Recently my fiancé and I reread a passage in Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions that we both really like. It’s from the chapter on Hinduism, in the section on “The Way to God through Knowledge.” (I have actually written about this passage before.)
Hindus believe that a person is more than his or her body and more than his or her “surface” personality; on a deeper level everyone posses an “infinite Self that underlies one’s transient, finite self” (31). The task in life, they say, is to distinguish between the two: “[The yogi] needs to drive a wedge between her skin-encapsulated ego and her [infinite center].”
One way to do this is to practice thinking of oneself in the third person, for example:
Instead of “I am walking down the street,” she thinks, “There goes Sybil walking down Fifth Avenue,” and tries to reinforce the assertion by visualizing herself from a distance… Thinking of oneself in the third person does two things simultaneously. It drives a wedge between one’s self-identification and one’s surface self, and at the same time forces this self-identification to deeper level until, at last, through a knowledge identical with being, one becomes in full what one always was at heart (Smith 31-32).
Most of us, however, think in first person. And writing in first person is the natural point of view for many writers. First person is intimate and confessional — it’s the way we tell stories in real life. But its ease is deceptive. When writing in first person, you run the risk of “telling” too much, of spending too much time inside the narrator’s head. Besides, your story may not call for an intimate and confessional tone. Or you may need the reader to know information your first person narrator wouldn’t know or understand.
A few years ago, I wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel, and this past summer I obtained an agent for it. Initially I wrote the novel in first person, present tense. After a while, I realized the present tense wasn’t working with its fable-like tone, so I rewrote it in past tense. But I kept getting comments from my agent and editor about the narrator. That she seemed distant. That her personality wasn’t coming through on the page. Finally I realized it was because this fable-like adventure story didn’t need a first person narrator. I rewrote it in third person, and now I think it works much better.
Back in the summer, my agent asked if I had any other middle-grade fantasy novels, and I told him no.
“Hmm, it sure would be great if you could start working on another one,” he said. Not a sequel, necessarily, but something similar to the book he was going to shop around. It would be easier to sell my novel if there was the promise of another one coming down the pipeline.
I’ve always been very good at taking direction, so I got to work and wrote another fable-like middle-grade novel. And guess what I wrote it in… first person. And guess what the women in my writing group said? That despite the first person POV, they didn’t feel close enough to the narrator — that there was something not-quite-right about her voice.
Duh. It’s because this book belongs in third person, too. I just finished making the switcheroo, and already I think it works a hundred times better.
I wonder if this is going to continue to be my process: write a book in my go-to first person voice and then (probably) change it to third person. Hey, whatever works, right?
I always thought that writing in first person was the best way to get to know a character, but now, after switching two books from first to third, I think I might be wrong. Third person gives you a chance to see your characters from a distance that can be enlightening. With third person, you can really watch your characters, notice their actions and behaviors, begin to understand them…perhaps better than they understand themselves.
When I tell people about having to rewrite two novels they groan and say “that sucks.” But it didn’t suck at all. It let me see the stories in a different light. Ironically, the distance helped me delve deeper into the main characters’ psyches, so that they could become what they always were at heart.