First or Third Person: Which Point of View Is Best?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

First person or third person–which point of view should writers use? Which one do publishers and/or readers prefer? Is there one beginning writers should stick to more than another?

I've talk about point of view (POV) in a previous post: Avoid Being Branded as an Amateur: Use These 7 POV Basics. In the article I talk about things like how many POV's to use, when to introduce POV characters, how to delineate between POV's, how often to switch POV's, and other mechanics.

But I haven't ever tackled the pros and cons of which POV to use: first or third person.

Recently Katia emailed me with a question about that very thing. She said: I'm having trouble deciding which one to use . . . I'm more inclined to use first person, but I don't know if I'd accidentally make the character too much like me. (Another me running around would be disaster.) I wouldn't be switching characters very often–most likely only once or twice, but I don't know if that's Absolutely Not Acceptable for first person. I would appreciate your opinion!

Those are all some great questions, Katia. So I thought I'd throw out my thoughts about POV and then open it up in the comments for you all to chime in with additional advice.

First let's start with a very simple grammar lesson. In the English language there are three persons of pronouns: first, second, and third. There are also cases (subjective, objective, and possessive) as well as number (singular or plural). Here's a brief breakdown (yes, I'm somewhat of a grammar geek!):

First person:

Subjective: I (singular), we (plural)
Objective: me (singular), us (plural)
Possessive: my/mine (singular), our/ours (plural)

Second person:

Subjective: you (singular), you (plural)
Objective: you (singular), you (plural)
Possessive: your (singular), your (plural)

Third person: (has genders and a neuter category unlike the above)

Subjective: he, she, it (singular), they (plural)
Objective: him, her, it (singular), them (plural)
Possessive: his, hers, its (singular), their (plural)

Traditionally, novelists have used the third person, generally referring to their characters as he or she or they. It's still the most common person used in books today. Usually a novelist gets inside two (maybe three) characters' heads. And while in that head, the writer sticks to that person's particular view sharing everything from the "he" or "she" they're inhabiting.

There are many reasons why third person is the most popular.

1. Third person allows for more flexibility in telling. We can't always show everything. Third person allows us to tell or explain when necessary (like a narrator).

2. Third person allows for transitions (sequels) between scenes. We can pull back just a bit and summarize what's happening between scenes (even if it's just a sentence or two).

3. Third person allows for more variety. Most first person stories have only one POV which can sometimes get monotonous. Usually the reader likes to know what's going on in the hero AND heroine's heads, sometimes even with the antagonist.

4. Third person can help us delineate between our characters better. I've found that even when authors switch POV within first person, the "I's" blend together and it becomes difficult to distinguish between characters.

5. Third person allows for more distance. Using "I" is a more intimate tone. And when writing in that more personal way, we run more risk of us enmeshing ourselves into our characters.

6. Third person can be less confusing for readers, especially when we change a POV. The switch in names and pronouns helps clue readers in on whose perspective the story is being told from.

Obviously, a talented author writing in first person can overcome the above obstacles. For example, one of my favorite historical authors, Siri Mitchell, writes most of her books in first person. She has multiple POV's in first person (usually the hero and heroine), and she's able to switch back and forth between them without confusion.

A book by Iris Anthony had seven POV's in first person (including a dog). At the beginning of each chapter, the author clarified the character with a subheading. But more than that, she was talented enough and her characters distinct enough that I was never left wondering which character's head I was in.

I've even seen blended POV. Katie Ganshert does this in both of her books Wildflowers from Winter and Wishing on Willows. Although the books are written from third person, Katie occasionally intersperses the first person, and it's like getting a glimpse of a diary page, a slightly more intimate look into the character's thoughts.

My summary: Overall, I think first person takes a bit more finesse and skill, and so beginning writers should consider writing their first book or two in third person until they've developed solid basic writing mechanics. I also think first person can be a harder sell for debut or younger authors since on the whole, publishers and readers still prefer third person.

So now that I've shared my thoughts on first and third person, what are your opinions? Which is your favorite and why?

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