Which Person?

Which person, first or third, works best?

I suppose it depends on the writer and what’s being written, but for mystery writers person poses a problem.

Here’s where I run into just that kind of situation. Let’s say I’m about to write a section that involves two people equally; that is, both have the same weight in the scene. The rule for point of view is that only one of them can be dominant; that is, the scene should be seen though the dominant person’s eyes only.

If the writer is using  first-person narration there isn’t a problem. Every scene is through the eyes of the protagonist. But if the novel is in third person, every scene has its own narrator and it is through his eyes only that we see. That’s where my problem lies.

Third-person doesn’t give me the same sense of immediacy as first person would, I don’t think, but it does provide opportunities that I’m told I’m not supposed to take. So it raises the problem I’ve mentioned. If I want both characters in a scene to express how they’re feeling, and I often do, I want both to reveal what they think about the other. Now how can I do that if only one of them is allowed to think and express himself?

Sure, I can give him a kind of omnipotence, but that’s sort of phony, don’t you think? I can give him the sort of background that would make his understanding of the other fairly complete, say the way a brother knows what his sibling is thinking, or the way a psychopath thinks he knows what others are thinking and feeling. There are all sorts of ways I can set up the situation, but none of them comes close to allowing both characters the freedom to express themselves.

The guys who edit my manuscripts, however, say that giving both characters the right of full expression would give the reader a kind of verbal whiplash, sort of like watching a tennis match, back and forth, back and forth.

I just read a novel entirely in the first person. Tiny short chapters, lots of them, and first person narration. In the case of this writer, the main character in any scene limits what can be revealed about the others. For the author I’m reading now, that’s not much of a problem. Every scene works well.

But I can’t help thinking that things might be better if the reader did have to stretch a bit to handle two minds at once expressing themselves in a single scene. Anyone out there working on the same problems? Maybe it’s just me. After all I’m new at this, and without a lot of writing experience, perhaps problems that plague me are only little hiccoughs for others.

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