He or me? The writers’ conundrum

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

Right, let’s get one thing straight. I’m not a font of knowledge, guru, mentor, person to be trusted with pointy things. I have had no writing training since high school so should be listened to ‘with a pinch of salt’ so to speak. Everything I say here are my opinions and things I find when I write. There are no answers here. Unless you need help with algebra, in which case collect all the like variables. No, no help? Well I warned you!

In any case, today I want to talk about something I have been struggling with for a while and lately I’ve noticed a lot of radio chatter about (by this I mean twitter, of course, I’m not a cop or a spy…if only). Should we write in first or third person? Dun dun dun!!!

I don’t know.

I only know what I prefer. Well my fall back position anyway. Up until Nano this year my default position was first person. This way I could easily describe the protagonist’s feelings, thoughts and move the story on with inner monologue. A lot of my favourite book series are written this way: The Dresden Files, Alex Verus series and the Rivers of London series. It lets you bounce of the reader so to speak, let them directly in the head of the main character and automatically jumps starts a connection. Whether that is the right way of doing it or the right motivations I don’t know.

So why did I dally with third person then? Well, it was because I had written a five book series all from the main character’s point of view and I decided I wanted to do a spin-off in the same world. Ooh, how about we write all the spin-offs in third person so they seem different? That would be clever wouldn’t it? That would show that the main series is the main arc and the main character is still persona number 1! Genius, or so I thought.

Cue muddling through the narrative not knowing how to portray the thoughts and feelings of the character’s. Am I saying too much for third person, not enough? Do I switch points of view? (Whole other powder keg.) I got to the end of two spin-off stories and my didn’t they make me work for it. This is when I realised I was a first person writer-end of.

Life then kept getting in the way and I didn’t write for a considerable time, my next story lying discarded in a folder hoping I would return with a better understanding of third person. Fast-forward to September last year, the writing bug has bitten again and I look to Nano!

After much deliberating over ideas, I decided upon Tempus Rock, my story of the time wardens. Uh-oh. Who would be the main character? But, but I want them to be a double act! Two first person points of view? Are you insane? Well, no but that means…? Switching between points of view in third person? NOOOOOOOOOOO!

Not having a plan for the story was hard enough but now mix in the issues of writing in third person. Keeping the view points separate turned out to be less of a problem in this than I’d anticipated but knowing how deep I could go in third person was still bringing me up short. I was sure that my character’s were sounding two-dimensional because you couldn’t get in their heads. And how do I give the back-story? Waffly exposition?

So I did what I should have done in the first place and looked at some of my reading books that use third person. Turns out you can still get their thoughts. All the thing I thought I needed to cut could still get in there. As I was basically riding shotgun with a character, I might not ‘feel’ their innermost thoughts but I could ‘spy’ on them. I loosened up a bit and realised I just had to sit on that character’s shoulder. I found myself altering the narrator’s tone slightly between the two points of view, each character would notice different things for example. (I have had feedback that says I should find the narrator voice and it would basically be the same between characters but I’m not so sure about that.)

Half-way through my Nano story I finally felt like I had the balance right and I could do third person!! Not only that but I suddenly started looking at my first person stories and realising…hmm don’t the main characters all seem a little similar…and quite a bit like me? Getting my head round third person made me realise my first person was not as flawless as I had thought! The character voice still needed to come through and not be translated into the writer on the way!

So which should we write in? I know some people are saying third person isn’t looked at by agents as much anymore but all I know is I’m still buying books in third person and as long as it’s well-written I don’t mind. (As long as it isn’t present tense, I really struggle reading present tense.) Basically, write whatever makes you happy!!!! That and make sure you listen to your characters, otherwise they’ll bug you all night when you’re trying to sleep.


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