Grammatical person and viewpoint character

The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist may seem a little odd:

The chosen grammatical person is suitable to the story and the POV characters.

What does that even mean?

As I’ve noted before, there is a difference between person and POV. Grammatically speaking, person only refers to what pronouns are being used.

I = first person
You = second person
He/She/They = third person

Chances are, whichever one you used in the first draft is the right one, but every once in a while we see a manuscript where the grammatical person just doesn’t ring true. Sometimes this happens because the writer was pushed into going against her grain by a well-meaning critique partner. Other times it’s because she was misled into thinking her story had to be done that way because of some nonrule. So once you’ve verified the viewpoint character and psychic depth, you can examine whether the story is best told from first person or third.

Second person is Not Recommended. It’s experimental and kind of awkward. I could go on, and probably will, about why second person is a bad idea for fiction. For now, let’s focus on first and third.

Although older writing books will imply that first person allows for a deeper POV than third, what we’ve seen more recently is that deep POV can also be done very effectively in third person.

point of view
© Franz Pfluegl –

First person has the advantage of letting the reader feel they are walking through the story alongside the main character, although the way it’s handled can give more distance. In Catcher in the Rye, for example, it’s clear you are hearing about the story after the fact. Likewise in The Big Sleep, Chandler occasionally gives an indication that Marlowe is looking back on the story, for example, “She was just a dope. To me she was always just a dope.” But for the most part, Chandler gets an immediacy with his first-person narrative that leaves you feeling like Phillip Marlowe’s sidekick, if not Marlowe himself. Here’s another sample from The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe discovers a murder victim:

I found the light switch and light glowed in a dusty glass bowl hanging from the ceiling by three brass chains. Harry Jones looked at me across the desk, his eyes wide open, his face frozen in a tight spasm, the skin bluish. His small dark head was tilted to one side. He sat upright against the back of the chair. A street-car bell clanged at an almost infinite distance and the sound came buffeted by innumerable walls.…I breathed shallowly, from the top of my lungs, and bent above the bottle. Behind the charred smell of the bourbon another odor lurked, faintly, the odor of bitter almonds. Harry Jones dying had vomited on his coat. That made it cyanide.

Notice that all those instances of I could have been changed to he without losing any immediacy or sensory detail. But first person conveys that sense of the protagonist telling you his story, as if you were with him or as if he were sitting across from you in the coffee shop.

Traditionally, third person was reserved for more distant stances like the omniscient viewpoint, but modern writers have shown it’s possible and even desirable to create that depth and immediacy by writing in deep POV using third person, as Jill Elizabeth Nelson explains so adeptly in Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View. Here’s an example from Prophetess by Keven Newsome. (Yeah, this is me totally plugging one of my buddies.)

She leaned forward and rested her head against the cold metal. “Just leave me alone,” she whispered.

Ryan rested one hand on her back. “Winter, you don’t have to be alone.”

The hollowness deep inside of her bubbled up into her throat. It crept into her sinuses and the back of her head. It clawed into her muscles and made her tremble. It leaked out of her eyes and ran down her cheeks.

Deep POV. Third person. Totally works. You don’t have that “storytelling” feeling you get from first person, but that may be an advantage. Depends on the story.

If you suspect you may have chosen the wrong grammatical person, take a scene with some emotional and sensory content and try rewriting it the other way. See which one better suits the feel you’re going for. But don’t try to force yourself to write in a grammatical person that feels uncomfortable to you. Some of us are more comfortable with one or the other. Use the one that works best for you and your story.

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  1. […] time we talked about first versus third person in light of this item on our […]

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