the word went out - perhaps the result of some romance editors' luncheon? - that readers would enjoy a romance more if they could see into the hero's head as well as the heroine's. My opinion is pure speculation, but the transformation happened, and happened so well that I have known romance authors, as well as readers, to declare: "I hate first person," or "I never read first person." How very sad, as well as narrow-minded.

And yet this attitude was so ingrained by the time I began to write that anything but third person never occurred to me. But one day I decided to write a mystery - and in spite of Ms Dunnett's experience, many mysteries still "allowed" first person - and, lo and behold, I discovered I loved it. Somehow I could be more witty, more clever, more sarcastic, more . . . everything. And the plot twists inherent in what the heroine (and consequently the readers) did not know were legion.

And one day not long ago, freed from the tyranny of other people's preconceptions by the miracle of Do-It-Yourself Publishing, I decided to write my own first-person Gothic. Not contemporary like Mary Stewart or Phyllis Whitney, nor Victorian like Victorian Holt. But one which would stick to the period I knew best - Regency England - while incorporating all the conventions of the classic Gothic novel. The most important criteria - the reader sees the story only through the heroine's eyes. Any or all of those around her could be the enemy. The "hero" is often a possible villain, and as far as our heroine is concerned, there is no one to help her but herself. 

Amazingly, Brides of Falconfell is outselling all my other books combined. So naturally I'm happily writing another Regency Gothic, The Mists of Moorhead Manor. Are we simply rounding the far bend of a circle of inevitable change? Or is the new freedom of the DIY market allowing readers to choose what New York would have rejected? And creating new markets on their own?

As part of this commentary, I shouldn't leave out those books that are written in third person but show us only one point of view. Recently, I've been re-reading a series where that happens, and now that my editing skills have become more sharply honed, what I accepted on a first read now jumps out at me as something odd. In this particular series, the author occasionally tells us what other characters are thinking, but almost all the introspection belongs to the heroine. In other words these books have the classic first-person approach of never letting either the heroine or the reader know what the hero is thinking. Maybe that's why this series is still on my shelf. I like the uncertainty, the mystery of it. Though I have to admit I can see why someone, somewhere decided readers had a right to know what the hero was thinking. There were times in those one-sided books I just wanted to give the hero a crack upside the head, for the there was absolutely no way to discover a motive for his seeming indifference, recalcitrance, admiration of other woman, etc.

My personal opinion is that if you're going to write a book with a single point of view, then write it in first person. But the way some editors and readers have been indoctrinated to feel about first person, well, maybe you need to take that into account. That said, my advice is, that a book written in third person should give us the hero's point of view as well as the heroine's. And if you're writing from just one person's viewpoint, the best, more intimate, results come from the use of first person.

What is right for you? If you're writing Young Adult or New Adult, you may already be writing a bright and breezy first person, and using present tense as well. And first person is generally okay for mysteries, both classic and cozy. But for romance and its many permutations, you'll have to play it by ear. For example, what does your editor have to say about a Romantic Suspense in first person? The reaction may be a major cringe.

But if you're indie-pubbing, I'd like to see you give first person a try. Certainly, the market seems to be trending back that way. If you find you like it, go for it. Discover all those wonderful nuances that third person can't quite manage. Enjoy the mystery, the secrets possible when the story is seen through only one pair of eyes.

Will third person, in turn, go out of style? Of course not. In a nice juicy Historical Romance, for example, we all want to know what that gorgeous but naughty hero is thinking. But if you want your heroine to dominate, "fill the screen," so to speak, give first person a try. You just might like it.

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Thanks for stopping by.


For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

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  1. Grace, my first book Tangled Memories was a Golden Heart finalist back in the day. It was first person. I couldn't sell it to Harlequin. It went the ebook route back 14 years ago when there really was no such thing as ebooks. Since then it has been published by 3 small presses. I love the book and the freedom it gave me. Since writing Tangled Memories, I've written a group of Medieval short stories like Phillipa Gregory -- not just first person but first person present tense! Last year I completed a contemporary Gothic like Tangled Memories. It is called Timeless. Because I'm better known for my third person contemporary romances, these books don't sell well. However, they are my favorite books of all the ones I've written. Strange, isn't it?

  2. I'm halfway through your Brides of Falconfell and loving it, Grace! I expect to try first person, but for a contemporary rather than Regency -- off in the future somewhere, if I live long enough! In the 3rd-person-with-one-POV vein, I just have to mention Jane Austen, who did it REALLY WELL...

  3. The only time I've written first person is in The Girls of Tonsil Lake, but it has four points of view, so writing it in first person was almost like writing a journal. And it was so much fun! When it comes to reading, I have t admit I prefer third person in romance because of what I perceive as first's limitations, but I wouldn't NOT read a book because of who's telling the story.