I had an interesting conversation this morning with fellow author Nigeria Lockley about whether to tackle a book in first- or third-person. Our conversation sparked some ideas worth sharing because this question comes up often in workshops and even in critique group. Of the 21 fiction books I have written, 11 are first-person and 10 are third-person narratives. I speak from this body of experience only and I do hope other writers will chime in on the comments.
My first book, Boaz Brown, came easily as a first-person novel because in many ways, I am LaShondra. We’re both educators, we both grew up in a Dallas suburb, we have the same church background and were raised in almost identical family structures. Couple that familiar background with the fact that I’ve been keeping a journal since the age of 12 and one can see how I found it fairly easy to sustain a first person book for 300+ pages.
Then came the challenge with my second novel, Divas of Damascus Road. It’s a book about several women in a family dealing with drama. I started off writing the book in first-person because that was my style, but I got about five chapters into it and realized the story wasn’t working. I called my publisher, Denise Stinson, and told her my dilemma. I felt like someone had turned on a light in my head when she said, “Why don’t you try changing it to third person and see how it sounds?” I ran with her suggestion and the book came to pass, but I confess: I didn’t like writing it as much because I didn’t feel as connected to the characters.
Since those experiences, I ask myself a few questions when it comes to deciding on point of view.
1. Who can tell the story best? If one very strong character has an excellent vantage point and has enough personality to tell the story, try first-person. Mama B is the kind of character who is very opinionated and has so many quirky little country, old-school sayings, no one call tell the story quite like she can. I don’t think she would want anyone else telling her story. I like the plots in her books, but (in my mind) it’s really all about being close to a godly woman like Mama B and seeing her relationship with God grow even at her age.
2. Is this more about the plot or the character? While ultimately good fiction brings both into play, if the book is more about what happens than who’s telling it, try third-person. You can be in lots of different places and know what’s going on “Meanwhile, back at the farm.” Unlike Kendra Norman-Holmes who always keeps men at the forefront of her books, I have a really hard time writing male main characters. I don’t think like a man, so it’s hard for me to go first-person with a male character. Anyway, my first attempt at a male main character came with the book Stepping Down. It was an especially tough go for me since it was a full-length novel rather than a novella. While the main character, Mark, does undergo his character arc, the message of this book was paramount in my brain. There was also a sub-plot going on behind his Mark’s back that needed to be told through is wife’s eyes, so third-person was the only way I could make it work.
3. Would I want to read this story in first- or third- person? This is kind of a tricky question because I’ll read a well-written first-person book over a good third-person book any day, but I still have to ask myself the question because if I’m not careful, I’ll write what’s easiest for me rather than what works best for the book. I started off saying that first-person comes naturally for me, and it does. But first person is harder for me to sustain now that I’m writing books that aren’t about a character who’s basically me. The beauty of a third-person book is that I can skip on over to another setting and pick up drama from different characters and households. Because of this, writing third-person is faster for me. The mathematician in me has estimated that I write about 900 words an hour third-person, 600 words an hour first-person. Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating, taking the easy way out when I write third-person. (I know – I’m taking it too far, right?)
Here lately, I’ve been experimenting with using more than one POV–sparingly! I wanted to write No Weapon Formed (sequel to Boaz Brown) in first-person, but there was some stuff going on with Stelson that I didn’t want LaShondra to know about. And I didn’t want Stelson to give this big explanation speech near the end of the book –that always sounds cheesy to me. So I called my friend Lynne Gentry (who reads like a gazillion books a month) and asked her if it was “okay” to have a few chapters written from a secondary character’s POV in third-person. She said to me, “You’re self-published. You can do whatever you want.”
I was like, “Oh yeah! That’s right!”
At the time, I was also reading Tia McCollors’ Friday Night Love and saw that she’d switched POV and gone from first- to third-person a few times for the male’s perspective and I was like, “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!”
So there you have it. If you can write first person and get into the character’s head, give it a shot. But if the plot, your style, or even your genre dictates otherwise, stick to third. I realize that this blog comes down to the a age-old advice to “do what works for you.” I can only add to that wisdom by suggesting that you try your hand at both and develop your skill in both so that you can use them as each book demands.