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Posts Tagged ‘third person’

woman writingMost romances are written in third person. It’s not a requirement, mind you. There are first person romances, some of them classics (Jane Eyre springs to mind). But using third person allows you to use multiple points of view, switching back and forth between hero and heroine, for example, with the villain thrown in sometimes for a little variety. First person tends to be somewhat hermetic, locking the reader into a form of deliberate tunnel vision. Since romance delights in showing what both partners in a relationship feel, third person frequently works best.

Mysteries and thrillers, in contrast, use first person more often. It gives mystery writers the opportunity to play games with narrators, including the ultimate unreliable narrator, the murderer himself. And since mysteries can benefit from having a limited point of view (more opportunities to overlook vital evidence and to be deluded by preconceptions, for example), first person can work well.

But things start to get murky when authors want to introduce more than one point of view. If getting one voice right is tricky (and it is), getting more than one right is a real balancing act. Still, both romance and mystery writers have found interesting ways to experiment with multiple narrators—as well as some familiar ways to fail.

One recent mystery example is Margaret Maron’s Long Upon the Land, part of Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. The series began as simple first person, all narrated by Deborah. But at a certain point, Maron decided to add another point of view through Deborah’s husband, Dwight. Rather than having two first person narrators, however, she writes Dwight’s chapters in third person and Deborah’s in first. Long Upon the Land also adds another third person point of view, a series of flashbacks showing the love affair between Deborah’s parents. The great advantage of using both first and third person comes in making a clean demarcation between points of view: if the chapter is in first person, you know it’s Deborah; if it’s third, it’s either Dwight or a flashback. Maron succeeds in making these three voices distinct and readable. Judith Merkle Riley does something similar in Serpent Garden. The heroine narrates her sections, with a engagingly quirky, first person voice. The sections focusing on the hero or the various supernatural characters are written in third person, switching the point of view from the heroine’s more limited, sometimes confused perspective to a deliberately omniscient overview.

Using more than one first person narrator is also possible, although a great deal trickier. Linda Fairstein’s Devil’s Bridge uses two first person narrators, the heroine, Alex Cooper, and the hero, Mike Chapman. Unfortunately, Devil’s Bridge illustrates all the problems that come with that technique, chiefly that these two voices, supposedly from two very different people, sound remarkably similar. We know that we’re reading Mike’s narration because Alex is missing for most of the book, but it might as well be Alex. There’s nothing distinctive about the voice—when Mike makes references to Alex’s Porthault sheets and Chanel perfume I found myself wondering why a tough NYC detective would know or care what brands his girlfriend uses. The answer, I’m afraid, is that both Alex and Fairstein care, not Mike.

So what choice is best? Hard to say since it depends a great deal on the skill of the author involved. To me, multiple first person narrators are tough, but I can see the attraction. The main thing is that all these point of view choices have to arise from the story. In the wrong hands, both first and third person can be clunky. In the right hands, they can sing.

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Woman WritingRomance is written in third person. That’s not an absolute rule, but it’s close enough. Occasionally, an author will be successful with a first person romance—Kristan Higgins has a few, for example—and chick lit is notoriously first person. But what we might call “traditional” romance never ventures far from third personhood.

Of course, romance isn’t the only genre that’s associated with using a particular POV. For instance, cozy mysteries are almost always written in first person. Donna Andrews and Susan Conant stay very securely in the heads of their narrators, but unlike the first person narrators of some lit fic (Henry James leaps to mind), you never wonder if these women are reliable or not. The reader takes it as a given that Meg Langslow and Holly Winter know what they’re talking about. In fact, in the case of Langslow, you frequently have the feeling that she’s the only reliable person in the entire loony universe of Andrews’ fiction.

And that brings me back to the central question of third person and romance. Why do we use third person rather than first? I’d argue it has to do with the fundamental purpose of romance fiction—the description of relationships. First person narrators may bring you great insight into themselves. You know what emotions Meg and Holly are experiencing  and you sympathize. And it isn’t as if these first person narrators give themselves special breaks—both are very honest about being less than admirable. At the same time, you don’t really have much sense of what’s going on inside their significant others. Meg and Holly both pass on what their husbands do, but you don’t really understand much about how their husbands think and feel.

In fact, the husbands/lovers in these books are largely flat figures. All we know about them is what Meg and Holly know, and they frequently don’t seem to know much. Romance and relationships frequently don’t figure greatly in cozy mysteries. The heroines are far more interested in solving the whodunit (or in Meg’s case, solving whatever crisis the eccentric Langslow clan has developed this time).

But romance novels are all about relationships. And you can’t really do much with the description of a relationship unless you know what’s happening to both of the people who are involved. Think about it—when you’re first attracted to someone, you desperately want to know if they’re attracted back. And if they are, who’s attracted more? With first person, you get the desperation on one side of the relationship, but you don’t have any more knowledge about The Other than you would in real life. With romance, on the other hand, the third person lets you know who’s attracted to whom and how much.

And that’s really what romance is all about. You get both sides of the story, hers and his. You no longer have to guess at what’s going on in his head—you know. Does that make romance less realistic? I’d argue it doesn’t. It just gives you a privileged position in terms of how the characters think. And given how rarely we have this kind of privilege in reality, that may well be one of the reasons so many readers love romance.

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