RSS Feed Print
First person or Third?
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 10:35 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

Okay, I've got another topic that I hope gets some discussion. A friend of mine, upon glancing at my WIP, claimed that editors prefer third person over first. When I asked why, she couldn't tell me, but it got me thinking...why? Is she right? And if so, is it still acceptable to write a main character in first person? I can't imagine mine sounding nearly as good in third person. What say you, everyone??
GD Deckard
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 11:13 AM
Third! Because it's easy to tell the reader things the character doesn't know. But, that's just me. Lotsa good books are in first person.
Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 12:04 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

Dang it. Well, as you probably saw already, my WIP The Job is in first person. What I thought I'd do was add tidbits from other people in third person omnipresent, but maybe that will create a mess. 
I just think it's better in first person - just this story, though. I've written others in third person and certainly am comfortable with both POV.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Saturday, January 14, 2012 4:49 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Okay, I must step in here.

Write your work in what is necessary for the story. Some stories deserve first person, some third limited, some third omniscient. I found that writing in third limited functions a lot like writing in first because it involves things that only the character knows and sees. Omniscient is hard to handle and can look sloppy. First is easy because you know that it is only what the character sees, smells, and interacts with. I prefer third limited since I switch characters frequently, but have written in third. 

The one thing that I know you absolutely do not do, unless you have mastered the art of POVs, is switch between first, third, or even second (I have seen it done). This confuses the reader and can show inexperience. It is just bad form. If you want your protagonist to know things that you would usually tell someone in third, you have to use some sort of media, like a newspaper, or another form of information gathering.
Timothy Maguire
Posted: Saturday, January 14, 2012 6:56 PM
Joined: 8/13/2011
Posts: 272

Personally, for me, I'd recommend that you use whichever POV works for your story. You just need to stick to it.

I find that First works best when the centre point of the story is the character and his voice. It really let's you get the character's attitude across without having to worry about interfering with the story. Books like the Dresden Files and Haruhi Suzumiya wouldn't be half as good without the narrator's constant editorialising and mental sarcasm.

Third, however, is a lot better for multiple viewpoints. It also makes it easier to tell a more complicated story and it can make some of the best villains. One of my favourite villains of all time seems completely reasonable in his own scenes, it's only when you see the effects of what he's done that he even becomes vaguely reasonable.

Hope that helps.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2012 2:04 AM

Forgive the lecturing tone, but the point that most people miss is that for the most part first, third, or any of the points of view is a writer’s choice, and has little to do with the story, or the reader’s perception of it. Is there any real difference between:

Jack eased into the apartment, shoes in his hand. With luck he could be in bed without waking Susan, and could claim he came in an hour or two before he actually did.


I eased into the apartment, shoes in my hand. With luck I could be in bed without waking Susan, and could claim I came in an hour or two before I actually did.

Either way Jack is about to be in trouble. Right?

There are valid reasons to chose one POV over the other. First gives a greater sense of immediacy to exposition. It’s popular for comedy and more easily permits cynicism. The limitation is that we can only know the protagonist’s POV, so we know things only as the character does.

Third allows the presentation of scenes in which the character doesn’t participate. One weakness of first person is that we know the narrator will survive, and that eliminates some of the tension (though it’s not a major weakness). Omniscient is less likely to involve the reader in a given character, but it's useful in stories that are strongly situation-based, or where there are many people involved. Fly-on-the-wall is useful where you don’t want the reader to have a strong connection to a character. For example, scenes which feature the enemy, where you don’t want the character to be humanized by having  the reader know their motives.

The problem with first, for the new writer, is that all too often it’s used in an attempt to make a story that’s 100% narration by the author seem more real by giving it a “live” narrator. But the narrator and the protagonist live at different times and places and cannot meaningfully appear on stage together. So we’re either with the character or the narrator. Which would you prefer? Which would seem more real? I’ll take having the character as my avatar to having the author.

The point is that if your POV is external, be it first or third, you’re telling an author-centric story. Claiming that the author is the character at some earlier time changes that not at all (and the reader knows it’s really you in a wig and makeup). The problem with that approach is that the author is talking about the story, as a report, and that precludes the reader knowing the character’s world as that character perceives it. We know what they do, but not what they’re responding to—as they see it. That can eliminate the feeling of empathy participation that readers come to us for.

But, if we’re noticing what the character is, as they perceive it, we’ll know the situation as the protagonist does and probably respond as the character will—and have an interest in knowing what the character thinks. That’s a character-centric story, and the POV is that character’s. To my mind that’s much more important then a change in personal pronouns.

Laura Dwyer
Posted: Monday, January 16, 2012 8:35 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

Jay - Thanks for the interesting perspective. Personally, I've written in first and third omnipresent, and I like both. I agree that with third you can skip from character to character, and can do and write things you can't with first. But I also think writing in first allows you to limit what readers know, sometimes to the benefit of all (at least I think so!). 
Right now, I'm enjoying telling one of my stories from first person, and I assure you, my main character is nothing like me. No Mary Sues here. But who knows - maybe when it's finished and I'm trying to shop it around, the consensus will be that first doesn't work. I stand by it, though. I don't think third would lend itself to the sarcasm and jokes that my character is able to make right now. And I like that readers will see just how low her self-esteem truly is. Otherwise, I don't think I'd be able to convey it in the same manner.
We'll see what the future holds for my character, though.
Thank you!
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 1:12 AM

Right now, I'm enjoying telling one of my stories from first person, and I assure you, my main character is nothing like me.

Not like you, I agree, but not like her, either. From start to finish it’s you, in your present, talking to the reader about what happened.

You, the author, are mentally viewing the scene, and then telling the reader what you see happening. Then you insert editorial content, supposedly by the character, to explain and expand on what was said. For example, at one point you say, “And surprisingly, it seemed, all the fight had gone out of the dog.” That’s a report from the storyteller, not an observation by the character, because the character is focused on the conversation, not us. And the reader has only heard a single line of dialog, and the response to it, so they don't know what the term fight refers to.

Take the sentence from the reader’s POV: We don’t know the two people involved. They could be man and wife, adult and child, employer and employee, two friends or almost anything else. Either could be of either gender, at this point. Their age is indeterminate, as is the location in time and space.

Next, take the word “dog.” We have no idea of why the character would call him/her that, or, if it’s a deserved label.

And: the fight has gone out of the dog? In what way were they fighting? There’s no way to tell. Yes, it may become clear later, but the reader doesn’t want to read something that has no meaning as it’s read, and which may or may not be clarified later. After all there is no such thing as a second first impression.

As I read it was clear that you knew what was going on. The character’s knew, too. But who was it written for? The reader doesn’t have a clue. So when you say, “We’ve had this conversation hundreds of times before,” what can it mean to someone who’s heard only two lines of the conversation? For you it all has meaning. But what about the reader, who is only being told that the conversation they’ve not heard had happened an unknown number of times before, over an unknown span of time?

My point is that because the POV is external to the character on the scene it can be nothing but a report from the narrator, and wig or no, that’s really you.

The reader doesn’t meet the person who is experiencing the story, they're reported by that external observer. So they don’t know the events as that character knows the events. There are facts, and reports of emotion, but the emotional content is missing because we’re being told about events, we’re not experiencing them in real time, as the character is.

You can take a break, if you care to, and come back later to continue the story. Nothing is lost if you do. But in life the character can’t stop, because to them it’s real and motivations must be responded to.

For them things catch their attention and they react to them. For you event follows event, to be reported and commented on. So you’re giving a talk about the vacation. The protagonist is living it.

So, why not give her world as she sees it, rather then as someone who isn’t on the scene describes it? Why not let the reader make the same decisions as the character does by giving them the situation as the character on the sceen sees it? Why not show rather than tell?

Try an experiment: Change all the personal pronouns to third person and see how much of it is simply the author talking about events, as though reciting a history. It may surprise you.

Believe me, I'm not trying to discourage you, or disparage your writing, because what you're doing is what most people do.

When we begin writing the only tool-set own is the general skill called writing, learned in our grade-school days. That's great for writing reports, proposals, and essays, which is the kind of writing most people do. But the profession of fiction writing has a body of craft and special knowledge, some of it that must be beaten into our heads, just as the nonfiction techniques we learn in school were.

Within that set are techniques of making the reader feel as it they're living the story. Damn few weep when reading a history book, but a well written novel has the power to evoke emotion. And your reader comes to you to be made to feel, not nod and say, "Uh-huh.

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 10:39 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

Its a matter of storytelling.  Back in victorian times, most people were told stories directly.  So most novels of the time are narratives, journal's or diaries told from a person's singular perspective. It was how stories were told, and how most people WANTED them.

Today, most stories are told, not as anecdotes, but as movies and tv shows. The big picture of several different characters at once, not the narrative of one character. And so most people prefer third person. It's how our stories are told.

Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 11:45 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 244

It's a matter of what works best for the story you're telling.  Some stories demand first person because the voice is just that intrinsic to the narrative.  (Yes, voice is important, but if you're using third the voice isn't as personal as it is in third, in my opinion.)

There is no right or wrong, only one person's opinion.  If POV and tense are done right, the reader won't even notice what you're using.  They'll just be swept away in the story itself.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 11:39 PM

There is no right or wrong, only one person's opinion.

Unfortunately, that person is the editor who will say yes or no to your submission. And editors have very strong ideas of right and wrong—so strong that the rejection rate for first time writers is around 999 out of 1000. They reject work for a wide range of problems, and while every editor has a different viewpoint and tastes they are unanimous on most of the major rejection points for the simple reason that work written that way won’t sell. So yes, there is right and wrong.

Take a look at this excerpt from
D.O.A. Don’t Murder your Mystery:

I can’t comment on the book, itself, because I’ve not read that one, but he make a pretty strong case for acquiring the tools the editors feel are useful, and necessary.

You might also want to look at the archives for Miss Snark. She doesn’t blog anymore, but the viewpoint was that of a successful agent, and reading her blog, from front to back is a pretty good education in the realities of a writer’s world. There's a lot of crap to wade through, but there's a lot of nuggets of purest gold.

Laura Dwyer
Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:21 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

Jay - after consideration and some experimentation in my work-in-progress, I'm happy to report I'm going to give third person a go. It wasn't peer pressure, despite you making several reasonable and intelligent arguments for third. I tried it out, tightened up my writing a bit, and liked it much better.
So, thank you.
I'm still not sure how to inject the emotion in real time, as you reference in one of your posts. And, by default, isn't the author reporting the events as he or she saw them? Maybe this shows my novice, but I'm just not clear on how NOT to do that. I'd originally intended to use the prologue to set the stage for one of Ann's major conflicts, but I don't want to confuse people. I thought giving hints here and there (adding more and more until the conflict is clear) would be dramatic and interesting, but maybe I'm completely delusional. Any thoughts? Thanks.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2012 1:24 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

Laura, how do you NORMALLY, in every day life, tell a persons mental state?  Body language, tone of voice, word choice, how other people react to those things.  Nervous tics, ways they move, ect.  It can be much more enjoyable and organic to figure these things out yourself as a reader than to have the central figure say, "i was sad".
 (That said, I love first person sometimes for that very reason, its easier to see inside their head. )

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012 2:38 AM

I'm still not sure how to inject the emotion in real time, as you reference in one of your posts.

Try this article:

The key is that in your life, from waking to sleeping your life is a linked chain of cause and effect. Something catches your attention and you decide if it’s important, and needs a response. If not it doesn’t count. If it does, you evaluate it and respond, which can be instantly or can take hours, depending on the situation. But once you do respond you’re free to focus on something else, which most likely will be the result of the action you took. It’s how we all live. Can your character be any different and still be real?

Your character can sense a multiplicity of things, but focuses on one. So the moment you interject something that the character isn’t paying attention to you interject yourself into the story. And how can the story seem be real if you’re telling us what you find important while the character is focused on something different?

The trick is in giving the character reason to react to what you want them to. Do you want the reader to know he’s afraid of fire, because the plot will turn on that point? Instead of you telling the reader about his phobia have the stove fail to light, then flare up for a moment. That will give him reason to recall that horrible night when he watched his best friend die in a fire (or whatever cause his problem). You keep out of sight and the reader feels sympathy for the character because they experienced the flare-up at the same time as the character did, rather then reading it as a report from you.

And, by default, isn't the author reporting the events as he or she saw them?

No. You don’t see it in film, or on the stage because there is a cast of actors available to literally play the scene as we watch. The author isn’t even in the theater. When we personally tell the story we have no actors, though. And since we can’t be the man with the gun, the one being threatened, and the bystander who dials 911, we tell about it from our own POV. We talk about them

But on the page you have your cast of players, who can live the scene. The problem is that when we take up writing we know only the storytelling skills of the fireside storyteller, so we record ourself telling the story, as we visualize it. But that’s a report. Unless the reader can see the storyteller’s expression changes, their vocal delivery, and their body language there’s precious little emotion induced in the reader.

Take a simple example: the line reads, “Zack, you are a real bastard.” How did you read that? As deadly insult? As high praise? As a doctor delivering a DNA report? It matters, but the words, alone, have no inherent emotional content.

Any two people look at an event differently. Our preconceptions, our needs, our background and education all contribute to what we take from a simple observation. Read what two politicians say after attending the same event and you may think they attended different events. That’s POV. And that’s what makes a character unique—and interesting.

But, if you report what you think is important in a scene that’s your POV. And that has to be less interesting then the POV of the character who is in the process of experiencing the event.

• I'd originally intended to use the prologue to set the stage for one of Ann's major conflicts, but I don't want to confuse people.

Think of how a film opens. No one explains. No one lectures the viewer. Yet we know what’s happening by context.

You said you don’t know how to do various things. But isn’t that to be expected? Fiction writing is a profession. And like any profession it’s filled with tricks of the trade, specialized knowledge and things that must be mastered. After all, what kind of writing does the average person need? Nonfiction. And that’s the style of composition we learn in our basic education. Fiction on a professional level has its own body of compositional skills. When we give a report it’s always author-centric, a list of facts and data. But fiction is emotion based and character centric, so the approach is different, and slanted to reactions and desires, rather then facts.

Check out that article. And if it seems to make sense you might want to look into this book: It’s a really good look at the elements that make fiction seem real to the reader—to be happening as we watch.

Laura Dwyer
Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012 2:25 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192

Jay - As always (it seems), thank you for the elaborate response to my inquiries. Funny you mention Advanced Fiction Writing - I subscribe to his e-newsletter and also was able to get his book on my kindle.Don't ask me if I've had time to finish reading, but I love what he has to say about the craft, and I HOPE I'm learning already!
Rachel Anne Marks
Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 8:05 PM
Joined: 1/23/2012
Posts: 36

Yay, Randy Ingermanson! I've had the great privilege of being mentored by him. He's a genius! And quite a nice guy to boot.

Laura, I just wanted to pipe in and suggest reading "Character's & Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card. It's probably the best resource on POV book-wise.

POV is vital to any really well written piece. And it's not as simple as choosing 1st vs 3rd, but it also comes down to close vs distant, and past vs. present.

POV is how you draw the reader in. POV is how you find "voice" and add texture to the work. All things filter through POV, description and motive. Goals and even dialogue (what is said vs. what isn't).


I drag the body out into the snowdrifts, as far away from our shack as I can muster. I put her in a thicket of trees, where the green seems to still have a voice in the branches, and try not to think about the beasts that’ll soon be gathering. There’s no way of burying her; the ground is a solid rock of ice beneath us.

I kneel beside her and want desperately to weep. My throat tightens and my head aches. Everything hurts inside. But I have no way of releasing it. I’m locked up and hard as stone.

“I’m sorry, Mamma,” I whisper to the shell in front of me. I take her hand. It could belong to a glass doll. There’s no life there anymore.

So I gather rocks, one by one, and set them over her, trying my best to protect her from the birds, the beasts, keep her safe as much as I can now. I pile the dark stones gently on her stomach, her arms, and over her face, until she becomes one with the mountain.

I stand and study my work, feeling like the rocks are on me instead, then I leave the body for the forest and ice.

This shows us how the MC sees her world, through description and thought and action all working together to paint the image of character. It gives us mood as well as visual info and draws an image of fears and losses.

It's 1st person present, so we get the emotion as it comes, but this could easily become "I knelt beside her and wanted so desperately to weep. My throat tightened and my head ached..." You have to weigh the tense by how urgent you'd like the story to feel. And present tense is usually a little more difficult in the long run to get a feel that's not distracting for the reader.

POV makes or breaks a book, in my opinion. Consider the books you like the best. Look at the pov and see what the writer does that latches on to you and what things stick with you. This might help you decide how you want to show us your story.

Hope this helped!

Jonathan L
Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2014 6:03 PM
Joined: 4/2/2014
Posts: 14

I can't really add too much to what others have said already in this thread. I will say this as a reader I personally dislike first person. However I have a collection of pulp detective shorts from the 40's and 50's and many are really fun reads and are in first person. So just because I usually don't like it doesn't mean it can't be done well.


As a writer I think first person is sometimes easier. We are the authors we know our characters thoughts and feels and sometimes, because we spend so much time with them, we become them. I write in third person because it's what I like to read. But it can be hard at times. I've found one of the best things about third person though is I really get to see the whole scene unfold instead of just one or two characters at a time.


So in conclusion... I like to read third and write in third, but if done well first person can be just as good, or even better.

Posted: Saturday, July 19, 2014 11:30 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 121

I normally start out with action, done in 3rd person. My main character describes what he thinks happened. Then I switch to 1st person and the remainder of the book is done from my character's viewpoint. I find 1st person easier. I've tried writing in 3rd but I'm simply not that good at it, and since I don't outline and haven't a clue what's going to happen when I sit at the computer each day, 1st is logical (to me). I don't know any more than my character as to what's going on.

Jump to different Forum...