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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Mixing first and third person narration

   
Author Topic: Mixing first and third person narration
Hendrik Boom
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I've realized that I've chosen the wrong main character in my last year's nanowrimo oevre (80000 words). So it needs a complete rewrite. Well, that's what a first draft is for.

The narration sticks with a single viewpoint character in each chapter, but there are multipe threads of action that take place in entirely different places, which makes it impossible to follow ine character throughout the entire novel.

Is it possible to track the main character's tale in the first person in the chapters where he is present, but to use third-person in the other chapters?


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sojoyful
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Why not? If you make it work, it will work.
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AeroB1033
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Strikes me as unnecessarily disjointed. What's wrong with using 3PLO for the MC as well as any other characters whose viewpoints you need?
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franc li
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The problem I see with mixing them -- and I think there was an OSC review of just such a book not long back -- is that it is hard to establish that the narrator for the 3 person sections is not the 1 person narrator you had in your other sections.

I've been obsessing over 1st or 3rd for much of the past 2 years. I'm sticking with 1st, I think.

Life of Pi is 1st with occasional 3rd, but Pi is still the focus of the sections written in 3rd.


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Ray
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The only time I've seen this done is in Shadows Linger by Glen Cook, and in this case all the third-person chapters had been written by the first-person narrator. The 1P narrator had gotten the other story from the MC of the 3P chapters, so it all ended up being a FP narration.

You could try doing it as an epistolary novel (using letters, diary entries, etc, to tell a story.) Stephen King did a mix of this in Carrie, where half the story was told in various documents and interviews, and in between a 3P narrative to show the actual events as they happened. But I'm not sure if you want to take this route.

Inevitably, a story either has to have either a 1P or 3P narrator. The trick is to decide which POV you want to use, and then take liberties from there. Shadows Linger is a 1POV with 3P entries. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a 3POV, taking place on a ship in the Arctic region, even though the bulk is 1P because of Victor Frankenstein's confession.


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mikemunsil
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Ray is talking about using a framing device, a time-honored tool that works well in the right setting. It might work for you as well.
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Hendrik Boom
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Maybe it is a framing device I want. It's quite possible for the new MC to have found out about the scenes he was absent from, so he could be the author ... What got me onto this idea was that I wrote a short passage from his POV to better get into his head, and it turned out that, late in life, he wanted to set the record straight on a number of matters. I don't see any way of getting into his head as well in third-person. So maybe that will work. But what bothers me is that a number of the third-person scenes will now seem like fictionalised versions of reality, instead of like reality.

I was really hoping for a mix of first-person with third-person omniscient ... I guess that won't fly.


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PatEsden
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Charles de Lint in his novel "Widdershins" used both 1st and 3nd. But it is not used casually. If you go through and chart the book for POVs, you'll find that he carefully preplanned what he was doing for specific effects. His use of 1st and 3rd didn't bother me, though I did get overwelmed by all the POVs in the novel.
My main thought is, that though this technique is fine for established writers, for newer writer it might cause editors to stop reading.
On the other hand an editor isn't going to push aside any book that catches their interest.

[This message has been edited by PatEsden (edited October 12, 2006).]


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Christine
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I recently read the first book of a trilogy, "Tales of the Otori," that did this and I hatd it. The trouble was, his POV shifts were random. For a while, I thought maybe the first person narrator obtained knowledge of those scenes later and so wrote them in. But when he and the girl who was the third person character got together, he continued to have chapters from her POV with him in them! So it broke the illusion and I thought it was pretty bad.

IMHO, if you need to shift POV, you should use third person limited omniscient. First person has its uses, but I have to ask you WHY you're so determined that this is one of those times? What is first person for?

If you do decide to go with shifting viewpoints, please at least try to maintain the illusion that the person who is writing this all down is telling the story. There will be extra distance in the third person chapters because he's not an all-knowing god sitting inside his friend's head. Hes the guy his friend told the story to after the fact. I would practice by trying to recount a story a friend of yours told you.


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autumnmuse
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You said "I don't see any way of getting into his head as well in third person."

Read Ender's Game, a third person novel, to see how deeply Card manages to get into a character's mind. It's also okay to occasionally have first person thoughts while in third person narrative, as long as you make it very clear by either italics or saying 'he thought' or whatever other method you choose, that this is a deliberate choice and not sloppy POV.


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Hendrik Boom
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"If you do decide to go with shifting viewpoints, [...] There will be extra distance in the third person chapters"

That's the tradeoff -- increased intimacy in his section vs reduced distance in all the others. I think I'm going to have to write pieces of it both ways to see what the effect is in detail.

Thanks for the advice, all of you.


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MarkJCherry
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Heres a thought,

You mentioned earlier that it's possible the MC could have learned of the events later in life. Well, why not make this the MC retelling the story to it's children, or a judge, an interviewer, or what have you. This makes for an interesting POV device in that it's always first person, even when the MC isn't present in the scene. You could even open some scenes with comments like, "Now, I didn't know this at the time, but..." or, "I found this out later, but while I was..."


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autumnmuse
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There is a cost with using a frame, too, however. Which is: No matter what, the reader is assured that everything ended up okay and already happened, therefore they don't care as much about the tension in the novel. I personally avoid frames for this reason.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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When Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote the Darkover novels that involved Regis Hastur and Lew Alton, she alternated the chapters between her two protagonists, but she had the Lew Alton chapters in first person and the Regist Hastur chapters in third person.

One of the reasons this worked was that it made it very clear which character the reader was with from the beginning of each chapter.

Nicola Griffiths, in her Nebula-award-winning novel, SLOW RIVER, uses (if I remember correctly) three POVs, one is in first, and the other two are in third with different narrative styles. That also helped to indicate to the reader which character the reader was with from the beginning of each chapter.

If you can make it work (and starting a new chapter each time you start a different point of view can help), then go ahead and do it. You won't know for certain until you've given it a try.


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spcpthook
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For an excellent example of this see Elizabeth Bear's Hammered, Wired, and Scardown, Trilogy. She has one first person characters and several third person characters and it all comes together for a good (published) read. It's all in how well you do something. Don't accept that it can't be done or won't sell.
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thexmedic
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On a related note... can you have too many first-person narrators? I'm planning out a novel right now and I have 3 main characters, and I'd love to write all three in first-person, but I'm concerned it'll turn into a bit of a tower of babel...
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Ray
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Multiple first-person narrators aren't often done, but the few I've read haven't been bad. It's much more difficult to differentiate 1P narrators because they all refer to themselves as "I". Usually, you put the narrator's name at the beginning of the chapter, or if they're writing letters, have the narrator say the name of the person he/she is writing to.

Another way to differentiate is style of narration, like if one character speaks one way, another speak a different, and the last has a weird accent. And others just change the type of text they use. One person narrates in regular, and another person narrates in italics. I've usually found that to be distracting, but it was clear who was speaking.


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JOHN
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I did it for my last novel. Each chapter was named after the POV character, and each POV character had a "gimmick" if you will---really each chapter had a different tone. The country girl's chapters had a bit of twang to the narrative and were quite crude. The born again Christian's chapters had no swearing or anything ofa sexually nature. The character based on myself was always in 1st person. I think I pulled it off okay.

JOHN!


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