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I'm in the process of editing my novel, and realized that it would be much better when narrated in third person. i was a much better person when it comes to writing in third person. Is there a good way to transfer from third to first person? Should I do it? Or is rewriting the only way?

  • I don't understand your question. How to you "transfer" without rewriting? Do you consider doing a search-and-replace in your word processor? That won't work. – user5645 Dec 17 '16 at 9:29
  • You'll have to rewrite it, I'm afraid. There's no magic button here. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Dec 17 '16 at 11:40
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Third person is not just a grammatical category, it is the whole angle of attack on the subject matter. Most particularly, the third person brings the protagonist into the frame (assuming, of course, that your narrator is your protagonist, which is usually the case when people start off in first person and then find it doesn't work). Bringing the protagonist into the frame -- making them a subject of examination, rather than the conduit for a second-hand examination of other subjects, changes the entire shape of the story.

Despite its popularity among aspiring writers (where it is much more common than in published works), first person is difficult. It is a cramped perspective, and one that is not natural to traditional storytelling. The fact that you have realized that it is not working for you is an indication that you have realized how cramped and confining it can be. So yes, take off the shackles. But you do have to realize that you are going to have to substantially rewrite and rework your shackled text, and that the changes you are going to have to make are probably at the block structure level, not just the textual level.

  • +1 for an accurate, meaningful way of explaining the dynamics involved. My only little objection is the "not natural to traditional storytelling" part. I think it's less a matter of it being "natural" (I could make a case for the opposite, in fact), and more a matter of which aspects the author needs to highlight. 1st-person can be an apt choice for withholding the truth, promoting affect, or emphasizing personal experiencing. – user16555 Sep 4 '18 at 17:32
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By "transfer" I presume you mean transition, leaving the beginning of the story in first person, and just start writing in 3rd.

That's going to seem weird, I wouldn't do it. Rewrite from third person in the first place.

You also need to decide which form of 3rd person you want to use, and stick to it.

  • 3P Omniscient: The narrator knows the inner thoughts and feelings of every character. The narrator might know the future and past as well, things even the characters do not know. Either way, this can be a difficult story to tell; because once you establish the narrator as omniscient, the reader will feel cheated if the author keeps something a secret. If Jim knows Bob killed Diane, and the author lets Jim deny this without telling the reader the truth, the author is cheating. Once the author proves access to all thoughts and feelings, anything that would be important to the reader is expected to be told.

  • 3P Limited: The narrator knows the inner thoughts and feelings of ONE character, the MC. This is easier. If our MC is Mary, then Jill can keep a secret from Mary, Jill can secretly betray Mary without Mary knowing about it, and thus the narrator doesn't know about it. But again: If Mary knows something important and the narrator doesn't tell us what she is thinking, the narrator is cheating.

  • 3P Objective: The narrator does not know the inner thoughts and feelings of ANY character, they are an astute observer, as if they were beside the characters, but all the narrator does is describe what can be seen, heard, sensed in terms of cold or humidity or heat. The narrator reports communications (and can be presumed to understand the signs or signals the characters use), can translate writing, perhaps all languages spoken, etc. In a way this is easier, even the MC can have secrets the reader doesn't know. But it can also feel standoffish. Obviously this is the closest to what is done in film or TV, We may be following one character but we only see and hear what is actually done and said. Of course, even if a character is alone, we can see if they are crying, or joyful, or angry, by their acts and expressions and what they voice. But you can't say "Angela felt X" because you don't know that. You have to describe what Angela did that makes the reader conclude she is feeling "X".

You shouldn't try to mix these, pick a lane and drive in it. I believe the most popular is 3P Limited, both for authors and readers. Authors like describing inner thoughts and feelings, and readers like them, it helps their immersion in the story.

  • In 3P limited, the character whose thoughts and feelings are followed need not be the main character. In Sherlock Holmes, the main character obviously is Sherlock Holmes. But the character we follow is Dr. Watson. – celtschk Oct 19 at 17:08
  • @celtschk I've used that exact example before. Doyle did that because being privy to Sherlock's thoughts would have ruined the surprises in the story, if the reader knew what Sherlock knew or suspected as Sherlock thought it. Watson becomes almost a 3rd Person Objective narrator, but not quite. Yes, it is still 3PL "once removed" or 3PL "sidekick", and a technique that can be used in the special circumstance of not wanting to reveal the MC's secrets, or even letting the MC go do things the reader doesn't get to witness at all, without the reader feeling cheated. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 19 at 21:34
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If you need to transform existing text, you must rewrite. No way around it.

If you want to shift the perspective mid-way through, it's easier. It requires a "zoom out" transition of story-within-story.

I breathed hard, bleeding from many scratches, my hand broken, hanging limply, but I was drunk with elation in my victory. I did it, against all odds, I prevailed.

"Good job, Frank." Lee tapped my back. "We've shown them!"

* * *

"And what then, grandpa?"

Frank leaned in his armchair, exposing the old bones to the warmth of the fireplace. He peered out of the window onto the impeccable garden of the daycare center. He smiled at Lisa, his little sunshine at the dusk of his life. "This, my dear granddaughter, is a story for..." - but he didn't finish. The door to his room burst open, and a grizzled, tan man in a tattered dark jacket burst in. Frank's face brightened in a smile. "Lee! It's been ages!"

"No time for that, Frank! They need us!"

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The process isn't the big deal others seem to think it is. I don't believe there are hard and fast rules to writing but I believe an author should apply a set of rules to a particular work.

Ask yourself a very simple question: what is the effect of continuing a scene after the 1st person narrator leaves the room?

Answer: the scene becomes third-person.

At this point you need to use your other tools (not rules). We can try to signify the transition by utilising tense. This reduces the third-person narrative to being retrospective hearsay, but, hey, we're not in a court of law.

"You're pregnant!" screams my mother. "I didn't raise you to be no whore." Her slaps stings. I run from the room in tears, the pain more emotional than physical. My brother's angered. "Did you just call my sister, your daughter - a whore?" Mother turned away from him. "She's upstairs crying right now. Did you mean it?" "I was angry," said my mother. "I'd hoped she wouldn't follow my path . . ."

Too many aspiring writers lack nuance and get bogged down in the technicalities without realising all aspects of the craft are related. An example of my own: "Little Miss Lightning" - I'll label the technique "active narration (story-telling)." The novel is the story of sporting, competitive siblings. It appears to be in third-person but scrutiny of the text reveals the narrator is breaking conventional rules. The narrative appears dithery and wordy and interjects 'God' into the narrative at every opportunity. It is not until chapter 8 (I think) that the narrator uses the word 'I'. Turns out the story is probably first-person but the narrator doesn't like to talk about himself. Because the story is in past tense the narrator is taking license to represent scenes in which he's not present.

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