Which point of view do you choose? Jane Lythell discusses the advantages and disadvantages of first and third person narration.
I think one of the most important questions a writer faces when starting a novel is to decide from whose point of view the story will be told. It comes down to choosing between first person and third person narration and there are advantages and difficulties with both approaches.
With first person narration you get an intensity and an immediacy because you are in the head of your character and see through his or her eyes. You can express the emotions of the character directly. The downside is that you can’t see events where your protagonist is not present or know what other characters are doing when they are out of shot as it were. Whereas if you opt for third person narration you are like an eagle looking down on your characters as they go about their business. You are omniscient and have much greater freedom to describe events. But… there is less close up intensity and the voice is less personal.
I have written three novels and wanted to explore how I approached this question of Point of View.
My first novel The Lie of You is about one woman, Heja, who is trying to destroy another woman, Kathy, in both her professional and personal life. I wrote this in the first person but from the point of view of the two women characters. In alternating chapters you hear the voices of Heja and Kathy. My aim was to get into their heads and tell their story as truly as I could.
They are very different women. Kathy is smart but suffers from self-doubt about her ability to carry off her new job as Editor of a magazine. She likes food, cooking and sex, can be messy and needs warmth from her friends and lovers. Her tone of voice is warm and emotional.
In contrast Heja is from Finland and she had been the face of Finnish TV News. She is beautiful, clever and cold and is always in control. We see her self-control in the way she wears her hair, in how she dresses and in her minimalist loft flat with its view of the Thames. And in her sentences too which are shorter and more staccato than Kathy’s.
The advantage of telling the story from two first person points of view was that I was able to use the intensity of first person narration but because I switched between two characters I was also able to show different aspects of the unfolding drama.
My second novel After the Storm is about two couples who set off together in a 37 foot boat after knowing each other less than 24 hours to sail to a paradise island in the Caribbean Sea. But like most paradises it has a very dark side.
As I had four main characters and they were all important I decided I would have to tell the story in the third person, the eagle’s point of view. In order to make it more personal I would write individual scenes from the point of view of different characters. This is called Third Person Intimate I’m told.
My task was to create four distinctive characters each with their own fears, desires and secrets to put in the exotic setting. Anna is an English speech therapist who is scared of much in the physical world but is brave about emotional crises. Her partner Rob has a strong Robinson Crusoe fantasy and would love to find his own personal wilderness. The American couple Owen and Kim are less straightforward and you sense they are escaping from something. There is a frisson of sexual attraction between the two couples and they all have secrets. It is when they reach the island that these secrets will emerge and challenge the four of them to the limit.
Because I had chosen to write in the third person I had much greater freedom to describe the setting and the scenes. This meant I could roam wherever I needed to go, sometimes with just one of the characters. I was not tied to one controlling consciousness as you are in first person narration. I did feel that there was less intensity of voice because of this. The book is a slow burner and it takes longer for you to get to know the characters because you are not seeing the world through their eyes all the time. However I felt it was the right choice for the story I wanted to tell.
In my latest novel Woman of the Hour I have returned to first person point of view. We see the drama unfolding through the eyes of my main character Liz Lyon. She is 41 years old and divorced with a fourteen year old daughter. She’s a respected but stressed-out TV producer and a guilty single mother.
Many books depict women’s home and emotional lives. I’ve seen much less fiction about a woman struggling with the pressures of work and I wanted to explore that in this book. I wanted to show the whole woman: work-Liz, calm, controlled, soothing egos and managing a difficult boss, and home-Liz who is far more emotional and reveals her real thoughts and feelings. So often at work Liz has to bite her tongue or censor what she says. It is what her job as Head of Features requires. At home Liz can let rip. And she fears that she is a better mother to her team than to her daughter Flo precisely because Flo presses her buttons.
First person point of view allows you to show the gap between a person’s inner voice and their outer behaviour. Liz Lyon is someone who often can’t say what she means when she’s at work because she has to manage a lot of huge egos. Woman of the Hour is also about power struggles at the workplace and in Liz Lyon I wanted to write a strong female character who also has her weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Looking back at my three novels I think the approach I am most comfortable with is first person point of view as I like to really feel my way into the experiences of my main character.