Which is Better—First or Third Person Point of View?

Which is Better-First Person or Third Person Point of View?

POV (point of view, not power of veto, all you Big Brother viewers) is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when planning your book. Although traditionally third person is most popular, many writers find first person works better for some stories. Not sure which is better for your novel? I’m here to help you figure it out.

Find out what’s common for your genre

Almost all books used to be written in third person, but first person is getting more and more popular, especially in certain genres. For example, first person is increasingly common in young adult and new adult novels. But third person is the standard when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. Keep up with what’s trending in your genre.

Determine your preferred point of view

Some writers feel very strongly about one POV or the other. Once I read a comment on Facebook that was something like, “God save us from first person present tense!” Wow! Now, that writer has a strong opinion about POV. Successful stories have been written in both POVs (and tenses, for that matter). The important thing is to know the strengths and limitations of each. That leads me to my next point:

Know the strengths and limitations of each

First person

Strengths:

  • It’s more realistic, since we each experience real life through only one perspective.
  • It allows for a deeper emotional connection to the POV character because the readers gets to know all the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.
  • The POV character’s voice comes through clearly, so there’s little room for the reader to misinterpret the character’s motivations and reactions.
  • Writing in first person feels more natural to some writers.

Limitations:

  • It is essential for the narrator to be relatable and interesting. Who wants to spend 300 pages in the mind of someone they don’t like?
  • The reader can only know what the narrator knows. This means location, back story, and other characters’ thoughts and feelings.
  • Working in personal details about the POV character—physical description, name, etc—can be tricky.
  • The larger amount of introspection and analysis can lead to too much telling (rather than showing).
  • You have to make sure all the sentences don’t start with I.
  • Switching characters’ point of view can be confusing for readers.
Third person
Point of view

Who wants to rewrite Lord of the Rings all from Frodo’s POV? Anyone?

Strengths:

  • Most readers are more comfortable with third person point of view, since this is how most stories are written.
  • More distance means more can happen outside protagonist’s presence, allowing a broader scope for the story.
  • It can be less confusing for readers, especially with POV switches
  • It’s easy to show multiple characters’ thoughts and feelings.
  • Easy to show more (and tell less) in general.

Limitations:

  • It feels more emotionally distant and can keep readers from feeling as deep of an emotional connection to the main character.
  • It’s easy to info dump, ie, have too much exposition.
  • The main character’s emotions and thoughts are harder to convey.
  • Knowing everything can weaken the tension in the plot.

 

Ask yourself these three questions:

Does the reader need to know more than one person’s thoughts and feelings?

How much of the plot will take place away from the main character?

What do you want your reader to feel?

The bottom line is this: there is no universal answer to the POV debate. It all depends on the story. Some stories—some characters—come to life better through third person, and some will be better with first person. What’s most important is to pick one, stick with it throughout the novel, and have a plan for the pitfalls of the POV you choose.

 

What’s your POV preference (as a writer or a reader) and why? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

Jeni Chappelle

Jeni Chappelle is a freelance editor. She considers herself a hobbit lives in an itty-bitty town a few miles from Charlotte, NC with her family and a menagerie. Jeni is a participating editor in #P2P, #RevPit and #ShoreIndie. You can visit her blog and learn more about her editing at www.jenichappelle.com.

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13 comments on “Which is Better—First or Third Person Point of View?
  1. Joyce Lavene says:

    Great blog! I’ve written stories from both POV. It all depends on the story. Love the Frodo reference!

  2. Jeni,

    Great overview of PoV considerations! I’d like to add that I’ve encountered a number of writers who were writing in third person and struggling with voice and/or how to relate a scene. One possible solution to these problems is to write a scene in first person (if necessary, imagining oneself as the narrator), then transform the result into third person (a painless process if writing in close third).

    Fritz.

  3. Hi Jeni! Great article! I have written in both POVs and I find that for epic fantasy 3rd person is definitely the way to go. What POV a writer uses does depend on the story they’re writing.

  4. Lex Allen says:

    I often write short stories (horror and metaphysical sci-fi)in first person, but novels…all third. An easy choice for me as my books are broad in scope with numerous characters. In that regard, completely agree with you (and others), it all depends on your comfort level compared to what you’re writing.

    • Many writers draw that exact distinction, Lex – first person for short stories, third for novels, feeling that first person is too intimate to sustain an entire 80,000 words. Glad you’ve found what works for you!

  5. Lex Allen says:

    PS…I forgot to add that I think Fritz Freiheit’s solution for the writer struggling with voice and how to relate a scene…write the scene in first (narrator)and then re-write in third, an excellent idea!

  6. Dave says:

    Hello.

    I have nominated you for an award here:

    http://just1more.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/very-inspiring-blogger-award/

    & here:

    http://economyedits.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/very-inspiring-blogger-award/

    Yep, you’re SUCH an inspiration I included you twice.

    8^>

  7. Tim Trimble says:

    Nice posting. I tend to always write in 3rd person. I have multiple characters, lots of scenes, and multiple threads running through the story. I think it’s from being such a movie geek since I was young.

    Keep up the great posts Jeni!

  8. Kas Thomas says:

    Genre is important too. In some genres, first person is the norm. In some, female narrator is the norm.

    Also, the industry as a whole is changing. Ten years ago, literary agents and publishers were strongly biased against first person and wanted to see third person. But first person has made a comeback.

    It’s possible to make third person intimate, by following the main character closely (interleaving inner dialog occasionally) and telling the story primarily from that character’s point of view (rather than omnisciently).

  9. John Carl says:

    Thank you for this article! I really like it. I am making a science fiction/war novel these days and i am still confused whether to use first POV or third POV…

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