The pitfalls of mixing first-person and third-person narratives

SCBWI
Last month at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Western Washington monthly meeting we heard a very interesting talk on plot and pacing from Elana Roth, agent with Caren Johnson Literary Agency. I got a lot out of Elana’s talk that I would like to share, but her first point was that we restrain from blogging about the specifics of her talk. Let me say only, that if you have a chance to hear or read her comments, please do.

During the Q & A I asked her a specific question about the book I’m currently working on:  Is it okay to mix first and third person narratives.  Her answer shocked me.

No!

What I’m writing is a crime/sci-fi novel for middle graders, with a heavy emphasis on the crime genre.  It’s nearly noir for kids.  In order to make it interesting I must write scenes out of the protagonists POV.  The technique gives the Harry Potter novels much of their tension.  The reader feels a doubling of urgency when the villains are on stage, as it were.

My first draft was written in the third person and was pretty good.  The major problem was that it was difficult for me to give authenticity to the main character, an eleven-year-old girl, while staying in the third person.  So, I studied books that use the first person to create a more vibrant character (The Postcard by Tony Abbott, for one).  Then I rewrote the novel, making the main character’s POV first person.

The story was definitely improved by my being able to give my character an inner voice.  She could not only comment directly to the reader, but in a real, humorous and appropriate way. But I was troubled by the mixing of the first and third person narratives.

Alana was adamant in her opinion.  It just doesn’t work, she said, and you won’t find good examples of it – unless the mixing was very organized and predictable.  That wouldn’t work for my book.

I relented and returned to the third person.  I did keep many of the access points by using the classic “she thought” technique.  In doing so, I believe I’ve improved my access to the character, and so my telling of the tale.  I do want to thank Alana Roth for helping me through this.  I might have made a serious misstep had I – not only heard – but taken her advice to heart.

3 thoughts on “The pitfalls of mixing first-person and third-person narratives

  1. “In order to make it interesting I must write scenes out of the protagonists POV. The technique gives the Harry Potter novels much of their tension.” I think that the later Harry Potter books used a few scenes out of Harry’s perspective, but I don’t feel they were particularly important to the plot. (Like an extra getting killed by Voldemort and the Minister of Magic having a conversation with the Prime Minister).

    One thing I liked about how HP handled those scenes was that they were (as far as I remember) each at the very beginning of the book they appeared in.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. I appreciate it very much. I too looked at that incident in Harry Potter. It’s well-done and does a lot to sharpen the antagonist’s attributes.
      The difference is that I want to use not only my protagonist’s POV, but her first-person “I,” which HP does not do.
      The first-person is a trade-off. You get the power of the character’s dialog and vocabulary, but you lose that of the narrator, who can have a more mature and descriptive voice. I’m leaning toward the first-person because, though it does seem to break the rule, I can use the energy of an eleven-year-old’s voice. Bridget Jones would not be such a fun read in the third person. I like Nick Hornby’s books for the same reason. Thanks so much for your comment, B. Mac. I do plan to start the story with the third-person as HP does.

  2. I’m certainly not a professional in the publishing field, but as a reader, I just wanted to let you know that I love novels with a first person/third person mix.
    To me they are more interesting (if done well) and I relish being able to sink into the minds of other characters that way.
    There are some fabulous novels out there that are mixed and I think if you feel your book works better that way, you should go for it.

    I’m currently writing a first person/third person mixed format novel to publish on Amazon Kindle and I’m very happy with the way it is coming along.

    Best of luck with whatever you ultimately decide.

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