Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I Said, He Said: First Vs. Third Person

By Claudia Gray

JH: Today we talk about POV (one of my favorite things) with Claudia Gray, author of the popular Evernight series, (including Stargazer, Hourglass, and Afterlife.) POV is more than just choosing which pronouns to use, and she does a great job at looking at some of the more subtle aspects.

Claudia is a full-time novelist based in Chicago. So far, in life, she's been a disc jockey, a lawyer, a journalist and an extremely bad waitress, just to name a few. She especially likes to spend time traveling, hiking, reading and listening to music. More than anything else, she enjoys writing.

Although She'll blog about major announcements at her site, you can also check her LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to hear more frequent updates about her work, her day and whatever else might be on her mind.

Her new novel, Fateful releases today, so be sure to check it out.

Take it away Claudia...

One of the big questions writers have when starting out is, "Which POV should I write in?" People look at all kinds of criteria trying to make this choice: Is first-person more popular in YA today? Is one "harder" than the other? Is one "better"? Is one of them more accessible to audiences?

Well, I'm going to muddy this somewhat by saying that -- in the broader, general sense -- there is no one right answer that applies to everyone, or to every book. But I want to go through some of the ways either POV can serve a writer and a story. For me, I've written books in first person, past tense (the EVERNIGHT series); first person, present tense (FATEFUL); and third person, past tense (BALTHAZAR). I'm preparing to write another third-person book right now. Each time, I had to make this decision, and I think that the issues I had to look at changed slightly each time.

First of all -- yes, first person is very popular among YA readers right now. If you put the question to teen readers, they'll usually indicate a strong preference for first person. Does that mean you should grab your manuscript written in third person and start editing it now? Absolutely not. Some hugely popular YA books are written in third person and have attracted devoted readers and big movie deals. (Cassie Clare's MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series, anybody?) Other successful series mix first and third person as needed (such as the HOUSE OF NIGHT series). So while any individual reader may tend to prefer one POV to another ... what is always preferred is a great story told in the right POV for that story. If the storytelling is fantastic enough, nobody's going to stop and worry about the pronouns!

So what is worth worrying about?

1) This Affects Your Plotting. 

When writing in first person, you have to make sure that all the information is given to your main character -- in the correct order -- at the right time. And if you're working with a complicated plot, that can be tough. If your character gets hurt, for instance, the action almost inevitably ends up slowing down for a period thereafter -- or you have to skip ahead in time, which might or might not work for the story you're trying to tell. In third person, on the other hand, different characters can learn and share information at different times, and when your main character is incapacitated or out of the action for some reason, a secondary viewpoint character can come in and carry the story forward for a while. Third person definitely offers more flexibility in terms of plot structure. That doesn't automatically make it better, though. If your story is naturally focused tightly on your main character, then diverting action away from that person might be a mistake.

(Warning: Many people think the natural happy medium here is to have multiple first-person POVs. But multiple first person POVs require very, very strongly defined voices for each POV character. Some writers pull this off beautifully -- but I've seen other people get lost in a thicket of competing voices that sound too much alike, which tends to confuse readers. If you can write each first person POV in such a way that no character in your book could *possibly* be mistaken for another of your characters, then give this a try. If not? Think long and hard before going down that road.)

In short -- third person gives you plot flexibility. First person gives you plot immediacy. Which one does your plot require? Which one works best with your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

2) This Affects Your Characters' Relationships. 

In first person POV, you know very well how your main character feels about everyone else -- but you're going to have to work harder to make it clear how they feel about her (or him). That can make for some wonderful storytelling. You get to pick out the moments/dialogue/actions that absolutely demonstrate to the audience what's going on emotionally, and that may be more powerful than getting in anybody's head. (I'm thinking of a film I watched yesterday in which the young hero is being very mysterious and difficult with the girl who adores him. One night he insists that they must talk and she should meet him outside. Creepy, right? Yes, until she gets to the doorway and complains that she can't go outside in bare feet -- it's cold. He promptly sits down and takes off his own shoes for her to wear. In one simple moment of showing, not telling, we see that this guy isn't creepy at all; he'd give up his own comfort to keep her warm and safe.)

On the other hand, first person POV can make some relationship quandaries more difficult. A misunderstanding that seems maddening and confusing in first person POV might, in third person POV with both viewpoints given, suddenly seem completely understandable and even tragic. Sometimes there's a lot of power in knowing each character's secrets and waiting for the others to find out -- so you can revel in their reactions.

In real life, of course, we are all wandering around in first person POV. That's how we experience our relationships, and that's sometimes how it feels most natural to write and read them. But don't we always wish we had a few moments in third-person POV? That we really could understand what the people around us are feeling, and what's influencing their thoughts? Fiction is one of the few ways we get to make that wish come true, which is why third person POV has emotional rewards too.

3) This Affects Your Relationship With Your Characters. 

Many writers fall into the trap of over-identifying with their central characters. Yes, you should care deeply about your MC -- but when that person becomes an extension of you, someone you can't see criticized, you have a problem. That's when your character starts becoming insufferable in the story -- always getting the last word, never being wrong, becoming unrealistically talented and beloved, until every reader is completely turned off. You can have this problem writing in first person or third person POV, definitely. However, my hunch is that it's harder to see it when you're writing in first person. There's never a moment of narrative distance for some other character to observe the MC and, perhaps, take them down a peg from Annoyingly Ideal to Just Human. If you know that you tend to fall into this trap, maybe try pushing yourself to write in third person and see if it helps you get a more realistic, nuanced take on your MC.

However, there's a flip side to this problem. Other writers don't identify enough with their characters. Instead of caring passionately about who they are and what happens to them, these writers end up looking as the characters as no more than marionettes who will obediently trot where they should in the story, doing whatever the plot dictates, and expressing only the feelings that seem typical for the scene. The stories that result are, almost invariably, boring -- because the characters lack life and vitality. If you've felt like you're too remote from a character or a story, try on first person POV for a while. Make yourself walk in that character's shoes and see only what she sees, feel only what she feels.

Hopefully, the above has provided some food for thought. In the end, though -- there's no one right or wrong answer for any given writer. There may not be one right or wrong answer for any given story. If you feel strongly drawn toward one POV or another -- if the story is just coming to you in that form -- then I say, don't fight that. Trust your instincts. And good luck!

About Fateful

Eighteen-year-old maid Tess Davies is determined to escape the wealthy, troubled family she serves. It’s 1912, and Tess has been trapped in the employ of the Lisles for years, amid painful memories and twisted secrets. But now the Lisle family is headed to America, with Tess in tow. Once the ship they’re sailing on—the RMS Titanic—reaches its destination, Tess plans to strike out and create a new life for herself.

Her single-minded focus shatters when she meets Alec, a handsome first-class passenger who captivates her instantly. But Alec has secrets of his own. He’s in a hurry to leave Europe, and whispers aboard the ship say it’s because of the tragic end of his last affair with the French actress who died so gruesomely and so mysteriously. . . .

Soon Tess will learn just how dark Alec’s past truly is. The danger they face is no ordinary enemy: werewolves exist and are stalking him—and now her, too. Her growing love for Alec will put Tess in mortal peril, and fate will do the same before their journey on the Titanic is over.


  1. There's a lot to think about here. I prefer to write 3rd-person past-tense, myself. I enjoy the flexibility and opportunity to show the story from differing viewpoints.

  2. Thanks for sharing some of the considerations of different POV's and ther examples of good third person POV.

  3. Excellent post. I like what you said about the POV being right for the story, and everything else backs that up. I was always wondering why my current WIP *had* to be third person past, and my next project *has* to be first person present -- why couldn't that be third as well? It wouldn't fit the story. And while I just had that "feeling" before, now I know why!

  4. I've personally re-written an entire novel from 3rd person into 1st. It was an epic amount of work, but it really did serve the story in the long run, and I love what it did for the characterization.

    But you're absolutely right, it's not necessarily right for every story, even if it is a YA tale.

    I won't get into tenses. I really don't care for present, but some people can pull it off.

  5. Great information here. Thanks for the interview :)

  6. Great info! POV gives me such angst!

  7. Terrific post! Janice, you provide such wonderful resources for the writing community!

  8. What an excellent post.

    I tend to write in 3rd person, past tense, but I've got a new story going in 1st person, present tense... it had to be, because the main character his lost his voice! So there's no possible way I can write his story in 3rd person.

    ...and I admit, getting out of my comfort zone is a little scary, but a lot of fun ;)

  9. I got a question though: Why do some people don't like present tense? A person I know over the Internet posted her opening in one website's events, and some of the critiquers were turned off by the story's 1st person present tense.

    It doesn't make sense.

  10. I think part of the issue with present-tense for some readers is that the vast majority of fiction is past-tense. We're used to that and change makes people uncomfortable.

  11. Still doesn't make sense to me, but okay. Everyone has their tastes.

    By the way, if multiple 1st person viewpoints would be used, would having two in different tenses be valid? I'm not going to use it for my novel (I'm using 3rd person instead at the beginning of the 3rd or 4th act) but I'm just curious. One character makes more sense in present tense, considering she'll probably refer to the audience (you know, you see).

  12. My current WIP is, at heart, a romance (with lots of adventure thrown in). It made sense to have two different POV, both in close third, past tense.

    The WIP that is waiting patiently on the shelf, longing to be written next is first person, past tense.

    Sometimes, I write in present tense, but usually only when I am sketching out my story. (He does this, she does that, the rock tumbles down, almost smashing them...) But its changed before I get very far into the second draft.

    If the present tense isn't written well, it throws me out of the story. I remember being halfway through "The Hunger Games" before I realized that it was present tense. I thought that series was seamless in a tense that can be tricky.

  13. I'm working my 1st thriller is 1st person, present tense. Instinctively I've tried (and hopefully pulled off) to create different "voices" based on the personalities of the individual main characters. The hard part for me is transitions and I've tried to emulate authors who are successful at doing this, as well as the art of observation and internalization during dialogue exchanges. And,not to slow things down too much by having the characters over think things. Especially in high stress situations, such as in my book. Thanks for this post! I think you've hit another one out of the park here, Janice!

  14. CO, one of the negatives with present tense, is that if done poorly, it can feel like the POV is describing everything as they do it. Instead of being very immersive, it's actually pushing you out of the story because it draws too much attention to the fact that you're in a story.

    And then some folks just flat out don't like it. It has a different tone to it, and since most books are past tense, it hits the ear funny and sounds "wrong" to some.

  15. Great post! Thanks to you both. POV was a topic of discussion at my crit group last night; I'll pass along this link! :0)

  16. Great article. I originally wrote my manuscript in 3rd past. I decided to write a pivotal chapter in 1st past and 1st present. I'm so glad I did. It was clear that first person was the way to go. However, I did have to be careful to edit out the information my narrator didn't know. I love the immediacy of first for this present manuscript. Thanks for confirming what I was feeling in my gut.

  17. Great breakdown! I'm in the process of changing my WIP from third to first person, and everything is just clicking. It's totally the right call for this story, for some of the reasons you stated here.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  18. I'm visiting from YA Highway. Terrific post! I especially liked this sum:

    "In short -- third person gives you plot flexibility. First person gives you plot immediacy. Which one does your plot require? Which one works best with your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?"

    I've tried several POVs. My adult mystery on submission is 3rd person, necessary for the complicated plot. My YA on submission is first person past tense. My WIP, another YA, was drafted in first person with dual boy & girl narrators, but my agent would like me to par it down to one POV to increase romantic suspense.

    I agree that the POV needs to match the needs of the story. It's also not set in stone and can change with drafts. Alternating POV makes any revision difficult because chapters are paired.

  19. Welcome to the blog, Sarah!

  20. I am doing a memoir in first person. It is about a mermaid who becomes a goddess her. It is her life story. The story takes place on a fictional planet. In writing in first person are their different says for say and said because then I read a lot of books the writer uses that too much.