Friday, February 05, 2016

Me or You? Choosing Between First and Third Person Point of View

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

How do you choose between first and third person point of view (POV)?

Whichever you like better.

That seems way too simple, right? But there is no preferred POV for any type of story. There are traditional  POVs for genres and markets, but no one says you have to adhere to those. But that's not helpful for someone who isn't sure which to use, so let's dig a little deeper.

Which Narrative Distance do You Prefer?

Narrative distance is how far from the POV character the reader feels while reading the story. The more distance you put between reader and narrator, the more detached they feel from the POV character. This is probably the key in determining what POV to use. Do you want your reader to feel in the head of the character and in the moment, or more like an observer? There is no wrong answer here.

Some folks detest first person because they feel it steals all the tension from a story. Since it's first person, you know the person survived the tale. Others detest third person because everything that happens feels detached, as if happening to someone else and they can't get immersed in the story. Your personal preference goes a long way to deciding which POV to use. If your strengths fall with a certain POV, then use it. Don't do first person because "everyone says first person YA sells better." Great stories sell better, and if writing in first person makes you feel stifled and causes you to tell everything, then you won't write a great story.

(Here's more on Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel)

Examples of Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is more of a sliding scale than set levels, but there are general guidelines.

Far Narrative Distance
Bob frowned and decided he just didn’t have time to wash the car.
This has a far narrative distance. You can tell by the word “decided” because that’s the author telling the reader what Bob is doing. You don’t see Bob make that decision. Far distances put the reader in the observation seat, often getting information the POV character doesn't know from an unknown narrator.

Medium Narrative Distance
Bob glanced at his watch and frowned. No time to wash the car, he thought.
This is a medium narrative distance. You can tell by the “he thought,” which is the author telling the reader what Bob is thinking. The reader can observe Bob glancing and frowning, but they need the author to tell them what’s in Bob’s head. Medium distances uses phrases that remind the reader they're reading a story. You can "see" the action, but are told the mental stuff because you're not fully in the head of that character. You're told the thoughts when the author feels you should know them.

Close Narrative Distance
Bob glanced at his watch and frowned. No time to wash the car.
This is a close narrative distance. You can tell because there are no explanations from the author to tell you what Bob is doing. The reader can observe his actions and hear his thoughts just as Bob does and thinks them. Close distances let the reader see, hear, think, everything as the POV character does. If things aren't what the POV thinks, the reader has to figure that out on their own. 

Deciding What POV to Use

A lot of time it comes down to your writer's instincts. If a story just feels right as one type of POV, odds are that's the right one to tell it in. In my fantasy trilogy, the protagonist, Nya, demanded to be first person, and that was a style I'd never really written in before. I was worried about being able to pull it off well, but then I discovered it was my favorite style and what came to me naturally. Sometimes you'll just hear the right POV in your head and a character will insist on one over the other. But if you're not sure, ask yourself...

(Here's more on View to a Skill: Understanding Point of View) 

1. Which POV style do you prefer?

If you clearly have a preference, write in that style. The only style that's iffy would be second person, because so few books are published in second person that folks often find it pretty funky to read. But there are books that have done very well using it. Whatever you enjoy writing in will be the stronger story.

2. How close do you want the reader to get to the characters?

This goes back to narrative distance. If you want that "totally there in the moment" feel, then a close POV is for you--either a first person or a tight limited third (single or multiple). First person is great if you want zero distance, third limited is great if you want a small step between them. If you want more separation, a medium or far distance might be a good choice. Maybe being an observer suits the type of tale you're telling, and being too close will be too much. An omniscient narrator can be a good choice if you want an outside narrator who knows all the details and can convey information that can't be known otherwise.

(Here's more on First vs. Third Person: Choosing the Right Point of View for Your Novel)

3. What's common for the genre?

You don't want to write something just because that's how the genre usually does it, but if it makes no difference to you, and most books in that genre are in a particular POV style, it could be a good style to use. Readers are used to it, you know it works and sells, and you'll have tons of examples to study.

Don't worry about using the "wrong" one POV from a sales perspective. A great story is what matters at the submission stage. Folks have their preferences, but you can't do anything about that, so write the novel the best way you know how using the best POV for the job. If you're only good at one style, then write everything in that style. If you can jump back and forth, then do what feels best for that story.

What POV style do you prefer to write? What about read?

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. Great post as usual. I end up finding first person easier, but it does depend on the story!

  2. I like writing in both, but most of my books are in first person.

    By using present tense, you can avoid the problem of knowing the mc survives in the end. I've read several great YA books in first person present in which the mc dies, but you don't know this until the end.

  3. Thanks for your great post! I have a follow-up question re: books with two different POVs. Do you feel it works best when they are consistent, i.e., both 1st or both close 3rd? My fear is that its distracting/jarring to switch from first to third when the narrators switch. Thoughts?? (And Stina, yes, I am a sucker for first person present for exactly that reason - keeps the tension going).

  4. Great post. I think I'm a typical 3rd person writer. I prefer to keep some distance to the protag, and enjoy playing around with multiple POV. Your subdivision of far,medium,close narrative distance was very enlightening >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. I think I write best in first person, especially present tense; at least, it's what naturally flows more easily for novel writing. It makes more sense to me, too, unless the narrator is telling something that happened, because how can the narrator be telling the reader something that's happened unless they're speaking about it later?

    If I'm writing in third person, I prefer past tense. A witness to a car wreck tends to tell what happened in that person and tense, in my (admittedly limited) experience. My short stories tend to end up third person, past tense, for whatever reason.

    But I also approach the story from Where is the narrator when this is being told?

    Is the narrator falling into depression, distancing herself from those around her? Then I adjust the writing to also become more distant. Is the narrator telling the story to a judge who's about to pass sentencing on her for what she did in that story? Then it's first person, past tense.

    POV, verb tense, and narrative distance are all tools.

  6. I love first-person, but my narrators tend to lie to themselves about their feelings. If I want to write about people who are emotionally transparent it's better for me to write in third person. That's just weird, but it seems to hold true across most of my work. I have yet to write a genuinely honest first-person narrator.

  7. Thanks for sharing because this is on my mind lately. I really liked your example of bringing it closer in 3rd person by eliminating he thought. Do you think we can always eliminate the "he thought" in third person limited? Because I see it used so much or italics. I like third person limited but want to bring it as close as possible. Can't wait to hear more on Wednesday.

  8. Most of my drafts seem to go from third person to first person. The one I'm working on now started out as first person, then switched to third with a new narrator and now has two narrators, both in third person, past tense, but the original narrator still wants to be in first person. So I would also be interested in reading your opinion on two narrators, one third person, one first person. Can it be done?

  9. Thanks for the great post! The explanations were really clear and I love having examples! I am sending the link to my teacher friends so they can use it in the classroom when they do creative writing.

  10. Laura: First seems to be my go-to POV lately. I do want to do a third before long though, to play with some things I can't do in first.

    Stina: That's true. Present tense can be tricky. I've actually had it pull me *out* of the POV's head because it feels like they're narrating as they walk along. I have read some good ones, though, and I think my issues are just personal taste there :)

    Dana & Cat: I'll do an extra post on that since it's a good question.

    Cold as Heaven: Thanks! I always find it interesting how some folks have strong preferences and others can bop about and do whatever.

    Carradee: That's a great POV question to ask yourself. I love your depression example.

    Chicory: That's a hard thing no matter what POV you write in, but yeah, it's tougher with first person. I'll be facing some of that for my next book, and I've already been thinking about how to go about it. I don't think it's a matter of honesty but self awareness. People aren't that self aware about everything they think and feel. I actually find narrators who *are* utterly honest all the time about their feelings ring untrue. People don't always consciously know why they do something.

    Natalie: Sure, that's totally up to you. I don't like to use it myself, I prefer italics or just making it part of the internalization. If I did a third limited today, there wouldn't be a single "he thought."

    Carrie: Awesome, thanks!

  11. For me it's very connected to the story. Half my stuff is 3rd, and half is 1st, because the MC's made the decision on their own. Another suggestion could be to do a test chapter in different styles and see how each works.

  12. Lots of folks do that, and it's great advice.

  13. I'm playing with the idea of a story in distant third-person, with first person narrative woven in as journal entries. My train of thought is something like, "Suppose we watch him do something stupid/criminal, and then learn why..."

  14. First person is easiest. I also write Close Narrative Distance. Thanks for defining each. Great post, Janice.

  15. Hi Janice, i have recently discovered your blog and am hooked :) I normally write in first person POV but am thinking of trying third person for my next piece. Your examples of far, medium and close in the third person style really make sense. You are very good at coming up with examples to show the how of your topic.

  16. Thanks for doing this one!

    Gearing up for NaNoWriMo, POV is a really tough decision for me. My natural POV isn't the one that works best for this story.

    I will share this post with my class. Many of my students are struggling with which POV to choose.

  17. Personally, I prefer third person, both to write and to read, but there's some great first person stuff out there, too. In general, point of view would never stop me from reading a book, with one exception.

    The one point of view technique that really, really bothers me (and you never see it in published books, only on the internet), is the changing-first-person-with-no-framing device. You know, the sort of thing written like this:

    'Bob's POV:
    I looked at Amy and she smiled. Wow, I wonder why she did that?

    Amy's POV:
    I smiled at Bob. He is so awesome I couldn't help it!'

    Ugh, that annoys me to no end! Again, I don't think this would ever fly in "real" books, but I do wish internet writers would stop doing it. It can ruin an otherwise fun story.

  18. Good post. I write in 3d person. I've never even been tempted to write in 1st.

  19. Rachel6, that could work, but beware that those kinds of stories are always a challenge, so be prepared :) It can be hard to keep your reader and get them to care about someone who's done something stupid or criminal without knowing why. But pull it off, and it can be gripping.

    Tracy, most welcome! I'm a first fan myself.

    Kim, welcome then! Happy to have you. And thanks so much! Try third and see what happens. I was surprised when I first tried first. You might find you love it.

    Rubianna, it can be hard to pick one, especially if your gut is saying write it in something you're not sure about.

    Carolina, ooo that would make me crazy as well.

    Ella, you gotta go with what works for you ;)

  20. Actually, this isn't always true: "Since it's first person, you know the person survived the tale." There are lots of books written in first person, narrated by people who've passed on and are telling the tale of how they died or what's happened since. And for the record, my natural choice is 1st. Always has been. I like being in a character's head. It's like acting, in a way, and works very well for me.

    1. True, but it's true often enough that it's the default setting. Even when the character dies, the reader never actually assumed they would. I'm sure there are exceptions, but there are with everything :)

  21. I usually go for the medium narrative distance, as it feels much more natural to me. I love to be in the head of the character most of the time, but taking some distance is how I like to throw in a joke -with the full picture of the scene, and the character not always aware of the comedy.

  22. On my first book, one of my very first reviewers was tough on me because I used a 1st person point of view and she preferred third. She actually contacted me over email and really quizzed me about why I chose 1st person because, her words, "it's so uncommon".

    Now, five novels and three novellas into my writing career, my readers are used to first person and, even though I'm typically writing in the past tense, they tell me they feel like they're right there. Personally, I'd have a hard time switching to writing in third person now.

    1. First was uncommon? That's unusual, though if you write in a third-heavy genre I can see that.

  23. I wrote the first chapter of a story I'm currently writing two ways: First and close 3rd. It helped me step back and see which one was working. Thanks for the great discussion.