Fiction Fundamentals

First Person vs. Third Person By Linda Adams

**** Beginner/Intermediate Level

***** All Levels

Many writers have their own preferences of whether they write in first person or third person. Often writers tend to gravitate to what they are either familiar or comfortable with, and they never experiment outside of this comfort zone. But maybe you should. Start by learning about the differences between these two writing techniques.

First Person

For those who are wondering what we’re talking about, first person is done from a single character’s point of view (POV) through out the book. That is, we are looking at every scene and every other character through one character’s eyes. We can hear their thoughts.

Example of how the narrative looks: I tried not to think about it. I thought a lot about it. And I wasn’t sure what I thought. Except that I didn’t want to go.

There also appears to be a gender difference of writers who choose first person. While male writers do use it, first person seems more prevalent among women. This may be due to the implied intimacy of first person, as well as the fact that many men tend to be event and action oriented, not character oriented.

One of the major advantages of first person is that many beginning writers feel that it is easier to write in. It offers them a level of comfort where they can pretend that the “I” in the story is them. First person also provides a better opportunity for humor based on characterization to be used throughout the story. Additionally, because you are staying with the same character throughout the story, it can be a vehicle for strong characterizations.

Which is also a disadvantage. If you’re weak in characterization, a first person book may not work very well–and it will really show. You may also have a more difficult time coming up with subplots because every one needs to revolve around the first person character. This can make it difficult to sustain a series character in a plot-oriented storyline. One mystery series now has first and third in the same book to try to work around this kind of issue, but this method is extremely jarring to the reader.

Finally, and most importantly, you’ve probably also seen that there aren’t many first person books published in comparison with third. Those that you do find will tend to be primarily in about three genres– mystery, romantic suspense, and young adult, and these books are usually for a women audience.

If you want to study examples of books in first person, some of the writers who use it include Sue Grafton, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Phyllis Whitney.

Third Person

Third person may be done from one character’s POV or many characters’ POV, depending on the story requirements. Unlike first person, the POV character is always referred to in the narrative by their name or he/she.

Example of how the narrative looks: For a moment, Mary couldn’t even react to George’s words. She knew she should be doing something, but she couldn’t seem to get herself past the numbness that had settled over her. How could this happen?

Like first person, it is done from a single character’s POV in any given scene. The reader is shown only what that particular character sees, hears, or feels. POV is generally switched at the conclusion of a scene or a chapter. For some action scenes, as well as interludes in romance fiction, some writers switch POV in mid- scene to show the heightened emotion, or enhance the conflict. This, however, should be used very sparingly and is actually called poor writing in many circles.

The advantages of third person include being able to do a very complex storyline with multiple subplots. You can also use it to build suspense, switching to a new POV to convey an arc of the story you want to the reader to know but the main character not to know. Additionally, many books on the market are in third, so the publishers clearly are interested in them.

One of the biggest disadvantages for a beginning writer is that third helps mask “head hopping,” or POV shifting. That is, the writer tries to get into the heads of several characters in a scene, which can be very confusing for the reader. Usually this results from a desire to communicate information the writer feels the reader must know. Whenever a writer feels a reader must know something, the silent message all too often is the writer doesn’t trust the reader.

Characterization also can be a disadvantage. Third makes it easy to become lazy on character development. First person forces the writer to focus on characterization; third permits the writer to focus only on events and in some cases, offers only the most shallow of characterizations.

Another inherent problem is that it allows writers to switch from short scene to short scene with all kinds of different characters, never giving the reader an chance to get to know anyone–or get involved in the story.

If you want to study examples of third person, some of the writers who use it include Clive Cussler, Mercedes Lackey, and James Michener.

Many writers fall into a “comfort zone” of writing in either first or third. That is, they never even look at the other option–and they miss opportunities. Be open to choosing which person you’re going to write in, even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. Some stories cry out for third and some cry out for first. Think about what the story requires to make it your best effort and watch your skills grow.

Copyright Linda Adams 2003


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