Nina Bawden once said:
“You know people better in a novel than in real life because you know what people think – not just what they say they think.”
During a Writers News correspondence course on novel writing, after I submitted the first three chapters of the novel I was planning to write, my tutor commented:
“There are a few sections of weak viewpoint and one or two scenes where we drift to a group viewpoint. This also has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. It breaks that close bond with the scene’s viewpoint character and puts them outside the scene, watching the events from far away.”
I had used the third person point of view, since I had found it easier to handle. And I thought I had handled it well until my tutor pointed out the drifts. I went back to my writing and analyzed all the scenes to find my mistakes.
“Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.” William Faulkner
Which viewpoint do you prefer to use to write your novel?
I personally would love to use the first-person. I feel that stories or novels written using the “I” are more intimate. It’s as if the author is telling you, “Listen to me, I am telling you this story personally, it really happened, trust me.” But I know I can’t. I am well aware of my limitations. Maybe with experience I will be able to some day.
However, if I were to write a suspense story or a thriller, third person would be a better choice. I honestly think the author is free to describe things the narrator might not know or see, besides the fact that the “I” lessens the suspense. If “I” lived to tell the tale “I” didn’t get killed. With the exception of James M. Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity, where the reader learns on the last page that the “I” of the story has been poisoned and is writing the book as he dies. Romance, pulp fiction, and books with commercial value like most novels on the best-seller list are written in third person.
Perhaps of all the writers Ernest Hemingway is the one who has mastered all the three basic viewpoints in the same novel. In To Have and Have Not, he uses the third-person viewpoint in the first third of the novel, the first-person narrator point of view in the second third, and the omniscient point of view in the third part.
“The most important thing in a work of art is that it should have a kind of focus, i.e. there should be some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue.” Leo Tolstoy
If you are a beginning writer, unless you are as good as Hemingway as you may wish you are, you should stick to one point of view. Sometimes the subject matter, plot, or choice of protagonist will dictate which is better. And in the words of Barnaby Conrad,
“The problem of which point of view to take, the only way to find out is to try it out first in the third person; if you feel you must go into other characters’ heads, do it. And if you feel you need the intimacy and credibility of first person, try that also. Or if you feel daring, use all three methods. Remember that the first rule of writing is that, there are no rules.”
And as Virginia Woolf said:
“‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.”