First person or third? How to decide point of view

Which point of view should you choose for your novel? Some points to help you decide

1 If the focus is on the events, you’re better off with third person – most commonly this is historical fiction, family sagas, epic fantasy, crime, thrillers. If the story is more about the characters – and the events might seem insubstantial compared to the psychological journey, first person is generally best.

2 In first person, you see the world and all the other characters as the character does. It’s especially useful if the character may not be sympathetic or has dubious qualities – such as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Covett in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. First person lets you add layers of irony and unreliability – all part of the fun.

3 If you’re going to use an unreliable narrator, be consistently unreliable from the start. Don’t turn them suddenly unreliable half-way through.

4 Whose POV do you show? With character-based novels, the same events told by a different person would make a different book. Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a mother in a confused, conflicting relationship with her son. Kevin in the same novel is a child growing up with a mother he knows hates him. Which story do you want to tell?

5 First-person narrators might be aware they’re telling the story, like Eva in we Need to Talk About Kevin, or they might be experiencing the events in real time with no sense of explaining themselves – like Carol in My Memories of a Future Life. (And I chose first person because her experience is more important than the events.)

6 The narrator isn’t always the protagonist – Dr Watson narrates Sherlock Holmes, showing someone extraordinary through his more sane, relatable eyes – yet preserving the mystique of his more remarkable moments.

7 Usually the first-person narrator doesn’t know the thoughts or feelings of other characters, or what happens when they are not present. Writers of first-person narratives have to make use of letters, chance conversations, listening at a keyhole, online eavesdropping – without being cliched. However, Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones writes a first-person narrator who spiritually snoops on the private moments of others. Ghosts do that.

8 You might have filter characters for some or all of the story, like Nelly Dean in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy to first-person Mr Lockwood.

9 Sometimes there is a central character who is the story’s exclusive viewpoint, but the novel is written in third person. Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is a story of multiple adulteries seen through the eyes of a child. James chose third person because he wanted an innocent who notices far more than she has the vocabulary to describe. This is sometimes known as limited third-person.

10 Third person can show a godlike view of many characters, but it’s usually better for the novel to focus on the thoughts and feelings of just a few characters – subjective viewpoint. Decide whose heads you will get inside – and stick to that main cast. Less important characters can be shown from outside through their dialogue and actions. If you suddenly add the intimate POV of another character late on in the novel that’s very dislocating – although you might just get away with it if they’re a long-lost sister who we’ve been curious about.

11 Crime novels and thrillers, which are generally more about plot than character, get away with introducing new characters, in close up, anywhere in the story. They will often devote a chapter to a character who is about to meet a sticky or spectacular end, narrated so we share their thoughts and feelings. Or they introduce a new assassin half-way through. This works because the main hook is the events, not the characters.

12 Most scenes are better if written from one character’s POV. But what if you’re narrating in third person and you have put two key characters together? You can either narrate it all from a more distant perspective, trusting the reader to understand the tensions. Or you could shift point of view. Yes, honestly, you can if you…

13 Use POV shifts with care. The best way to do this is to start the scene from one character’s POV and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action so that we know we are tuning into a different person’s experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again.

14 You can have alternating first-person chapters, first and third, so long as you establish the pattern early on and do it consistently. And you have a good reason.

15 You can mix omniscience and subjective view. In Lifeform Three, I have a hybrid of omniscient narrator and limited third person. The narrator is never a character (but is me the storyteller), is able to talk loftily about some parts of the world that the main character doesn’t know, but aside from that is glued to the main character. I made strict rules – the narrator knows about the world in general but does not know about the main character’s history or what happened to him before the story started. Some fairy tales are like this.

16 You can do what you like, really, so long as you make your boundaries clear. Write in second person if you must, or plural instead of singular – although you do risk wearing out the reader. Unless you’re writing about Siamese twins.

Thanks for the pic, Jenny Downing and wonderferret

Do you have any guidelines to add about choosing point of view, or interesting examples? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Daniel R. Marvello on December 12, 2011 - 1:02 am

    Thanks for posting on this topic, Roz. I feel a little better about the choice I made for my novel, which was to use first person for the main character and third for the secondary character. I’m not qualified to give guidelines, but I can tell you what made me choose the first/third POV blend.

    I wanted to write a fantasy novel that read more like a mystery or detective novel, which is why I chose first person for the main character, Jaylan. Jaylan works with a mercenary company, but has acquired a reputation for being good at “getting to the truth of the matter” and “finding things that are lost.” He is essentially a private investigator in a fantasy setting.

    The problem with using all first person is that Jaylan is not present for some of the most interesting things that happen in the story. Sulana, his romantic interest and a sorceress, is a major character herself. All the cool magical stuff happens along her character arc, and from her point of view. But I didn’t feel comfortable writing Sulana in first person. Not yet, anyway.

    I was frantic for a solution when someone (Victoria Mixon, I believe, but it may have been you) suggested I use first for Jaylan and third (limited) for Sulana. I almost heard a bell ring in my head, the idea felt so right. Most of the novel is in Jaylan’s point of view, but I shift to Sulana for the scenes where he is not present. Each shift starts a new chapter.

    I’m taking a risk by writing fantasy in anything other than third person, and I’m taking a risk by shifting the POV, but I’m hoping I pulled it off well enough to entertain some readers. I guess I’ll find out in January when the novel is released!

    • #2 by Sally on December 12, 2011 - 11:12 am

      Daniel, that sounds like a great solution to mix the POVs. Admittedly, I’ve never been tempted by first-person myself – though after reading Roz’s MMOAFL I can see the advantages of it. Maybe I’ll try it in the future.

      And, snap! My novel’s due out in January as well! 🙂

    • #3 by Daniel R. Marvello on December 12, 2011 - 8:04 pm

      Thanks, Sally. It seems to be working well so far. In the next two novels I will probably work in one or two more 3rd-person character POVs. The books are a little more complex, and the villain thinks he needs some air time (you know how they get).

      Congratulations on your novel coming out!

      • #4 by dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:18 pm

        Hello, both! Sorry I’m late to this conversation as I’ve been out freelancing. Yes, that does sound like a good solution to mix the POVs. A lot of novels are doing that now – so long as you make it clear, it’s not dislocating.
        And Daniel you don’t have to worry too much about first person fantasy. Piers Anthony wrote Bio of a Space Tyrant in first, I’m sure….Tho it’s a long time since I read it.

      • #5 by Sally on December 13, 2011 - 11:11 am

        Congrats to you too, Daniel!

  2. #6 by Ileandra Young on December 12, 2011 - 8:34 am

    When I first started writing it was always first person. I never understood why at the time, but it was because the story I was trying to tell was about the one character I had in my mind and his/her experience throughout the course of the tale. People around her were mentioned if they were important, but it was mainly about the emotional journey she went through.

    The stories I write now have changed somewhat and their about long, physical journeys or world changing events which touch the lives of very many people and often cities/countries/worlds. That calls for a broader view which then forces me to go third person and pick the characters who are central to all those changes. Can be difficult, but I find its easier writing that way now.

    When I’m roleplaying I write in the third person present tense which is something I never do anywhere else. Fun though and gives me a level of dynamic freedom that I don’t seem to have in any other POV or style. Hmm…

    • #7 by Daniel R. Marvello on December 12, 2011 - 8:11 pm

      Third person present for role playing. Now that sounds interesting. I’ll bet you could do a good job with it in your fiction writing as well, since you have practice. Might be worth a short story experiment. You might even base the story on one of your role playing experiences. If you do it, I’d like to read it!

      • #8 by Ileandra Young on December 13, 2011 - 8:16 am

        Funnily enough when I took my primary character (Ileandra Young actually ^_^) and wrote a novella about her it ended up as third person! I might try one with another character in third person present actually – a fun project for Crimbo – even if its just a piece of flash.
        🙂 I’ll blog it if I do manage to get it done.

    • #10 by dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:19 pm

      Ileandra, that’s interesting – the first stories I wrote were naturally first person. It always seemed the right way. In fact even now I have to remind myself there are other POVs you can use.

      • #11 by Ileandra Young on December 13, 2011 - 8:18 am

        There was a period when I was first trying erotica as well and they ALWAYS ended up first person. As you say, it just seemed right. I’ve written one recently in third and its an easier because of how the way the plot flows but still a bit hard for me to write.
        More practice! ^_^

  3. #12 by Cecilia Ryan on December 12, 2011 - 10:54 am

    Oddly enough, I like historicals from a first-person or close-third viewpoint, because I’m more interested in the people living through history than the history itself (if I just wanted to know what happened, I could read a text book, right?). I now wonder if I am alone in this thinking.

    I usually stick to close-third. It’s the ideal middle ground for me, where I can tell the story through a character’s eyes, but also explain the action without it looking like the character is obsessed with everyone. If I do go to first, it has to be in the sense that the character is deliberately telling the story for one reason or another. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes like they were the only books in the world, so I suspect that’s where that’s come from.

    I’d love to write in second person, because I find it flows better for me, but I’d rather not annoy my audience.

    • #13 by dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:21 pm

      Interesting point, Cecilia – that a narrator is in danger of looking like they’re obsessed with everyone! The perennial problem of making descriptions and explanations look natural!

  4. #14 by Sally on December 12, 2011 - 11:17 am

    Like Illeandra, I chose third-person throughout because my novel contains world-shaking events, and chose three main POVs.

    But the characters are very strong in various ways and I found myself switching POVs in the middle of scenes (divided with line breaks to show the switch over, of course) which is generally considered a no-no – or so I’m told. I just hope it’s not too giddying. Is that a word?

    • #15 by Sally on December 12, 2011 - 11:18 am

      Oh – and sorry for the typo. I meant to write Ileandra.

      • #16 by Ileandra Young on December 12, 2011 - 7:41 pm

        I hope its not too giddying as I do it too!

        This year’s NaNo was written that way and (though I still need to finish it) I think it helps that it is written that way. Or – since I haven’t broken it into chapters yet – I can use those changes in POV to mark new chapters. Haven’t really decided on that yet.

    • #17 by dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:22 pm

      Yes, you’re allowed giddying. Anything goes here 🙂

      • #18 by Sally on December 13, 2011 - 11:10 am

        lol! Thanks Roz. And it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one, Ileandra. 🙂

  5. #19 by Carol Riggs on December 12, 2011 - 4:00 pm

    Great list, Roz! After my agent had me switch my YA to first person (from third) I was wondering if there was any reason EVER to write YA in third. It’s done more in MG, younger kids (ages 8-12) being more event focused, I think, rather than character-focused. I love the limited, very close POV of first; I used to use a deep third. But maybe I was just a closet 1st person POV writer and needed to find my niche. Not sure. I’ve since switched 2 other novels into first; they seem to work better that way. But I see by your post that third can have its place in certain kinds of novels. Thanks!

    • #20 by dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:23 pm

      Radical change, Carol! I’ve got another novel that’s naturally going to be 3rd person, and one that’s going to be first. I just do what feels right.

  6. #21 by danholloway on December 12, 2011 - 4:48 pm

    Excellent. I particularly like the way you single out thrillers – I think you’re right. The very best example I can think of of someone who is a consummate expert at POV-shifting is Val McDermid – she often shifts two or three times a page and you never notice in a bad way.

    The other thing I’ve noticed more in thrillers than elsewhere is what I’d call the zoom technique, whereby a scene or chapter begins with a very distant 3rd person that sets the scene before swooping right into a close 3rd person inside a character’s head. Thomas Harris is an absolute master of this. I think this works so well in thrillers because it’s the literary equivalent of the “dolly shot” pioneered by Hitchcock that suddenly swoops us into the ction

    • #22 by dirtywhitecandy on December 12, 2011 - 9:24 pm

      Hi Dan – thanks! Good example with the Hitchcock dolly shot. Pioneered, I’m sure, by Charles Dickens.

  7. #23 by Bryan Gill on December 13, 2011 - 4:39 pm

    Thanks for the great insights. This was very helpful.

  8. #24 by Michelle MacEwan on December 14, 2011 - 1:15 am

    Sorry I am late joining in Roz, there’s too much going on but I didn’t want to miss adding at least a small comment on this post! I love first person pov. Robin Hobb was a great inspiration for me with her character Fitz. I love being in the characters head. I am also using a combination in my WIP – first person with my MC and close third with the other important characters.

    • #25 by dirtywhitecandy on December 14, 2011 - 8:16 am

      Thanks, Michelle! I think I naturally gravitate towards the closest view to the main character too. Good luck with your WIP.

  9. #26 by Mike Robbins on December 22, 2011 - 10:58 pm

    I’m writing an MG fantasy that’s 3rd person, but limited to the protaganist’s view. I did a reading of the first 7 pages at a critique group a couple of weeks ago and one of the attendees said that an agent that critiqued her MG novel last year told her that all MG novels should be first person because children that age want to imagine themselves in the story, and that viewpoint makes it easier for them to do that.
    Of course, being the contrarian I am, I just don’t believe one size fits all.
    Interestingly, I’m also outlining an adult post-apocalyptic western adventure and am planning on that being in 1st person POV.

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 23, 2011 - 9:56 am

      Interesting feedback from that agent, Mike. I’m siding with you. Life Form 3 is MG and is written as close 3rd person. My agent is perfectly happy that I didn’t write it first person, in fact never even mentioned my POV choice.
      Carry on contrarying.

    • #28 by kevinonpaper on February 18, 2014 - 10:33 pm

      Sorry. A little late to the party. But what does your reading group say to Harry Potter?

  10. #29 by Paul R. Drewfs on December 28, 2011 - 9:40 pm

    What if, in order to resolve the reality of internal human neural processing with the conventions of writing and storytelling, you employed an additional three-part character POV scheme? What if you used a method in which –without any false trace or indication of multiple personality disorder or other mental illness – the scene dominant POV character was comprised of three distinct named entities: 1. The Many, the omniscient internal intuitive entity; 2. The One, the third person internal conscious self aware knowledge and memory processing entity; and 3. The first person externally observable character’s cognitive symbolic (numbers, letters and words) processing entity. What if those three entities were all hierarchically nested within the POV character? The scheme might work like this:

    For Chapter = N
    For Scene = S
    For POV Char = 1

    Internal and external Inputs x emotional weights (x internal processes) = Outputs with consequences: internal and external:
    Only the main POV character’s three internal processing entities are revealed; as opposed to those of the supporting characters.
    Each internal unique POV entity is capable of exposition and internal monolog, but only the cognitive thought entity is capable of externally observable dialog and action.
    Each internal entity has a personality type and personality class center (where personality types equal 1 to 9 and class centers = 3).
    Only one entity may take center stage at any one time.
    The internal entities comprising the POV Char are:

    The Many: the omniscient intuitive entity (70 percent neural — as opposed to written stage dominant)
    The One: the conscious self aware knowledge processing entity (26 percent neural stage dominant), and
    The POV character’s name: the comprehending cognitive entity (4 percent neural stage dominant)

    Emotions that weight value all internal and external inputs to the character = feasible combinations of: Alertness • Acceptance • Affection • Ambivalence • Anger • Angst • Anticipation • Anxiety • Apathy • Bitterness • Boredom • Calmness • Compersion • Contempt • Contentment • Confusion • Depression • Despair • Disappointment • Disgust • Doubt • Ecstasy • Embarrassment • Emptiness • Enmity • Enthusiasm • Envy • Epiphany • Euphoria • Fanaticism • Fear • Frustration • Gratification • Gratitude • Grief • Guilt • Happiness • Hate • Homesickness • Hope • Horror • Humiliation • Jealousy • Limerence • Loneliness • Love • Lust • Melancholia • Panic • Patience • Pity • Pride • Rage • Regret • Remorse • Repentance • Righteous indignation • Self-pity • Shame • Shyness • Suffering

    To effect internal processing, the emotionally weighted inputs – from all internal and external sources — must exceed a current positive and negative threshold; else the weighted inputs are ignored.

    Outputs = results which can = exposition, monolog, dialog, and action.
    Consequences may be positive or negative, each have a probability of occurring, and necessitating that ranking of feasible contingent response options.

    Yeah I know … “you’ll put your eye out.”

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