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R. A. Salvatore on Using First and Third Person in the Same Book


Do you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email your question in to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com.


Hi Susan,

Thanks so much for the blog, it helped during NaNoWriMo! I have a question with first person and third person point of view being in one novel and was wondering if you can give any insight on the technique?   

Thanks, Desiree


Hi Desiree, 

Thank you for the question! And I’m glad you found Writers Don’t Cry useful, especially during that trial tribulation terrific thing called NaNoWriMo (seriously, NaNoWriMo is really awesome—if also really hard!).

SalvatoreFor as often as first person and third person are used together in the same novel, your question is actually kind of a tricky one! First person, while seductive in its seeming simplicity, is actually an incredibly difficult technique to master. Similarly, third person, while omnipresent, is far from easy—requiring the mastery of various “narrative distances” to truly work it to its best effect. And using both in the same novel? Adds a whole new level of tricky! Luckily, I did say if I couldn’t answer it, I’d find an author who could.

And who better to answer this question than the author who first sent shockwaves through the fantasy community with this very technique: R. A. Salvatore. A New York Times bestselling author, Salvatore has been using first and third person together in his novels to great acclaim for 23 years now, inspiring countless other authors to start weaving in first person with their third, and cementing it as yet another benchmark of the fantasy tradition. Fortunately for us, he was happy to answer your question. I hope you enjoy his response!

If you want to see examples of his master technique in action, check out his latest book The Last Threshold, which comes out tomorrow. I, myself, can't wait!


R. A. Salvatore on Using First and Third Person in the Same Book

When I sat down to start The Dark Elf Trilogy, I thought I'd do it in the first person point of view. One of my favorite series is Roger Zelazny's amazing Amber story--I don't know that I've ever seen first person done better, honestly--and I thought that, since this new trilogy would have a laser focus on a single character, that point of view might work well. I ran into trouble immediately. First, the book actually begins before my main character is even born, and second, first person simply doesn't work with one of my favorite interludes: the battle scene. (See also: R. A. Salvatore on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene.)

I like my battle scenes busy. Sometimes they're one-against-one, and in those circumstances, first person point of view might be interesting (except that some suspense will be sacrificed, since you're being told about the fight by one of the combatants, who, therefore, will likely survive!). However, many of my battles are wildly choreographed with dozens of different struggles going on simultaneously, all about the field or room. If I'm in a sword fight, battling for my life, I'm not going to take the time to watch my dwarf buddy parrying an orc's mace with his battle-axe.

With all of that coming clear before me, I backed away from using first person and went back to the old, reliable third person point of view. But still, I really wanted to get into this character's head. So I got the idea of journal entries, or soliloquies, for Drizzt (or Elbryan in my DemonWars series). I like to break my novels up into parts, and so I decided to start each section with one of these "essays." It's been working well for more than twenty years, honestly, and each time I write one, I'm carried deeper into the story around it, almost like this character is revealing another level that I might have otherwise missed.

One thing I try to do is to write the essay from whichever time frame makes the most sense of the character's private observations. He's not talking to the reader, but to himself--I think some people miss that. I've had letters saying that Drizzt is being "preachy," but he's not--at least, he's not being preachy to anyone but himself. These are his moments of personal honestly, where he's trying to make sense of the crazy world around him. Sometimes I write them as observations of what is happening in real time for him, using the essay as an unreliable narrator to turn the prism for the reader just a bit. Other times, they are reflections on what has gone on before, often in previous books, another way to give new readers some more insight into why certain things are happening or wider implications, perhaps. And other times, the essay stands apart from the story, a bit of general philosophical introspection for Drizzt that helps him keep his bearings going forward.   

The unexpected joy of doing this is that I've come to know this character on a much deeper level. People ask me if these soliloquies come from me, if this is me talking instead of the character. Perhaps yes, perhaps no, is the honest answer. Certainly my heroes follow a course that I consider heroic, and so from that perspective, when Drizzt or Elbryan or anyone else talks about doing the right thing in one of my books, it has to be based in what I would consider the morally correct choice. However, and here's where I caution readers (and writers who would use this device), keep in mind that the character is not omniscient to the story that is happening all around him, while I, as the writer, certainly am. So I have to always recognize those limitations, and therefore, what Drizzt might think is the right choice might, in fact, be horribly wrongheaded.  

The poor guy makes his share of mistakes, I think!

  --R.A. Salvatore, February 27, 2013

* * *

Check out R. A. Salvatore's latest book, The Last Threshold, and get the inside scoop on Drizzt from R.A. Salvatore and his editor in A Reader’s Guide to R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt. You can find him on his web site, on Facebook, and, of course, on Amazon. 


Happy Writing!

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