Next time you start writing a work of fiction, stop (or at least pause) before you type out that fateful word “I.” Why? The first person narrator in contemporary fiction is seriously overused.
I had always assumed that the split was relatively even between first person and third person narrators in fiction and had even heard it said that the third person was the more prevalent of the two. Perhaps that was once true, but no more, at least not in the field of literary fiction. (Genre fiction heavily favors the third person point of view.) While compiling an anthology of short stories, I made a startling discovery—the vast majority of contemporary fiction is being written in the first person, so much so that we seem to be suffering an overpopulation of first person narrators. It got to the point where I cringed every time I began a story and ran into that ubiquitous “I.” (Count me among the guilty as I’m using it even for this article.)
Why are there so many Is out there now? Perhaps it has something to do with the current popularity of the memoir or perhaps it’s just that it seems easier to write a story in the first person. Whatever the cause, the first person point of view has clearly become the default choice for most fiction writers, and though it’s not a bad choice, it’s not the only choice.
Don’t get me wrong. The first person narrator is a wonderful device. The first person allows us to inhabit a fictional character more fully than is possible in any other point of view, or even in any other form of storytelling. In the first person, we, the reader, actually become the character, walking around in his shoes, viewing the world through her eyes, hearing the tale straight from the horse’s mouth. There’s something thrilling about that. We wouldn’t want Ishmael to introduce himself with anything other than “Call me Ishmael,” nor would we want Jane Eyre to deliver her good news any other way than, “Reader, I married him.”
Let’s not overlook, however, the many merits of the third person narrator. From an artistic perspective, the third person offers some fascinating storytelling possibilities not available with first person, and it also guards against a certain me-me-me indulgence that’s easy to fall into when every other line contains an “I.” Perhaps many of those first person narrators are really author Is posing as fictional Is, and, yes, there is sometimes a fine line between fiction and memoir, but there’s a reason they are shelved in different sections of the bookstore. Thinking more practically, using the third person may help you to catch the attention of an agent or editor reading your work. These people plough through hundreds of stories, one after another, and they’re likely to feel a certain lassitude when every story is told in the same way. When they see a story using a different type of point of view, it’s likely to gleam like a ruby in the snow.
Most fundamentally, the difference between the first person and third person points of view is that the former uses the pronoun “I” and the latter uses the pronouns “he” or “she.” More significantly, this means that the first person narrator is a character in the story and that the third person narrator is not a character but some unnamed storyteller, which offers the author greater freedom in terms of voice and psychic distance.
Voice? Psychic distance? Huh? To make matters more slippery, there are actually several variations on the third person point of view. Perhaps it’s these little complexities that cause writers to instinctively shy away from the third person. Why tamper with something you don’t fully understand? Well, if you’re hoping to publish fiction, it’s your job to understand, and if you’re capable of bringing human beings to life on the page then you’re capable of understanding the third person point of view. And it’s really not that complicated.
Let’s examine the four major third person variations, and to illustrate I’ll mostly be using stories chosen for Fiction Gallery, the anthology that first inspired me to campaign for the third person candidate.
Third Person Single Vision
In this point of view, the third person narrator sticks by the side of only one character. The author retains the intimacy and focus of the first person point of view and also inherits the same limitation—the narrator can only relate the thoughts and observations of that one character. The advantages are that the narrator may use a voice, or style of writing, quite different from that of the point of view character and also provide insight that is out of the character’s reach, advantages that are true with all third person narrators.
Here’s an example from Claire Davis’s “Labors of the Heart,” a story about an obese janitor who falls in love for the first time.
For although Pinky knows himself to be large—talcums each pant leg to keep his thighs from chafing, avoids chairs with arms—he’s always believed himself small, just a tiny voice chirping on the horizon, flotsam in an ocean of flesh. He’s amazed at how his vessel sloshes and wags, jiggles and rolls. The real him adrift inside like a buoy at high tide. He cannot imagine being of consequence in the larger world beyond bumped tables and broken chairs, the numerous bruises and insulted flesh so common that he has ceased to wonder at the many ways the world is rigged against the fat.
Pinky is a plain-spoken man, and so the narrator is able to explain Pinky’s plight more eloquently and perhaps more perceptively than Pinky could do for himself. Also the narrator’s lyrical voice proves effective at capturing the story’s romanticism, something that Pinky feels but would have great trouble expressing.
In this point of view, it’s also possible for the narrator to use a voice that is similar to the voice of the point of view character, drawing things even closer to the first person. Here’s an example from Thom Jones’s “I Want To Live,” a story about a woman suffering the trials of cancer.
She. . . came to. . . went out, came back again. . . went out. There was this . . . wonderful show. Cartoons. It was the best show. This wasn’t so bad. True, she had cancer but . . . these wonderful cartoons. Dilaudid. On Dilaudid, well, you live, you die—that’s how it is . . . life in the Big City. It happens to everyone. It’s part of the plan. Who was she to question the plan?
The narrator’s humorously cynical voice is just like that of the character. So why didn’t this author just use first person? The third person, in general, makes the readers a bit less certain of a character’s fate, and in this story the author didn’t want the readers to know if the character would die or live.
Notable examples: George Orwell’s 1984, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses
Third Person Multiple Vision
With this point of view, the narrator isn’t chained to one character for the entire story. The narrator can move around, following the thoughts and observations of one character for awhile then switching to another character. This technique opens things up considerably, allowing the reader to view the story from more than one person’s perspective. And the multiple vision point of view doesn’t diffuse the character focus too much because the narrator follows the chosen characters, one at a time, giving each ample time in the spotlight.
In Richard Russo’s novel Empire Falls, the third person narrator follows numerous different characters, all of whom live in the same town.
Here is Miles, a man musing about his ex-wife, Janine.
No, he hadn’t loved her, and he didn’t know why. He also didn’t know what to call whatever it was that would’ve prevented him from telling her, even if he had known. If you didn’t call it love, what did you call the kind of affection that makes you want to protect someone from hurt? What was the name of the feeling that threatened to swamp him now, that made him want to take her in his arms and tell her that everything would be all right. If not love, then what?
And here is Janine, musing on Miles.
At least now Janine knew who Janine was, what Janine wanted, and, just as important, what Janine didn’t want. She didn’t want Miles, or anyone who reminded her of Miles… Also, she wanted a real sex life, and she wanted to act young for a change, something she hadn’t been able to do when she actually was young. She wanted to dance and have men look at her.
With this point of view, the narrator can follow different characters who are somehow related to each other, as done in Empire Falls, or the narrator can broaden the scope to follow characters who travel on different orbits. The trick is to make it clear who the narrator is following for any given period, something that is easily achieved by using a space break or chapter break to mark the shift in viewpoint. To avoid losing too much focus on any one character, it’s best not to split the vision among more than a handful of characters.
Notable examples: Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy
With this point of view, the narrator trades focus for the chance to expand into a god-like being who knows all and sees all, all of the time. The omniscient narrator has the power to follow the thoughts and observations of an unlimited number of characters (major and minor), moving back and forth between them at will, even crossing the barriers of time to do so.
Hannah Tinti’s “Home Sweet Home” is a short story about a double-murder in a quiet neighborhood, in which the narrator enters the minds of numerous characters.
Here the narrator is with Clyde, one of the murder victims.
The doorbell had chimed just as Clyde pierced the roast with the carving fork, releasing two streams of juice, which ran down the sides of the meat until they were captured by the raised edge of the serving plate. He paused then as he lifted the knife, waiting to hear and recognize the voices of his wife and whoever had come to visit. His stomach tightened in the silence.
Here the narrator moves among several characters at once—Clyde’s mother, a police lieutenant, and two officers in a cruiser.
She dialed the police after trying her son thirty-two times, and because the lieutenant on duty was a soft touch, his own mother having recently passed, a cruiser was dispatched to Pat and Clyde’s on Bridge Street, and because one of the policemen was looking to buy in the neighborhood, the officers decided to check out the back of the house after they got no answer…
And here the narrator relates a scene where no living humans are present, a decidedly god-like touch.
Pat and Clyde’s bodies lay silent and still while the orange sunset crossed the floors of their house and the streetlights clicked on. As darkness came and the skunks waddled through the backyard and the raccoons crawled down from the trees, they were still there, holding their places, suspended in a moment of quiet blue before the sun came up and a new day started and life went on without them.
Once common, the omniscient point of view has fallen out of favor in contemporary literature, but it’s worth considering. Though it’s especially well-suited to stories with an epic scope, it can also work on a smaller scale, as in “Home Sweet Home,” where it offers an alternative way to view the happenings in a particular neighborhood.
Notable examples: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News
This point of view is the polar opposite of the omniscient; no characters’ thoughts and observations are related. The narrator becomes like a journalist recording only the facts—what is seen and heard—never venturing inside any of the characters’ minds.
Here is an example from Dorothy Parker’s “Here We Are,” a story about a pair of newlyweds traveling by train to their honeymoon destination.
She had been staring raptly out of the window, drinking in the big weathered signboards that extolled the phenomena of codfish without bones and screens no rust could corrupt. As the young man sat down, she turned politely from the pane, met his eyes, started a smile and got it about half done, and rested her gaze just above his right shoulder.
“Well!” the young man said.
“Well!” she said.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
“Here we are,” she said. “Aren’t we?”
Notice how we are only told what the man and woman are doing and saying. We must guess at their private perceptions. But that’s the beauty of the objective point of view. Readers get to draw their own inferences, much like eavesdroppers. In the above passage, we sense with amusement that this newlywed couple has very little to say to each other.
See what you can infer from the following passage, in which the woman brings up the subject of the bridesmaids.
“Ellie and Louise looked lovely, didn’t they? I’m terribly glad they did finally decide on pink. They looked perfectly lovely.”
“Listen,” he said, “I want to tell you something. When I was standing up there in that old church waiting for you to come up, and I saw those two bridesmaids, I thought to myself, I thought, ‘Well, I never knew Louise could look like that!’ Why, she’d have knocked anybody’s eye out.”
“Oh, really?” she said.
The author doesn’t have to tell us this couple is headed for trouble. We can see it.
The objective point of view is rarely used, rightly so because entering the minds of characters is one of the chief charms of fiction, but it does provide an interesting change of pace. And it’s also a terrific exercise for fiction writers as it forces them to follow that all-important maxim: show, don’t tell.
Notable examples: Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon
One of the nifty features of the third person point of view is that it allows the writer to control the psychic distance. This sounds rather metaphysical and, in a way, it is. Psychic distance refers to the mental or emotional distance between the narrator and the point of view characters. The easiest way to picture this is to think of film, where the camera can show the characters from close up or far away or anywhere in between. With first person narration, the “camera” is always up close because the narrator is a character in the story, but third person narrators have the freedom to move their “camera” around. It’s perfectly fine for a third person narrator to maintain the same psychic distance throughout an entire work, but the inventive writer will often find compelling ways to vary the psychic distance.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” is about a man who decides to make his way home one Sunday by swimming through all the neighbors’ swimming pools. In the opening lines, the third person narrator shows the story’s setting, an affluent suburb, from a distance.
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.
It’s as if the narrator is flying over the setting, giving the reader a panorama. Then the narrator quickly zooms in close to the main character.
Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man—he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young he had slid down the bannister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.
The narrator is close enough to roam through Ned’s mind and even report how he smelled the coffee that morning. The narrator (using single vision) remains close to Ned for the rest of the story, except for one passage where the “camera” dramatically pulls back to show Ned from a distance.
Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool. Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway—beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful.
Varying psychic distance allows the narrator to be either inside or outside of the characters, depending on how the author wants to handle any given moment. In “The Swimmer,” Cheever uses the opening “long shot” to introduce us to the world of the story and he later uses the “pullback” to show the gap between Ned’s delusional perceptions of himself and reality. The author’s artful use of psychic distance makes these moments among the most striking in the story. If a writer goes overboard with psychic distance, zooming in and out every few paragraphs, the reader will develop whiplash, but used judiciously it adds a whole new dimension to how a story is told.
And that’s the whole point of point of view—finding the most compelling way to tell the story.
And…some first person alternatives. If you’re determined to use the first person point of view, make interesting use of it. Some ideas:
Find a distinctive voice for the first person narrator, one that may be quite different from your own natural voice.
Notable examples: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
Allow your first person narrator to be unreliable, meaning too deceitful or deluded or naïve to be relating the whole truth of the story.
Notable examples: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Adam Haslett’s "Notes to My Biographer"
Make the first person narrator someone other than the story’s main character, someone who serves as an observer of the story rather than the star.
Notable examples: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Let two or more characters tell their side of the story from their own first person viewpoints, providing different angles on the same story.
Notable examples: Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible
This article originally appeared in The Writer.