What Are The Rules on Mixing Viewpoints?

Can you write a novel mixing first-person and third-person viewpoints? Is that too stupid for words? How do you decide?

Dezaree posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m trying to write a book with my main character being seen through first person, and my second main character from third person. I separate them distinctly in the book and when they are together the story stays in my main characters first person. Can This Work? I tried writing it with them both in first person and without the second main character being separated that way. Both ways made me feel like it was either too confusing or missing to much information. So I want to write this book from two different points of view.

Also while I call her my second main character I really only want my readers to connect with the Main character.

If you don’t fully understand what I mean email me and I will try to better explain.

Randy sez: This is a good question that I’ve heard several times over the years. Before I can answer it, we’ll need to clarify some terms.

What is a “Main Character?”

When we talk about the “main character” of a novel, we mean that there is one single character who is most important within the story. The novel is this character’s story. The Story Question for the novel is a question about whether this particular character will succeed or fail.

Do you have to have a main character? No, of course not. Some novels don’t have a main character. You can write a novel with several characters that are all important, without any of them being the main character. But I don’t recommend that for beginning writers, because it’s hard enough to make your reader care about your story when you HAVE a main character. It’s much harder when you don’t. That’s my advice—follow it or don’t follow it, as you like.

What is a “Viewpoint Character?”

What Dezaree is talking about here is having two “viewpoint characters.” This is a common strategy.

What’s a viewpoint character? This is explained in great detail in Chapter 7 of my book Writing Fiction for Dummies. I’ll summarize it here briefly. When you put your reader inside the skin of a character for a scene, that character is called the viewpoint character for that scene. The reader sees what the character sees, hears what the character hears, smells what she smells, tastes that she tastes, feels what she feels, and thinks what she thinks.

The viewpoint character is also known as the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character.” These terms all mean the same thing.

Notice that you can have many viewpoint characters in a novel. You can also have none. You can switch viewpoint characters within a scene (this is called “head-hopping” and most writing teachers frown on it.)

Your viewpoint character is not necessarily the main character of your novel. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock is the main character, but Watson is usually the viewpoint character, with only a few exceptions.

What is “Point of View?”

Now we need to clarify a related term, which is “point of view” and is often just called “viewpoint.” The viewpoint character can be shown in various ways, each of which is called a “point of view:”

  • First-person point of view:  “I walked to the store and shot a space alien.”
  • Third-person point of view:  “Luke walked to the store and shot a space alien.”
  • Second-person point of view:  “You walked to the store and shot a space alien.”

Third person is the most common viewpoint, and first person is the second most common (in most categories). Second person is rare in fiction, although it’s been done. Obviously it’s very common in user manuals.

The Question: Is Mixing Viewpoints OK?

So now we can clarify Dezaree’s question a bit: Is it OK to have a novel with two POV characters, using a different viewpoint for each: first-person for the main character of the novel, and third-person for the other viewpoint character?

The Short Answer

The short answer is “yes it’s OK.” As an example, Diana Gabaldon did exactly this in her novel Dragonfly in Amber. It worked great.

The Long Answer

The long answer is that you can do anything you want in a novel, as long as it works. What do we mean that it “works?” A little review is in order.

I have always taught that the reason readers read is to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. Different categories will deliver different kinds of emotive experiences, obviously. A romance novel is punching different emotive buttons than a horror novel or science fiction or a murder mystery.

You, the author, get to decide what emotive experience you want to give your reader.

Your reader gets to decide what emotive experience she’s looking for in a book.

If a reader is looking for the kind of emotive experience that you’re trying to deliver, then that reader is in your Target Audience. Your book is designed for her. That’s all great, except …

Except that trying to deliver an emotional experience and actually delivering it are two different things.

When I say that a novel “works,” I mean that it’s actually delivering the Powerful Emotional Experience that its author intended.

I believe that all issues of craft in fiction ultimately come down to this: does it “work?” Does it deliver emotively?

So while I think it’s perfectly fine to mix first-person and third-person POV characters in a novel, the larger question is whether you can deliver the emotive goods using both techniques. Writing first-person fiction is slightly different from writing third-person fiction. If you can’t do both of them well, then mixing them is going to be a problem. But if you can, then it’s not a problem.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

6 Comments

  1. Suzanne Popp May 23, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    As usual, your comments are lucid, memorable, and to the point. Thanks. Suzanne

  2. Linda Strawn May 23, 2016 at 8:42 am #

    One of the best novels I’ve read recently was written in both first and third person. The MC relayed her past in first person, current time was in third. It was like reading two books at the same time, but it worked.

  3. Dawna T May 23, 2016 at 4:40 pm #

    A related topic is whether first or third person is more likely to deliver the biggest emotive experience. I almost always hear that first person is the most powerful in this regard, because you are literally being the main character as they experience the story.

    However, I was persuaded by the one dissenter I found (unfortunately I can’t remember who said this): close third person is the most powerful. Close third person is essentially identical to first person except for the pronoun (she/he, not I).

    The reason first person is less powerful is that reading first person is like someone telling *you* the story. You (the reader) are not *in* the story, you’re hearing it from the person who was. First person gives the experience of hearing someone else saying: “Let me tell you about the time I did this and felt that”. I’m imagining the narrator doing things and feeling things, not me, which puts me one step removed from the events.

    But with close third person, there’s a narrator describing what happened to “him/her” and it’s easy enough to imagine that the narrator is talking (i.e. reporting in a book) about me.

    (I know not everyone reads in order to “be” the character in the book, but I do think that’s the way to enjoy the most powerful emotional experience.)

  4. Kami May 26, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    This is extremely helpful! I am writing my first novel and struggling with POV. I decided to let my two main characters tell their sides of the story in first person. Yet, I want glimpses into the world and workings of the antagonist. So, I’ve been toying with the idea of short scenes in third person to get a view of the “dark side”. I’m still not sure it will work, but now I feel like I can give it a try and see if it helps or hinders the emotional experience.

  5. Marcus June 10, 2016 at 5:19 pm #

    This is done more often than not. Most of Nelson DeMille’s novels featuring John Corey are written this way. Corey is the MC in first person, and it’s usually the antagonist who gets his own scenes and chapters in the third person. He weaves it so it works beautifully. This has inspired me to change my first novel from pure third to first and third. So far, I really like the change.

  6. totom July 1, 2016 at 2:50 am #

    Thank you for this article. It’s very rare that POVs could be different on same novel but after read this article I could understand it.

Leave a Comment

Privacy Policy