How to Mix First and Third Person POV
Sat Jun 24 2017
About a week ago, a reader sent me this question about mixing POVs within a novel:
One of my writing pals has recently started a novel and has chosen to use one first-person pov and one third-person limited pov. The good news is that both types of viewpoint were introduced early, and that the unorthodox viewpoint style didn't jar me as much as I thought it would. It also serves to differentiate the characters pretty well so that their voices aren't indistinct.
Despite being unable to find any specific reason not to use this method, it's so... unorthodox. However, all the reasons I can think of to switch to all first-person or all third-person don't seem to apply here. Can such an unorthodox point of view work?
I have to admit, my first instinct was to discourage such attempts as foolhardy, because first- and third-person POV feel so different. How could they possibly work well together?
Except, people break the supposed "rules" of writing all the time and get away with it. So the real question here is not can it work, but when it works, why? And what can we learn from that?
Understand the rules to break the rules
As a rule about rule-breaking, you can break any rule of writing so long as you're doing it for effect. Broken rules suddenly work when the emotional effect evoked in the reader by breaking the rules is precisely the effect you want.
Which means that to understand how we might get away with mixing first- and third-person POVs, we'd better understand how each one "breaks" the other.
I wrote an article on what POV is for last year that covers this in some depth, so I won't rehash it all here. Suffice it to say that if you compare first- and third-person styling, you find this:
The difference between these POVs is fundamentally a difference about emotional distance and information control.
Understand those two axes, and the answer to that "when it works, why?" question becomes pretty straightforward.
First-person narration has the viewpoint character telling you the story directly, in their own voice. Often, the character also lets you in on their inner-most thoughts. It is a very intimate narration style, and brings readers emotionally close to the viewpoint character.
By contrast, third-person holds them at distance. In third-person narration the reader's view of the characters is mediated by an (often anonymous and disembodied) narrator. The presence of that intermediary puts one level of separation between you and the characters, which in turn tends to diminish your emotional connection to them.
Third-person narration shares information pretty freely with readers. This is particularly so when the story uses an omniscient narrator, who is free to tell you anything, at any time, about anyone or any event in the story's world. Third-person narration has a way of laying all its cards on the table, as it were.
First-person narration, however, necessarily limits the information to only what the viewpoint character knows. Since the character is telling you the story, they can't tell you anything they themselves aren't aware of. All kinds of things can be happening--and typically are--outside of the first-person narrator's view. It should be pretty easy to see how a writer can use that limitation to create mysteries and otherwise hide stuff from the reader.
Guidelines for POV mixing
With that in mind, a story could benefit from using a mixed POV style if any of the following are true:
You want to pull one character very close, while leaving the other as an enigma. The obvious mode for that is to let readers be very close to a first-person hero, while keeping the third-person villain more distant. Because readers have access to the first-person hero's thoughts and motivations, they should have an easy time empathizing with them. Likewise, because we'd witness the villain and their dastardly deeds without the same understanding of why they're doing that stuff, readers should have no problem in hoping the villain eventually gets caught.
The story's major hook involves learning the antagonist's motives and/or plans. A first/third person split between protagonist and antagonist keeps the villain mysterious: because all we can see is what they're doing, but not at all why, we become curious to learn the reasons. That's the hook.
You want to deeply explore the villain's motivations and plans, while keeping mysterious the way in which the good guys are going to stop them. For this, you'd switch the viewpoints, putting the bad guy in first-person while keeping the good guys at distance. This would work when you have a villain who is a "true believer" in the rightness of their cause, even if their beliefs are totally screwed-up.
As far as how to mix them, I have two suggestions:
Bias the material towards the protagonist. Whichever character we're supposed to be rooting for, give us more material in that POV regardless of whether it's the first-person or third-person one. Let the other character be presented as shorter interludes between the main character's storyline so readers are not left scratching their heads about who they're supposed to be rooting for.
Introduce both viewpoints fast. Mixed-viewpoints is pretty rare in fiction, so you kind of owe it to your readers to let them know as soon as possible what they're in for. For example, don't give us several first-person hero chapters before showing us a third-person villain interlude. That would be very jarring. I'd say you should strive to expose us to both viewpoints within the first 10 pages. I would even suggest opening the story with the minority viewpoint. That is, let us see a bit of what the villain is up to, then switch quickly to your hero.
I would not be at all surprised if other people can come up with additional scenarios in which POV-mixing can work. If you have some, please share them in the comments! And if your particular scenario doesn't seem to fit the guidelines, that's ok. Just think about your story and what you need from it in terms of emotional distance and information control. Let your conclusions guide you to the right POV choices.
Thanks again to the reader who sent in this question. It was fun to think about, and I learned something about writing in the process!
And to everyone else: I love doing reader's choice articles, so send me your questions!