by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
"One of the most common errors I find in early manuscript drafts is shifting person." —Lenard-Cook
One of the most common errors I find in early manuscript drafts is shifting person. A piece might begin in third person, then shift suddenly into first. Or it will begin in first person, only to shift to third person in mid-paragraph. When I point out these discrepancies to the author, s/he’s very often surprised. Sometimes shifting person occurs because beginning writers hope to disguise personal narratives by using third person and shift into first once the writing gets going. Just as often, however, the writer is not even aware of making this shift.
Shifting person within a narrative is a no-no, but in order to avoid it, you’ve first got to understand just what person means when it comes to writing. Before I discuss person in fiction, however, let me (to quote a not-so-recent president) make something perfectly clear: The narrator of a fiction is not the author. You may have heard someone in a workshop say to another writer, “When you go into the room and kill Dirk, you left the gun in the kitchen,” or “When you decide to jump off the bridge, you don’t leave your wallet on the railing, but then later someone finds it there.”
It’s obvious the authors did not do these things, which is why these statements sound so silly when you read them. They also remind us how silly it is to confuse author with narrator, and yet, writers do this in workshop all the time. My simple solution comes from poetry, where the voice of the poem is called the “speaker.” Because this term so easily separates a piece’s voice from the author’s voice, I like to use this term for fiction, too.
"Person, for the purposes of fiction, refers to the person who is telling the story. . ." —Lenard-Cook
Person, for the purposes of fiction, refers to the person who is telling the story, the above-named “speaker.” First and third person are your real choices. Second person is a separate matter that I’ll include a little later just for the purposes of discussion.
Sometimes the easiest way to understand something is to see it, so here’s a table that outlines person. Yes, for many of you, it’s a Grammar 101 review. But as it applies to fiction, it’s an indispensable lesson.
Person | Advantages | Disadvantages
First Person: I/Me | Direct, candid, trustworthy | Limited point of view
Second Person: You | Subjectivity | Precocity
Third Person: He/She | Distance | Distance
You’ll likely notice that the advantages and the disadvantages columns seem to say very similar things about each choice. Like so many things about fiction writing, this paradox comes with the territory, so the very directness that comes with using first person (“I was hurt.”) means we can’t know what others are thinking (“She deserved it.”), because a first person narrator is only privy to his/her own thoughts. And while a third person narration offers some distance, it comes with a price: The reader may no longer feel connected to the narrator because of that distance.
Second person narratives almost always feel precocious. Two examples spring to mind: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Pam Houston’s short story, “How to Talk to a Hunter.” In both of these narratives, the second person narrator is really a first person narrator being addressed by him-/herself, as in, “You are not the kind of person to be in this kind of place doing this kind of thing.” In early drafts of my just-released novel, Coyote Morning, a seven-year-old narrator spoke, as seven-year-olds do, in second person. My astute UNM Press editor, Beth Hadas, pointed out that this device drew attention to itself rather than moving the story along. I agreed (I wasn’t practicing what I preached!), and the child narrator is now in third person.
"When someone tells you a story, you fill in details as you listen." —Lenard-Cook
What’s Left Out
When someone tells you a story, you fill in details as you listen. In the process, the story you’re being told becomes your story instead. This is what happens when you read, too, which is why, in contemporary fiction, what’s left out is just as important as what’s on the page. Think about what you’re not told in Catch-22, for example, or about the blanks you fill in any first person narrative.
Contemporary readers don’t want to be spoon-fed everything there is to know; they want to use their own knowledge to draw conclusions. Yes, their picture may ultimately differ from yours, the author’s, but if they get a picture at all, you’ve succeeded. This ability to draw a picture from someone else’s words—it’s called the eidetic faculty—is why we’re usually disappointed in a film adaptation of a book we loved. A film—unless you’re the director—will always be someone else’s picture.
A Change of Person
To explore narrative voice on your own, try this exercise. Pick a paragraph from anything you’ve recently read. Determine if it’s in first or third person. Then rewrite it, using first person if it’s written in third, or third person if it’s written in first. See the difference? Now do the same thing for a paragraph of your own. You may find that a change of person is just what your story needs.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and was a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.