Friday, August 02, 2019

First vs. Third Person: Choosing the Right Point of View for Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes an updated look at choosing between a first and third person point of view and how point of view can even help with developing your characters. 

Point of view is one of the strongest tools a writer has in their toolbox, because a story can drastically change just by changing who's telling it and how they feel about those events. Like witnesses to an event who all see something different.

The wrong point of view can even hurt an otherwise great story, because a character might be too far from the story's events to make a good point of view character. They might even be too close and not able to give the proper perspective needed for that particular tale.

It's an important choice to make in any story.

Choosing Your Point of View Character(s) 

The one with the most to lose is usually the protagonist, and most times your protagonist is your point of view character. But for novels with multiple characters and storylines, it's not always as clear which points of view to show. Sometimes, you're not even sure if your story needed a single, dual, or multiple point of view.

If you're unsure which type of point of view to use, ask:

1. Is this a personal story or an epic tale?

Personal stories usually benefit from a tight point of view to really understand the nuances of that personal struggle, so either first person or a tight third person are good choices.

Epic tales tell a "big picture" story and often require multiple people to show all sides of the story. These tales benefit from a multiple third person point of view, and can either use a tight or far narrative distance.

If the story is about a person and their journey, close and single points of view allow you to really get into the head of that character and focus on their problem. A story about a situation, be it a quest, a war, a terrorist attack, might be better told through the eyes of characters who can see all sides of it.

(Here's more on Point of View Basics: Through My Eyes. Or Your Eyes. Or Somebody's Eyes.)

2. What scope do you want to show?

Even if the tale is personal, you might choose to look at the bigger picture to convey a theme or ideal. Or a massive situation might be best seen from the eyes of one single character. Think about what aspect of the story you want to focus on. Big tales don't have to be told by a big cast, same as personal tales can involve more than one person.

(Here's more on Balancing the Number Characters and the Scale of Your World)

3. Who has the freedom to act?

If the story is about something happening to a particular person, it seems natural for that person to be the point of view character. But sometimes the one in the thick of it isn't the one in the best position to know what's going on.

In my novel, The Shifter, Tali is the one in trouble, but it would have been a boring book if she were the point of view character, or even a point of view character. She might have been deepest in the mess, but Nya was the one with the freedom to act and get her out of it.  

(Here's more on Whose Story is It?)

4. Would the story work in a single point of view?

Some novels just won't work with a single point of view character, such as many romances. But some stories are improved by focusing on one character and showing the entire tale through their eyes. It provides a closer perspective, a more personal connection to the reader, and a greater sense of personal stakes.

The closeness is what make the story work so well, and bringing other perspectives into it would ruin in. Knowing what's going on in other character's heads and seeing what goes on in their lives would steal tension and give too much of the story away. 

(Here's more on How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

5. Would the story work in multiple points of view? 

Some novels are complex enough to thrive with multiple point of view characters. The tales are large and vast and important aspects affect multiple characters and locations and seeing the bigger picture is more important than any one character. Capturing the entire scope is what matters and what makes the story shine.

However, using multiple points of view can be a red flag that you have a premise novel in the works. If the only reason is to show that point of view is because "you can't show that part of the story any other way" then you might want to reconsider. If there's no goal driving that character, they'll feel flat and their sections will feel pointless--or worse--that they're just there as exposition or backstory.

Multiple points of view work best when each point of view character brings something unique to the tale. A fresh perspective, goals of their own, a subplot that connects to a larger theme that encompasses the entire story, and so on. The reader cares about that point of view character, even if what they care about is to see that character get what they deserve.

(Here's more on Whose Head is it Anyway? Understanding Omniscient Point of View)

Developing Characters Based on Point of View

Regardless of what point of view you choose, character development is pretty much the same. You want layered characters with goals and stakes, and plausible motivations that come from real desires.

Tight points of view might have more personal goals and stakes, as close narratives are often about more personal journeys, but even in a third omniscient point of view, you still want your readers to connect to the characters through their goals and motivations.

Telling an epic tale doesn't mean you skimp on the character development. In fact, it's probably even more critical because there are more characters to keep track of, and you'll have less time per character to make that reader connection. 

(Here's more on Lost in the Crowd: Working With Multiple Point of View Characters)

Some Point of View Risks

There are some things to be aware of no matter which point of view you choose.

The farther away you get from the character's perspective, the easier it is to make them do what you want, not what they want. A more distant point of view runs the risk of sounding flat, having more told sections and less showing. Unless you're writing an omniscient narrator, make sure you don't slip outside your point of view and forget who's telling the story.

The closer you get to the point of view character has its own risks, too. First person or a tight third person point of view can sometimes make you feel that you have to explain everything that character does, thinks, or says, and you wind up with a "I did this, I felt that" style going. Instead of having a tight point of view, you have a narrator who's not actually in the story, just observing it and relaying it to the reader. 

(Here's more on Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is?)

A great point of view trick is to convey how a character feels about something by their actions. They won't think "I feel sad," they'll cry. They won't "be afraid" they'll tremble and cower. They won't "hate that girl" they'll slip her homework into the trash when she accidentally leaves it on her desk.
Let the reader figure out how a character feels by observing what they do.

A solid point of view, no matter what type, gives you the freedom to let that character shine. Because if you're in their head, then everything they think and do and say is who they are and what they believe in. Not only will that flesh out the character, but the world around them as well.

Which point of view do you prefer? Do you change per story? 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. just what I needed right now! Trying to decide on POV for my next project, and this has helped. Thanks!

  2. Oh, this was great! I had a very hard time with POV while writing my epic fantasy novel because telling it just through the Main Character's POV was too restricting for the scope of the novel. Your advice for having a few key characters tell the story as well is spot on!

  3. Great advice. Can you do a post sometime about what makes you decide to use first person or third person limited? Is one better than the other? I'm really wondering about that as I get ready to start a new project.

  4. For me, POV is the hardest part to understand and do well in this whole writing thing. So all your POV posts have helped greatly Janice.

    Natalie's suggestion about 3rd or 1st is a good idea for a post.

    What you say about multiple POV is true. In my first attempt at a novel I did what a lot of new writers of sci-fi and fantasy fans do. I began an epic trilogy with what I thought was multiple points of view.
    The funny thing is, when I look back at all those different points of view. I don't think I was inside the head of any of them.

  5. Thanks Janice! One of my friends in my writing group was just asking me for help on POV so I sent him this post.

    Also, could you please change my website in your Reader Blogs list to my new one? Thanks so much!!

  6. Great post. I especially like that you explain how to tell if you need multiple viewpoints. :)

  7. I've got a couple of novels documenting the same events, but from different first-person POVs. Fun :)

  8. Chelsey: You're welcome :)

    McGriff: Thanks, I'm glad it helped.

    Natalie: Sure. I'll toss that up on Monday.

    Sam: POV is one of those things that usually takes a while to get. And when you do, it's often one piece of advice and then everything suddenly clicks into place. And I had the same epic fantasy multiple POV book :) I think every fantasy writer has one of those somewhere, hehe.

    Sarah: Done!

    Chicory: Thanks!

    Trisha: Those are tricky, but can be tons of fun, especially if the only way to get the "real" story is to see it all from different perspectives and figure out who's missing what.

  9. POV was my first eye-opening writing lesson. I prefer deep 3rd, but sometimes a character insists on 1st. Whatever you choose, the trick is to do it well.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. One thing I've always struggled with is what point of view I should use for my protagonist. In the past, I've attempted to use first person, but I found that it didn't work very well, because I couldn't describe the depth of the imagery. However, with third person, I find it works better for me.

    Thank you for the advice! :)

  11. I'm weird, when I start a story, I listen to the characters voices in my head and that tells me the POV. It's never the same either. One character will talk in first for one story, then another will in third for a different story.

  12. Nice posting on POV. I rewrote my first novel six times before finding the right POV, but once I did, it worked great! BTW, most YA enjoys first person, probably because it's easier to 'get inside the character's head'. MG, however, likes third person.

  13. Terry: Exactly!

    W.B.: I think everyone struggles with it at some point. That's great that you've found your niche :)

    Patricia: Nothing weird with that at all. Lots of writers do the same thing. That's actually why I started writing in first person for The Shifter. Nya just insisted on first person. That's awesome that you can jump back and forth.

    Rebecca: Which is funny since my MG is first person :) There are definitely common POVs in any given genre, but you don't *have* to write in that POV.

  14. For some reason I have the tendency to write in third person/close. I need to know my characters on intimate basis.
    Thanks for the great always.

  15. Sounds like you found your niche, which is great :)

  16. Timely article, Janice. I had never considered more than 3rd person POVs in the book I'm working on but can now wonderful possibilities for depth and plot development in allowing other characters' stories to shine. Thanks!

  17. That should read: never considered more than 2 3rd person POVs :)

  18. Everyone tells me first person is the easiest to write, and it probably is, and will save a lot of my problems. But I personally don't like reading first person, so I'm going to stick with third person even if it kills me

  19. Na'ima, POV is my favorite writing tool. You can do so much with it. Glad I could help!

    Greg, I always found first the hardest for a long time. Then I had a strong enough writing foundation and it clicked for me. If you're a third person writer, then stick with it. Embrace your voice and style and the book will be better for it.

  20. Hi Janice,
    Currently, I'm write a middle grade novel in close, third person.
    My first novel has two, first person POV characters.
    I always thought writing with an omniscient POV was taboo, but I guess the reason is that the story might have too much telling and not enough showing.
    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  21. POV is something I think long and hard about before beginning. I want to get it right! Thanks for the great advice, as always.

  22. Tracy, a lot of "taboos" are just things that are hard to do well, and the advice has become "don't do it" over the years. Omni can work well if done well. John Scalzi uses it in many of his books with great success. Ally Carter also does with her Heist series.

    Julie, same here. Finding that right balance and voice is so critical.

  23. Thanks, Janice.
    I've written down both authors. I'll check out how they handled Omni POV.

  24. I am having Leilani tell the story and since she is the narrator it is in first person. Their also third person for the other characters. Is there a way for me not to say I when I am writing as Leilani?

    1. No, first person uses I. If you wanted to avoid that, you could use a tight third person and use she and her name. A tight third has the same closeness as first, with different pronouns.

      Of course, you can write first person and just try very hard to limit how often you use I. Using it too much is actually distracting, so good first person isn't I crazy. But you still use it.

  25. Excellent piece, Janice. I'm relatively new to writing, but I think part of the fun for me is trying new things. Point of view changes the whole dynamic of a story.

    1. Thanks! It really does. I've written a chapter in both first and third before, just testing to see which worked better. It's fun to see the differences.