To Write from the First, Third or even, the Second Person Point of View?


grey outcastI’ve posted before on the whole issue of how much of a character’s thoughts, feelings, and general inner life to reveal in a book – is it more intriguing to have one laid bare – or one who retains an element of mystery?

However much of the character one chooses to reveal is all, of course, inextricably bound up with the point of view the author chooses to use – third person, first person, the rare second person – or even some variant.

I wrote the first draft of ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ in two first person’s – Sophie and Emile’s – and it was only because I was intrigued by the idea of having Emile only seen from the outside – and therefore, remaining to some extent throughout, and particularly during his monster stage, inscrutable – that I finally went over to the third person point of view. He had to be seen by other people throughout, Sophie, Lord Ynyr, Georges, etc.

Previously, I did enjoy portraying events from that scoundrel’s light hearted, rascally viewpoint; I was reminded of that when I recently read the letters of the villain Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’. I recalled how intriguing it was to use that particular version of the first person also, when I read an excellent YA book in the spring, Kate Haney’s ‘Someone Different’, strongly written from the point of view of the two main characters.

This inspired me to go back to it in the novel I haven’t been long at work on – called tentatively, ‘The Villainous Viscount or The Victims’ a return to a Gothic theme.

The main male character in this is an anti hero for sure – the complicated villain I have recently become interested in portraying.

I did read somewhere – and typically forgot where – that a recipe for failure is writing about an unsympathetic character in the first person. Mind you, according to some ‘How To’ books on writing, any sort of innovation is a guarantee of failure. I’ve read some works where the author has used this technique, though, and think it has a lot going for it (she said arrogantly, facing the prospect of disastrous sales). The lame self-justification, the insensetivities of a wicked character can make for intriguing or grimly amusing reading, and a lively, charming wicked character who must nevertheless be seen as too bad to be capable of reformation (unlike my previous lovable rogues Emile and Reynaud) is a real challenge.

I hope I’m not speaking too soon about this intriguing project. Trust me to do that. I’ve had a few weeks of the dreaded writer’s block, of starting projects that foundered, and churning out those Early Morning Tea Four Hundred Words in longhand only to look at them later with disgust – ‘What made me think that was any good?!’

I remember how in an excellent ‘How To’ book on writing, James N Frey’s ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’ he points out that it isn’t necessary to use the first person to get inside a character’s head.

Instructively, he quotes one of the earliest Stephen King novels as evidence, rewriting a scene from Carrie’s first person as distinct form third person point of view, and it isn’t any more telling. I wish I had the book to hand as this is impressive evidence of Stephen King’s skill. For all that, it is easier, somehow, to take on the mood, the persona, the language of a character when you actively get into his or her viewpoint.

The first person point of view can also make for particularly lively reading; I am sure I must have said a good few times before how much I dislike that arch patriarch, the matriarchy destroying Theseus, in Mary Renault’s book ‘The King Must Die; – but he is, if obnoxious to me, the liveliest of narrators, until taken over by premature aging and bitterness in ‘The Bull from the Sea’,when he becomes a bore. For instance: –

‘I met no monsters, nor did I kill a giant with a cudgel; a fool’s weapon for a man with a spear and sword. I kept my arms;, though more than one tried to have them off me; I had no need of monsters, with the men I met. It is rocky country, where the road tracks about, and you can never see far ahead. Among the rocks by the road, the robbers lie up.’

This is, of course, the Corinth Peninsula (down which I have ridden in a prosaic coach, encountering only hazardous bends and noting all the rubbish strewn about) and vividly recreated as it would have been in the Bronze Age, when Theseus of legend made his way from Troezan to Athens.

The first person point of view, of course, presents notorious difficulties. We don’t get an objective view of the narrator if things are told from only one point of view. Instead, the author must rely to some extent, on the perception of the reader. She has to make enough hints to guide that readers’ judgement about how far this point of view is valid, fair, honest, etc,etc.

I had some evidence of that over on Amazon com on the topic of that very Theseus I have just quoted. While Mary Renault, though gay, didn’t have the highest regard for women in general, I am sure she didn’t intend her insensitive, violent and war prize taking Theseus to be a glowing example of manhood for her own age. Yet, I was disturbed to come across reviews – and by persons going out of their way to dub themselves as Christians – which hold him up as a role model for early twenty first century young males. As in Renault’s reworking of the myth Theseus ends up murdering his wife Phaedra, not the best idea.

I remember enrolling for a course on short story writing for ‘The Writer’s News’. One of the projects was a ghost story. I wrote an absurd one from the point of view of the ghost, a pretentious, narrow minded, snobbish, prudish, and self righteous individual, who ranted unappealingly, in verbose style. The tutor’s comment? That I really must try and make my style more fluid, cut down on the use of cliché and adjective, and try and make my characters more sympathetic…

The first person point of view used to depict an unsympathetic character failed there with a vengeance. No doubt a lot of that could be put down to inexperience on my part, and having a project over ambitious for a 2,000 word limit.

Frances Burney’s ‘Evelina’ uses the epistolary method, and the letters are from other people besides the naïve heroine, presumably to give some objective balance in the story. Nevertheless, a fault that can arise in this method is revealed in the heroine’s own letters, which give an unfortunate impression of vanity as she recounts compliment after compliment.

An interesting variant on the first person point of view is to be found in another story featuring Theseus – this time as the villain of the piece in June Rachuy Brindel’s brilliant and underestimated novel ‘Ariadne’ , another story telling the overthrow of matriarchy in the Bronze Age.

This story is told from the point of view of Ariadne herself, the Queen of Crete, and intriguingly enough, from that of the unappealing opportunist Daedalus, her one time tutor, and the father of her late lover Icarus. Daedalus betrays Ariadne to her scheming lover Theseus – not warning her of his evil intentions –  in exchange for a passage to Athens. Though contemptible, he seemingly retains a lively sense of humour, witness his description of the boastful and drunken Theseus: –

‘It was a braggart’s tale, enlivened with much muscle flexing, swinging of arms, demonstrations of wrestling holds, fighters tricks…The way he told it, he had cleansed the countryside between Troezon and Athens of thieves, murderers, and monstrous beasts…But as I questioned him more closely, it appeared that some of them might have been described in another way….This honking gander was my only hope of transport. I nodded…’

A fascinating aspect of third person narration is whether or not to be an omnipotent or an only partly informed narrator, or one who is sometimes all-knowing, sometimes ill-informed.

Interestingly, for instance, in Pushkin’s robber novella ‘Durbrovsky’ this is what happens – the narrator knows what is going on in the heads of the main characters, and of what is happening in the area generally for the first part of the novel, but then seems to be as unaware of the identity of the mysterious tutor who turns up at Kirol Petrovitch’s house as the reader is supposed to be until he unmasks himself: –

‘Anton Pafnutyevich opened his eyes, and by the pale light of an autumn morning saw Deforges standing over him. The Frenchman held a pistol n one hand, and with the other was unfastening the precious leather pouch.’
‘Qu’est ce que c’est, monsieur, qu’est ce que c’est ?’ He brought out in a trembling voice.
‘Sssh! Be quiet!’ the tutor replied in the purest Russian. ‘Be quiet, or you are lost. I am Dubrovsky.’’

The second person point of view I have only read in two short stories, neither of which, I’m sorry to say, impressed me. These were both in the same woman’s magazine, but several months apart, and highly emotional in tone. Both, for some reason, were goodbye letters.

One was an explanation by a teenage single mother for her unborn baby as to why she couldn’t keep him or her, and one was written to a husband by a wife during a ‘difficult period’ in a marriage, explaining why she couldn’t stay with him.

Both writers reversed their decisions during the course of the letters, which I gather was meant to astonish the reader, although the magazine in question being so family oriented and conventional, I couldn’t imagine any other outcome from the first sentence. I’ sure they evoked many a sigh and a tear; as for me,  I’m sorry to say, I was merely irritated.

However, I’m sure there are excellent examples of the use of the second person point of view which I may come across in the future.

Perhaps a second person plural point of view novel written to a whole group of accusers would be particularly fascinating…But no wandering from the present project for me!

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2 thoughts on “To Write from the First, Third or even, the Second Person Point of View?

  1. I find second person very difficult to read. I’ve never really tried to write it. And I like narrators to be present tense, even if the events they narrate are in the past.

  2. I’ve never tried second properly, either, Frank, and I don’t think for all my last quip in the post, I’m likely to try it. It comes across as over emotive in dramatic situations. I feel the same about that present tense being so much more immediate,and bringing the past to life.

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