The Problem with First Person and Third Person Limited

Saturday, August 10, 2013
The title of this blog post might suggest you should write your novel with an omniscient narrator--since I'm stating that third-person limited and first person have a problem. But that's not where I'm going with this. I love both points of view--I usually write in first person, but I read both, and I help students with both. So, what's THE problem I often see?

The problem is. . . the story is not told through the point of view (POV) character's viewpoint. This issue is different from the problem of head-hopping, which we've talked about on The Muffin before. Head-hopping is when a writer goes into the mind of more than one character during a scene, when a POV character has already been established. That's NOT what I'm talking about here.

What I'm talking about is when you write a scene with your POV character, and she is either doing something that there's no way she could be doing. while also telling details about the event/activity, OR seeing things she could not see OR even knowing things she could  not know.

For example, let's say you're writing a fictional novel that includes a scene about the Boston Marathon bombing. You have a main character--a 22-year-old woman who ran the race for the first time and was still a few miles back when the bomb went off at the finish line. If you are telling HER story in third person limited point of view, and she is at mile 18 when the bomb goes off, you have to ask yourself: Can she describe the chaos at the finish line? NO. She probably doesn't even realize what happened when the bomb first went off if she was that far back.

Once she has stopped running and is not allowed to finish the race, she is exhausted, defeated, and disappointed--maybe even scared. So, when you write her narration of the scene, you have to remember to see the scene THROUGH HER EYES. What would a 22-year-old woman, who didn't finish the race she'd been training for over a year, notice about her surroundings after the bombing? She might notice the noise, the panic, the blood, the wounded runners. She would notice her aching muscles, the need for water, and the fact she wants to throw-up. Would she be able to describe in detail what a paramedic's doing to an injured runner? No, unless she had medical training herself and was standing RIGHT OVER HIM watching. Would she know that a family was grieving their son? NO, unless she was near them and saw them. You have to tell the scene through her eyes and notice the things your character would.

This is a problem I often see. A writer is trying to get her story across and has a beloved character telling the story. All of a sudden, the writer realizes that character A can't narrate all the cool details she wants the reader to know about a particular scene, and so the writer is out of character A's head and writing omniscient point of view for a while. When writers do this, they usually lose their voice and maybe their readers.

The best way to fix this is to imagine yourself as your character and put yourself in the scene. Ask yourself what you could actually see, feel, touch, and so on. Then with the list of answers, write your scene with sensory details and stay true to your character's point of view!

Do you ever have POV problems in your fiction? How do you fix them? 

Margo Dill is teaching two novel writing online courses this fall: Writing a Children's or Young Adult Novel, starts on 8/20 or 10/15. Details and sign up are on the syllabus here. She is also teaching a monthly novel writing workshop, where you can work one-on-one with her to complete ANY novel. This starts the first Friday of every month, and you can sign up here. She just signed a contract with Rocking Horse Publishing in St. Louis for her second novel, a young adult light paranormal. 

photo above by orangeacid on 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--First of all, congratulations on the new publishing contract. It must be so exciting--another one of your "babies" is in utero now, you worked so hard to conceive it and it will be born at some point soon...

Yes, POV is something that people like me--writers who rarely write fiction--struggle with when it comes to consistency. Thanks for the post. I'd better reexamine my "longish" fictional project...;)

Anonymous said...

Hey, Margo!
Great post! This one is a keeper for sure. Congrats on the RHP contract - looking forward to reading your work.

Margo Dill said...

@Sioux: Thanks--I hope my baby sleeps through the night and sells lots of copies anyway. :) LOL As for "longish" fiction, I've had my own POV problems in short stories--heck even flash fiction. SO hopefully your examination comes up clean.

@Marilyn: THANK YOU! :) Hope it helps. Looking forward to more of your fiction, too.

Renee Roberson said...

Hmm, I have no idea what you're talking about here, Margo! Just kidding:) I think there's a common misconception that writing a book in first person is the simplest route, and then writers get about halfway through a manuscript and realize their story might have been better in third person omniscient. When done well, both third person limited and first person can make for a great story, but it takes a lot of careful editing and revision to make sure none of what you were talking about here occurs. I read a book not long ago that was told by three different people. Two of the people had third person limited POVs, and the other one was told in first person. While the book was great, it was a little jarring and I got confused a few times.

Laura said...

I have tried to do this, but it's always been interpreted by others as pov-switching. Perhaps I'm doing something wrong. I do try to separate switches/jumps with a paragraph or something like that.

krystal said...

I find first person to be the most intimate...I really get into the head of the writer. It does pose the problems that you outline, but I think the tradeoff is worth it. I like to "get inside the head" of my protagonist. The best way to really do that, I think, is 1st person. 3rd limited works for short stories, but I find it limiting when writing an entire novel...sometimes you want to express what a minor character feels, and it is tough to do that through just describing their actions, etc. Takes a lot more time/energy/skill...which is why I think I appreciate when authors can do it so well.

Interestingly, just having re-read The Great Gatsby...Firstgerald uses flashbacks to break up the monotony of 1st person. Nick (the narrator), will be talking to someone, and then that "someone" will have a flashback. It;s quite effective, I think.

Crystal Otto said...

Congratulations on the publishing contract and thanks so much for sharing this great post with all of us! You are a wealth of ideas and information :)

Margo Dill said...

@Crystal: Thanks. You are too kind!

@krystal: That makes me want to read THE GREAT GATSBY again, too. I wonder if readers/agents/editors would tolerate that now. Things change so much.

@Laura W. If you stay in your character's head, then you are fine. If you decide to do more than one POV, which you can do in a book, you should always put a break/start a new chapter, etc.

@Renee: I've read books like that before, too. Again, I think if you stay true to the POV you are in, it works. :)

Angela Mackintosh said...

This is why we need good editors! It's so hard to notice POV shifts in your own work. EXCELLENT example. Thanks, Margo!

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