If you can’t write it in first person, don’t write it in third

he said she said

Caleb Pirtle and I had a long drive together on Tuesday.  That means we had the chance to talk about the craft of writing as we drove through Central Texas on our way to Austin.

Texas is a big state. We covered a lot of territory.

Part of our discussion centered on the difference between first and third person point of view (POV).

Okay, I know it sounds strange to normal people on the outside world to hear that two chronologically gifted men would talk about POV on a road trip, but what’s a guy to say? That’s what we did.

What I concluded from that conversation is this:  If you can’t write a character in first person, don’t write him in third.

I’ve only written one piece of fiction (about 5,000 words) in first person.  I enjoyed that experience immensely.

However what I was doing in that work was a fictional memoir which required a first person vibe.

I found myself (my character) front and center, and felt like I was immersed in the story.

But that was a short-lived experience, a literary walk in the park between serious works.

When it comes to long form fiction, I can’t imagine going it in first person.  If I am a purist, that means I would have to be in every scene.

I don’t want to be in every scene of anything I write.

I don’t want to be any scene, now that I think about it.

I have heard people say that one can write a novel in first person, then just change “I” to “He” and have a third person narrative.

I don’t think so.

A first person narrative requires an intimate knowledge of the circumstances reported in the scene.  Third person is like a reporter standing out in the yard telling what he saw through the kitchen window.

That’s not the same thing.

I remember the first time this came into focus for me.

I was a student at Dallas Baptist College shortly after the Civil War.  In some class we were required to write an autobiographical sketch.

A friend of mine wrote his in third person.

I had never heard of such a thing.  It was a revelation to me.

What kind of weirdo would write about himself in third person?

Now I understand it.  It only took me about forty years.

Here’s the lesson:  If you can’t write about a character in first person, don’t write about him in third.  In other words, if you don’t know your character inside out, you’re not ready to write her story, whether it is in first or third person.

Get to know the character first, then decide on your point of view.

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