Should I use first-person or third-person in my novel?
February 26, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Someone asked, “In your opinion, is it better to see first-person or third-person POV novels for a first-time novelist?”
I’m not one who gets too worked up about first-or-third POV as the “answer” to great fiction. A good novelist can use either one. However, I can tell you from experience that many first-person novels from beginning writers suffer from an overuse of the “I-verb” syndrome. (“I started… I walked… I ate… I moved… I handed… I answered…”) That endless parade of I-verbs creates a really dull novel. First-person fiction can be great, and it’s certainly become much more common in recent years, but in my view it’s harder to master than third person.
On a related note, someone asked, “Is it true most publishers don’t want first-person novels?”
No, I don’t think that’s true at all. Again, writing an excellent first-person novel is simply harder to do well, so publishers probably have set the bar a bit higher. But some of the best fiction on the market is done in first person, and publishers still buy first-person novels. (Two favorite authors of mine, Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald, wrote nearly everything from the first-person point of view. Bridget Jones Diary was a wildly successful first-person novel. I could give a bunch of other examples.)
One author sent in this: “How many POV’s should a new novelist have in women’s contemporary fiction? I’ve heard we should use two for romance and one or two for general fiction. (I’m asking because my work in progress has one main character, but three other storylines that each require chapters from their POV. I’m wondering if that will make my novel harder to sell.)”
Interesting question, since it seems to suggest there are hard and fast rules to be followed in contemporary fiction. While there are certainly rules to follow in genre literature (for example, if you’re writing contemporary romance, you’ve got to have your heroine meet her hero early; if you’re writing a cozy mystery, the crime needs to take place early in the novel; etc.), in general fiction you don’t have all those same strictures. I’ve read contemporary fiction that had several POV’s working. However, let’s get real: The more POV’s in the novel, the harder it is to make it work. In my view, it will take an experienced hand to craft a great novel with multiple points of view. Having four POV’s in one novel might be a lot to ask a new novelist to do. So, yeah, in the big picture, that might make your novel harder to sell. That doesn’t mean I think you should give up on the idea (I haven’t seen your work, so I have no idea how well you handle it), it just means you should be aware that you’ve given yourself a tough task.
Another wrote to ask, “At the beginning of many novels, I see the author often state ‘this is a work of fiction, and any similarities to real events is coincidental.’ Since writers don’t live in a vacuum, and often write about what they know, how important is this disclaimer? If I write about the donut shop in my hometown, am I in danger of being sued?”
You ever watch “Law and Order” on TV? At the beginning of every episode, they offer a warning that the story you’re about to see is a work of fiction, and any similarities to persons or events in the real world is strictly coincidental. The writers are clearly inspired by what they see in the newspaper headlines, but they take some basic plot ideas and weave a completely fictional story around them. If they simply stole someone else’s ideas, they would be violating the individual’s right to privacy, as well as possibly infringing on another’s copyright. Your novel has the same limitations. We’ve all written stories with people or places or events that had some connection to our past, and you’re free to include places and events that are genuine and bring a dose of reality to your book. But if you were to interview your friend, steal her story, and create a novelized account of her life, you would be in violation of the law. You need her expressed permission to tell her personal story. Instead you take that character and you reshape it a bit. You make sure not to slander anyone, or make a real person look bad. You change the details so that nobody could explore your story and know immediately who you were talking about. (I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving legal advice here, but I’ve had more than one lawyer explain the argument of reasonability in novels — i.e., If a reasonable person were to read the story, would they know who you were talking about? And would they assume you were trying to assassinate that individual’s character?) I doubt the donut shop is going to sue you, since you’re free to include such details in your novel. But I’d stay away from using the real names of the owners, and having them poison customers with cyanide-laced donuts. I’ve heard that’s the sort of thing donut-shop owners frown upon.
One author noted, “I just read a nonfiction book that would make a fantastic novel. Must I contact the author to tell him I intend to dramatize the story? Or because it is a national story and a true event, do I not need to contact anyone? Can I simply consider the work reference material?”
You’re on dangerous ground here, so again let me begin by saying I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not giving legal advice. If you need legal help, by all means consult an attorney. I asked a lawyer informally about this question, and he said a writer should be aware of the source of his or her information. If the nonfiction book is basically your complete source for the novel you’re planning, then yes, you are legally obligated to talk with the author about your novel idea. But if this is, as you say, a national story that everyone knows about, you might have several sources that you rely on to create a story. The example he gave me: there have been a couple nonfiction books out on the Bernie Madoff scandal. If you base your novel on one of those books, so that it is the basis of the bulk of your research, then you could be sued for copyright infringement. But there have been thousands of stories written on the Madoff case, and there are hundreds of people who could be interviewed. If you spent time reading those, talked with people involved, and created a fictionalized account of a guy who created a Ponzi scheme and ripped off millions of dollars, you would not be violating that nonfiction author’s rights. Does that make sense?