First person or third person? Ah, the great debate that begins before a writer types their first “Once upon a time.”
Thousands of virtual trees have been felled for all of the pages and pages of debates on Internet writing message boards about this very topic. So which should you choose to write that novel??
Only you can answer that. Ha! You probably thought this was going to be easy. Twenty pushups, on your knuckles.
Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts that you might keep in mind as you’re both making this decision and then putting it into practice.
The absolute most important thing to keep in mind as you’re crafting a first person narrative is that everything that occurs has to be filtered through your narrator’s perspective. Everything the reader sees is therefore infused with the narrator’s personality and pathos. Things don’t just happen in a first person narrative, they happen through the narrator’s perspective.
The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it’s clear to the reader that it’s not the whole story. You’re getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative.
Think about it like this:
reality (slightly hidden) -> || prism || -> the narrator’s perspective and thoughts (what the reader sees)
One of the great tensions in a first person narrative, then, is between what the narrator is saying and what the reader senses is really happening beyond the narrator’s perspective. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the narrator is unreliable, it just means that we’re seeing the world through a very unique character’s eyes — and only through that character’s eyes.
A protagonist might really convince herself, for instance, that she isn’t sad that her mother died, but the reader senses that there’s more to the story. Not necessarily unreliable, but it’s also not the whole picture.
The other great essential element of a first person narrative is that the narrator has to be compelling and likeable (and redeemable). I may get a lot of grief for the “likeable” part, but hear me out. Nothing will kill a first person narrative quicker than an annoying narrator.
Now, this doesn’t mean the narrator has to be a good person, and hopefully the narrator is well-rounded enough to be a complex character. But the narrator has to pass the “stuck in an elevator” test. Would you want to be stuck in a room with this person for six hours? Would you want to listen to this person give a speech for six hours? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider.
There are many different ways to craft a third-person narrative, and perhaps the hardest part is deciding how far you want to get inside your characters’ heads. Do you want to use that god-like ability to really show the reader every single thought? Or do you want to keep their thoughts slightly hidden?
I tend to believe that the most interesting third person narratives jump into character’s heads to show their thought processes but leave some distance between what is happening on the outside and what the characters are thinking. This way, to take the example of a character’s mother dying, rather than knowing exactly what the character is thinking, the reader does the work to try and empathize with what the character is feeling in that moment and based upon a character’s actions.
Think about it this way. The diagram for first person is reversed for third person:
reality (what the reader sees) -> || prism || -> what the characters are thinking (slightly hidden)
The tension, then, is still between what’s really happening and what the reader gets to see, but in this case we’re using our reading ability and natural empathy to deduce the character’s motivations and feelings based on the god-like narration of what’s really happening in the world of the book. In other words, we see the outside world, but the inside is slightly hidden.
One of the very most common mistakes writers make in third person narration is doing too much work for the reader — using the omniscient perspective to tell the reader what the characters are thinking and how they’re reacting, rather than trusting the readers to do that job. Show not tell is the cardinal rule of third person — show the characters acting upon their emotions rather than telling us how they feel.
This keeps up that really fascinating barrier between what we’re reading and what we sense is happening behind the prism.
Here’s more advice on some of the different types of third person narratives.
Wrapping it up
So, to boil all this down:
The tension in first person is between a character’s unique perspective and what is actually happening in the outside world.
The tension in third person is between what the reader sees in the outside world and what is actually happening from the characters’ perspectives.
Now, there are many more distinctions between first and third person, so that’s where you come in — please add your two cents in the comments section. First person or third person? How should we further distinguish them? What are your tips for both?
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Art: Lady at the mirror by Florent Willems
Jeff Fischer says
As a mater lecture as that was, I say write it like you like it and don't worry about who's person it is coming from. That's for scholars to debate. I say, tell the story you must tell in a way that seems beautiful to you. All this first person and third person is old-hat book selling, giving literature professors a job. No offense to anyone. I say three perspectives weaved into a whole is far more interesting than, say, Salinger. He was interesting enough at the time, but man, now, that is kindergarten (Is that a German word?.) My Nemesis is The Third Policeman and the other works that Irish man has done. I think Two Birds at Swim is another. First or third person? As writers? Is there a difference? For simple readers, there just might be. I don't know. I know this is a throw from way left field, but I can't help but think about it.
Neil & others, I don't know why you all think first person must be present tense. Listen to someone telling a story (their trip to the mall yesterday, or whatever.) They use past tense, but sometimes switch to present tense, especially for dialog, or for a dramatic incident. Just do what feels natural.
As a newbie writer, I can't imagine doing anything but first person. It keeps me focused. I don't get bogged down in detail (as I did in history tests.) I don't have to worry about voice, because the voice is the voice of my protagonist, so if I nail that I'm OK.
I prefer reading first person,too–fact or fiction. More immediate. Whatever.
By the way, if any emotional comment creeps into my story, I usually have to take it out. My narrator is not in touch with his feelings. They emerge through the narrative, though.
Jeff Fischer says
Marion, you're confusing me. If you are writing a first person narrative and leaving the first person perspective out of the book, what are you writing? No offense, but a text book? I don't know if you have realized this yet, as a newbie, as you called it, but everything the narrator, what we are calling first person in this post, is the poetry of the story, the words that are worth reading. So, if you leave them out, and I'm not really sure what you're saying, what are we reading. Possibly omniscient? I would need to read your stuff to know. Nathan is pretty good about that on his forums. Last time I checked, which seems now to be another life time ago. But give it a shot. Most writers actually love and support other writers. I could, of course, be naive, and Nathan is a hand wringing evil troll that has set this whole web site up to steal people's genius ideas. But, I'm going with don't be shy or paranoid and throw it out there and let his fans tell you what they think. And Him, or he. Subject or object. I'm still having trouble with that. Anyway, writ it out.
Karen A. Chase says
I'm just beginning to write my novel based on my outline, and decided to write it first-person, so your blog could not have been more timely.
As far as a best example of how first-person can let you crawl into the character's perspective, is in the book "Chocolat" upon which the movie was based. It alternates chapters – one is from Vienne, the chocolate-shop owner, then one from the viewpoint of the priest of the same events. Fantastic writing, and it's all about what isn't said, or how the characters think. As the reader, you can see who is good and who is evil, but the characters (especially the priest) are viewing it the other way around.
Marian Pearson Stevens says
Great distinction between first and third, Nathan! I started my current project in first and didn't realize this is such a sticky subject. But I guess it's like anything else-subjective and about preferences. My protagonist lives a secret double life so it needed to be told from her view. And I've never had so much fun. First was a new beast for me, but I'm happy I went this way. A blast.
R.D. Allen says
I tend to write in both first and third person, letting the story dictate which perspective works best for it. Overall, my play-by-post role-playing tends to be in third-person and my independent fiction tends to be in first.
I don't usually have trouble unless it's a writing *assignment*, in which case I nearly always have trouble finding the character's true voice. Not sure exactly why that is.
Where's tuesdays post?
Nathan Bransford says
The dog ate it. Sorry!
Overall, I prefer the 3rd person pov because if I don't have enough in common with the main character in a 1st person pov, I can't empathize with that character and I'm already left out of the storyline from the first pages.
That said, if the 1st person pov is someone I can empathize with, then the story becomes more personal. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen as often. I read for escapism. I like the adventurous, dangerous life of fictional characters probably because I don't live that way thereby making it harder to read from the 1st person. As much as I would love to be Lara Crofts, James Bond or Indiana Jones, I'm not.
This ideology may account for my reduced reading of YA novels in the last 15 years. No, I didn't suddenly become an adult, but I could no longer identify with protagonists in the video age with cell phones, absent parenting, and a mall lifestyle.
I think mass reader identification is the key to whether or not to use 1st or 3rd person pov. Ask yourself, "Who is my audience? Who is going to read this book?"
Random Chick says
Thank you for this! You just confirmed my decision to keep my novel in the third person.
I appreciate your analysis of the key differences between the two viewpoints. I am in the process of re-writing my novel from the third person into the first person because two editors at a writing conference suggested it. I have been questioning my decision but proceeded anyway. I see now, given my protagonist's view of the world, why these agents suggested the change. Thank you!
Rachel Neumeier says
I enjoy both equally when they're well done — but I think first person is harder to do well, and so far I've always written in the third person myself.
You didn't mention this, Nathan, but first person is harder to handle grammatically — among other things, verb tense errors creep in; the author should be switching from past tense (to tell the story) to present tense (when the narrator makes a statement about the world or human nature or something else that was not just true in the past, but is still true). Not handling verb tenses properly leads to awkwardness and a kind of micro-confusion about what's true right now vs what used to be true but isn't anymore.
Also, first person introduces the question of the frame story — who is telling the story to whom and why and how long after the action is over? A poor frame story can make the real story feel awkward, but if there's no frame story, then that lack can feel awkward as well.
One great resource is Orson Scott Card's book on character and viewpoint. He spends quite a bit of time analyzing first versus third person and the problems and advantages of each. It's one of the few books on writing which actually seemed helpful to me.
I think both first and third person have their place. My preference for writing is first person. This is because I'm writing character-based books, and I love reading these types of books in the first person. I feel like I connect with the characters on a deeper level when the books are in first person. But there are many other types of books that third person is really well suited for.
Dave Thome says
Interesting definitions, Nathan. My question, though, is why everyone suddenly seems to think there is no such thing as third-person omniscient–and never was! Seriously, if you write omniscient, someone's gonna accuse you of "head-hopping," as in, "You can't have what Bob and Julie are thinking in the same scene." If you say, "But, it's in third person omniscient," they'll look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears.
Third-person limited seems to be an odd-duck perspective that caught hold like a rash fairly recently, but no one remembers being healthy.
Nathan Bransford says
The trick with third person omniscient is to write it so that no one notices the head hopping. That usually means that you don't actually head hop, you're either in the omniscient narrator's head or you're showing more through action than jumping around to various people's thoughts.
Love Third Person narrative. Dislike First Person style so much that if all fiction books were written in First Person I would quit reading.
M C Chance says
Nathan, thanks a bunch for this article. It has put some things in perspective for me and now I know how to move forward. The story I want to write needs more than one perspective, so third is the way to go. I just have to stay behind the 'prism' (smile). Excellent article.
Stacie McKay says
Thank you, this is great information for the novice writer with no background experience. Being a first time writer is not what it's cut out to be and it's refreshing to know that you are willing to help the little guy out. I myself write a majority of my books in first person but once in awhile you come across a story that just has to be told in more than one person's perspective.
My first novel is third person but I'm drawn to first person for my second as it seems so immediate. It gets the reader straight into the mind of the narrator, reliable or not and allows the story to unfold naturally, more organically.
First person is the weapon of choice of mediocre writers.
First person is the weapon of choice of mediocre writers.
This is an unfortunate point of view, and I hear it often. But it's just wrong.
Not that I'm not a mediocre writer myself, but as a reader I like to think I have good taste in prose and storytelling. And so I pulled down three books just to see from my "favorites" shelf, and all three are written in first person.
Remains of the Day
The Sun Also Rises
The Great Gatsby
I am curious if a book can be written in both first and in third person. Can this be done?
Curious… is it a huge "no no" to the readers to write in both first and third person? Would that be confusing?
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, there are books that do that. It can be a little jarring, but if it works it works.
First and third person narratives in one novel usually happen with a flashback or written accounts that a main character might chance upon in the plot. I'm stil thinking about writing in first person, rather than third. But I thought that third was more popular than first, and beginning writers do not attempt much " first."
Ashlee Willis says
I have seen only one or two books that alternate between first and third person (depending on the character being followed in the chapter). Is this something you recommend? Or is it much trickier to pull off than it appears?
Thank you for your article. However, I'm still a bit confused. I'm currently taking a writing course through a local college but am finding it difficult to get much feedback from my professor. Would you be willing to read a short story of mine to help me figure out if I've written it in 1st or 3rd person narrative? The assignment was to write a short scene using mainly dialogue. Thank you,
I need peoples opinions and Third person – present tense, do you like or dislike it? For some reason my story went this way and I like how it feels, however I want you the reader to like the book more then me. Feed back on this narration please, thanks.
First person is easier for me but third person is obviously more popular. It depends on which you prefer.
It does depend but I am specially skilled in both, ha! It is okay to prefer but if you are good at both the you should see what your readers prefer. It isn't just about yourself.
I agree with Jessica like, badly!???????????? It is about my readers! Anyways, nice blog!
Hmm…I will like first but everyone else suggests third! What should I do???????
Anonymous…what a wierd name!< just kidding!????
Uhh!!! It is Gertrude, okay? So, are you gonna answere my question or what?
Wow, mind your manners Gertrude, remember, you are asking me for help! I am a kind person so I'll help. It depends on who your fans are and the reason you are writing the book. If your fans are like random 8 year olds and you want to write for entertainment purpose, use what is comfortable. If your fans are like your publishers and your life depends on getting famous then you need to write what your publishers want. If you seriously suck that badly at writing in third person then I'll suggest you to either talk to your publishers or change a job!
Thank you so much, Jessica. I am truly grateful. I am so sorry for being rude. I understand that you were just having fun with me. You deserve a serious apology from me. Thank you for your awesome tips and once again, sorry that I was being so sensitive and rude!???????????????? thank you, you are the best!
That's okay, no biggie! Don't worry, thank you for apologizing, though.
wow, I love the article, very helpful! Btw, I think Gertrude should stop mentioning stuff that has nothing to do with feed back. No offence, Gertrude.
I am offended. I think this article is very helpful. Brooke, mind your own business.
Can it be…drama??? It is a Gertrude and Brooke business. Sorry but the comments are not used for these kinds of business.
I like the article, it was very helpful, by the way! Thank you!
Look, hon, I do have feedback. The person who wrote this is amazing and he/ she doesn't deserve your comments who have nothing related to the article. So just leave. By the way Cameron, I am a girl, hon.
Brooke, you aren't being very nice.
Stop it! You guys should all leave this comment posts! That means Brooke, Gertrude, and Cameron!
Look, sweetie, I know that you are trying to help but it isn't your place to tell me to leave. So please be quiet, hon.
What about Jessica?
Seriously, Jessica has nothing to do with this drama.
Very true…why are there so many people viewing this conversation????????????? I find it disturbing.
Yeah, I guess you should but there are like 20 people viewing this thing. I love this blog by the way.