Mixing first and third person examples


I’ve written a first draft in, roughly, 3rd-omniscient. The story changed a lot during the writing from where I expected it to go and now that I’m revising I’m considering options.

I quite like the idea of opening in first or third-limited, but I know that voice won’t work as the story and the landscape unfolds. So, I’ve been considering mixing first and third (maybe limited, maybe not). I understand care needs to be taken, etc. I know examples of this exist, I’m just not aware of what they are (excluding experimental works, including Ulysses). I wondered whether anyone could recommend examples.

I should perhaps add that the first person parts would be characters and not a narrator.

Faulkner does it, in The Sound and the Fury, although I wouldn’t say that’s his most readable work.

It’s not unusual in the mystery/thriller genre. The “I” voice might be the protagonist-detective, with third-limited used to peek in on participants in a conspiracy, for example.

Multiple-third viewpoints are pretty much a necessity in, say, big fantasy novels with multiple settings and multiple main characters. You certainly could use the first-person for one of those viewpoints if there’s a story-appropriate reason to do so.

Multiple-first is really hard, because you have to make each voice very distinct to avoid confusing the reader. It might work in the same circumstances as multiple-third – big separation in time and/or space – but I have a hard time thinking of a story-appropriate reason to do it.

Edit: Actually yes, I can think of one. The “Rashomon” approach, where the same story is told by multiple witnesses, is a good use of the multiple-first viewpoint.


Kevin Hearne uses multiple first-person narrators/POV to good effect in the Iron Druid Chronicles, as the story moves along through the series of novels and various characters become more important.

Mixing 1st and 3rd is pretty common in some subsets of urban fantasy. Sometimes they do it the way you mention, but every now and then you’ll see the “other” POV be 1st person while the main story is told in some form of 3rd. The trick there is usually figuring out which character it is in the main story whose 1st-person POV we’re seeing from time to time…it’s an effective way to give us clues that someone is not who they seem to be.

I have two novels in a series where I mix multiple 3rd person POVs with multiple 1st person POVs.

The trick?

All the 1st person POV material is a lot shorter and in the form of letters or text messages.

I also mix in a few pieces of in-world material.

I drew inspiration from Fried Green Tomatoes and Dune for using inter-chapter in-world content (FGT) and epigraphs from different characters (Dune).

NB: Dune is written from an invested omniscent narrator, so the epigraphs may work differently as well as being very short overall.

Laurie R. King, in her novel ‘Locked Rooms’, uses 1st-P for the first 8 chapters, then switches to 3rd-P for the rest of the novel. I found it a bit jarring, but it works.

There is one concept that seems to work to add 1st-P-like aspects to 3rd-P, which is Free Indirect Style. Thomas Harris uses this for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

That story is told in 3rd, but occasionally there will be an internal thought from Starling. This adds the advantage of internal thoughts characteristic in 1st-P to 3rd-P, where that is typically not possible.

It’s often done by placing that thought in a separate paragraph and italicizing it, with no quote marks, which indicates to the reader that it is an internal thought, and not something said aloud in dialogue. The advantage is that it does not muddy the waters as to whether the draft is in 1st or 3rd, yet is has advantages not normally available in 3rd that have the immediacy of 1st-P.

I’ve seen it overused, especially in YA, but if done properly, it works very well. More than once per scene might be pushing it. Once every 5000 to 10000 words is probably safe. More could be annoying or dull the effect. It probably is more effective in close 3rd than omni, however.

It also works in 1st-P, and can give immediacy to internal thoughts there. IMHO, it is best reserved for moments that are emotional or moments where a character wants to express emotion but having other people in the room keeps the character from wanting to say it out loud.

So you could write your draft in 3rd and use FIS for moments where you want the immediacy of 1st.

Since this thread was last active, I’ve actually written an epistolary short story, told through multiple people’s diaries. So there’s another multiple first example.

That story has a frame – the archivist who finds the diaries – and the frame story could easily be third person.

Omniscient third gives the narrator access to everyone’s thoughts anyway. Which is actually one of its weaknesses: a god-like narrator is less interesting than one who has to figure things out.

Showing the thoughts of one (or a few) characters in limited third is not unusual at all, though stylistically there are a number of different ways to do it.

Well, I certainly must agree wholeheartedly with that.

A god-like narrator can just recite facts at will. That makes the reader passive, simply absorbing those facts. In omni, everything that happens is honestly no different than setting, which is an aspect of a story that most readers find to be the least satisfying aspect to deal with. Everything is told to the reader, and rarely shown.

A first-person or close third narrator presents events in the narrative as questions without answers, and then the character makes decisions about how to deal with them. This also presents a short window between the question and how the character answers it in which the reader gets to engage their own thinking actively, either predicting or guessing what that answer will be.

And to my mind, that’s what makes reading fun, is to be a reader who is allowed to engage one’s self directly in the story events as if they were happening to you.

But Free Indirect Style is a get-out-of-jail-free card for those using close third. It adds aspects of immediacy and intimacy to close third that are typically only available in first person, and it does it without compromising anything. It can also be used to enhance first person.