Guest Post – Third Person: More Intimate than First?

Susanna Fraser‘s first novel, The Sergeant’s Lady, came out last year, and I reviewed it here. A Marriage of Inconvenience is her followup novel, and it takes place before the events of The Sergeant’s Lady. She’s a great blogger. Were it not for her, I would never have known that the Duke of Wellington was hot. Here she talks about first vs. third person, and why in Romance, third person is so prevalent.

When Third Person is More Intimate Than First

One of the first decisions an author makes in sitting down to write a new book is which point of view to use. Almost every book you’ve ever read is in first or third person. For those of you not familiar with the terminology, in first-person books, the storyteller is “I.” In third person, the storyteller is “he” or “she.”

(On very rare occasions, you’ll encounter a story told in second person–in other words, where the storyteller is “you.” And there are variations within first and third person.  Occasionally first-person books use two narrators, alternating between them. And within third person, the author has almost infinite choice about how many characters’ points of view to use and whether to take a “limited” approach–only showing you what the point of view character sees and knows–or an “omniscient” approach, where the narrator is a sort of God figure who sees, hears, and tells the reader all.)

Most romance novels are written in third person limited, using the points of view of the hero the heroine and possibly a villain or other secondary character or two. I didn’t know this when I sat down to write the first draft of my new Carina release, A Marriage of Inconvenience. Frankly, I didn’t even know I was writing a romance novel then. I just had a character I couldn’t get out of my head, so I started writing about her. I used first-person because it felt natural to do so.  It was a good way to let Lucy, my heroine, tell her story, and for me to show readers what was going on in the mind of this outwardly meek and reserved character.

After my early attempts to sell that first-person version of A Marriage of Inconvenience failed, I set it aside for a year to write my second manuscript, The Sergeant’s Lady, which was to become my first published book. By then I understood more about genre expectations, and in writing my second manuscript I grew comfortable with third person limited. So I decided to revisit Marriage and see how it worked in third person.

It worked much better, I discovered. Partly that was because using the hero’s point of view and those of some of my secondary characters added greater richness to the story. But the main reason third person worked better is that it allowed for greater intimacy. That sounds counterintuitive. All the writing advice books say the first person is the most intimate choice. Since the character is “I,” the reader is explicitly invited to identify with the character. The narrator is telling the story herself; she’s giving us a window on her soul. What could be more intimate than that?

All that may be true with a character who wants to bare his or her soul–and body. For example, I think the first-person epic fantasies written by Jacqueline Carey work beautifully because her characters are uninhibited enough to invite the reader into their lives.  Her courtesan heroine, living in a culture where sex is a form of worship, will gladly tell you all about her sex life. And everything else. My Lucy will never be quite that forthcoming. She starts the story quite inhibited. And though she learns to let go and even get a bit kinky with the hero, she would never, ever talk about it to anyone but her husband. She was born in England in 1791, and she’s a creature of her place and time. So in first person, written as if Lucy was penning her own memoir, I would need to make the sex scenes fade to black. Lucy wouldn’t tell it any other way.

However, in third person, Lucy isn’t quite telling the story. I, the author, am in Lucy’s head, telling you what’s happening there, even the things she’d rather keep secret. At least in this case, it makes for a far more intimate story and a better romance.

I’m not sorry I wrote that first draft in first person, though. Writing in first person is a wonderful exercise to train yourself to write well in third person limited. When you write in first person, you can’t tell us anything that that character doesn’t know or see the world through any eyes other than hers. It’s really obvious when you cheat by having your character read other characters’ minds (unless, of course, you’re writing a paranormal and that’s your character’s ability). Having written my first book in first-person, I find I’m not even tempted to head hop.

What about you? Do you like first-person stories? Are there some kinds of stories you think work better in first person or third person? Writers, do you mix up your point of view choices, or do you have a favorite you stick with? One commenter wins a copy of A Marriage of Inconvenience.

Blurb for A Marriage of Inconvenience:

Lucy Jones is a nobody. As an orphan she was reluctantly taken in by her wealthy relatives, the Arringtons, on the condition that she be silent and obedient, always. When her lifelong infatuation with her cousin Sebastian is rewarded by a proposal of marriage, she’s happy and grateful, even though the family finds excuses to keep the engagement a secret.

James Wright-Gordon has always had the benefits of money and a high station in society, but he is no snob. He’s very close to his sister, Anna, who quickly falls for the dashing Sebastian when the families are brought together at a wedding party. Meanwhile, James is struck by Lucy’s quiet intelligence, and drawn to her despite their different circumstances in life.

Lucy suspects that Sebastian has fallen for Anna, but before she can set him free, a terrible secret is revealed that shakes both families. Will James come to her rescue—or abandon her to poverty?

17 Thoughts to “Guest Post – Third Person: More Intimate than First?”

  1. And I’m so with you–I didn’t do third person well until I wrote an entire novel in first person. No more head-hopping for me, either! After finishing that novel, I went back and rewrote my second novel, which is still my favorite.

    For my time travel novel, I am writing in third person because I have at least three points of view.

    For reading, I really like both. I trust the author to pick the right POV for the book. When I wrote THE SEVENFOLD SPELL, I didn’t expect it to be so earthy, but first person worked for Talia despite the intimate scenes. I sort of think of Talia telling her story to a close friend–maybe to Harla, while they sat in Harla’s tavern, over a mug of beer.

  2. Thanks for having me here today, Tia!

    I agree that THE SEVENFOLD SPELL works well in first person–I can see Talia revealing those details in a way Lucy wouldn’t.

    I don’t know if I’ll write a book in first person again. I toyed with it for my historical fantasy WIP, but decided I didn’t want to cut off all possibility of antagonist POV or certain secondary characters’ perspectives.

    1. I have a couple of stories for which first person worked perfectly. One is a light spy fantasy. The other is a dystopian hard science fiction short story, and is written in a southern dialect. It is currently under submission. For both stories, first was the best choice because they each have such a distinctive voice. I tried to write both in third, but the voice didn’t take over until I wrote it in first.

  3. Chicory

    I love writing in first person- but you’re right when you say the narrators tend to hide things, especially from themselves. The problem I have with third person is a tendency to slip into melodrama. Is that just me, or do others have to fight the temptation to get overblown when they don’t have a snarky narrator to burst their narrative bubble?

    1. I find when writing third limited, as opposed to third omniscient, that I still have my characters’ individual (and, where warranted, snarky) narrative voices.

      Third omniscient would be an interesting challenge to write, not least because it’s so rare in contemporary fiction.

  4. I’ve written in both, but really prefer third–it’s nice to see the relationship develop from both points of view. Great blog!

    1. The more I write, the more I notice the choices other authors make–usually not on the first time through a book, where I’m reading fast to find out what happens, but if I like it enough to re-read, I stop and ask, “Why change here, and not earlier or later? Why this secondary character POV, but not that one?”

  5. I had to chime in because it’s so rare to find someone who agrees with me! LOL

    When first person first surged, I didn’t like it much. (And I really hate first person present tense, but that’s another topic. 🙂 ) It’s grown on me, and I think it works especially well in certain books and in YA in general. But I always feel like the story is being told to me by someone else. Third person allows me to live inside the characters.

    Like you said, it’s counterintuitive, but I think first person invites the narrator to directly address the reader more, and when the author accepts that invitation, we can’t be in the character’s head.

    1. Now that I think about it, I do find more first person in YA than in anything else I read. It also works well in mystery, IMO–e.g. Lindsey Davis’s wonderful Marcus Didius Falco series.

  6. Zee Lemke

    The current WIP is first-person with four narrators. I know. I also know that I’ve written much more in third-person limited, and for whatever reason I handle the POV shifts (and the lies, and the prejudices) of my characters better in first person in this particular story even though I handle them better in third in general. I’m in awe of Steven Brust’s ability to write first-person unreliable, and want to do something like that with the relationships in a comparatively closed community rather than with epic history. If it fails, it fails, I’ll write something better later.

    If I win I’m giving my copy to my parents, since I already have one ;-).

    1. I think a well-written first person or even third limited narrator should be at least a *little* unreliable, since most of us are blind to our own blind spots, you know? But it’s challenging to do well, for sure.

  7. I hadn’t thought of third person limited as being more intimate than first person before, but now that you’ve brought it up, I can see how it could be. In third person the narrator disappears, whereas in first the narrator is right there talking to you.

    I generally prefer to read third person, although I won’t turn up my nose at a first-person story that intrigues me.

    1. I’m not sure I could enjoy a second-person story, but I’m willing to accept almost any variant on first or third if the author makes it work.

  8. Deborah Blake

    I like both–it depends on the story. And I’ve written novels using both, too. I’m flexible that way 🙂

    1. Flexibility is good. 🙂

  9. Tia Nevitt

    Raven is the winner of Susanna’s novel, A MARRIAGE OF INCONVENIENCE! Congrats Raven, and we’ll be in touch.

    1. Looking forward to reading it. 🙂

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