Writing in first person vs. third person: it’s just one of the ten million decisions you have to make when putting together a story, but it’s an important one! Try to imagine Sherlock Holmes being written in the third person omniscient point of view, where we can see everything both Sherlock Holmes and Watson are thinking. Different, right? The point of view can make a huge difference in your story, whether it’s first vs. third person or which character you choose to make the narrator, but what’s the difference between first and third person point of view?
First person is the point of view in which you wrote all those sentences in kindergarten: I sat down. I ate lunch. I went to sleep. I also see it a lot in YA fiction. Basically, first person point of view is told through the eyes of the narrator. It uses pronouns like ‘I’ and sometimes, the narrator even talks to the reader themselves. Examples of books written in first person are ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ and for younger readers, ‘Percy Jackson.’ All of these books are written through the eyes of a particular character, whether it be Katniss, Watson, or Percy.
Because you’re experiencing the story through a character’s eyes, one advantage of writing the story in first person is getting your reader to feel like they’re experiencing the story firsthand. For example, when reading the Hunger Games, I wasn’t watching Katniss fight for her life, I felt like I was the one whose adrenaline was pumping. That’s not to say that you can’t do this with third person, but first person, at least to me, is easier to establish that connection to.
Another advantage of first person is being able to relay your character’s thoughts to your reader. Because the reader is in the character’s head, it’s easier to tell them what the character is thinking.
Something I see a lot in YA is the first person point of view bring paired with present tense. I find this to bring a feeling of immediacy in a story so that not only are you experiencing what is happening for yourself, but it feels like it’s happening to you now. I’m not sure if that description made any sense, but first person is a popular choice, especially in YA.
Now, the drawbacks of first person. The biggest one has to be staying in your point-of-view character’s mind. You can’t have the reader in Tom’s head for half the novel listening to how ‘I walked the cat and then began preparing for the picnic’ and then suddenly jump to Sarah’s head to let the reader know how she’s nervous about meeting Tom. If you want to do first person with this, you have to show us through Tom that Sarah is nervous. This also means that we can’t know about an event that happens a hundred miles away that’s going to end up affecting Tom unless Tom already knows about it too.
The hardest thing I find about writing in first person is the limitation of sticking to only one character’s head. Personally, if I’m writing in first person, it’s difficult to flesh out my non-point of view characters because especially when they’re major characters that doesn’t have much direct interaction with my point of view character (say they had a fight and aren’t talking), it’s next to impossible to describe what’s happening to them.
A solution to this is to have multiple point of view characters. In this case, every chapter or section, the reader is introduced to a different character’s point of view. Examples of this are the Heroes of Olympus series (one of three characters becoming the point of view every chapter) and Code Name Verity (half of the book written in each character’s point of view). If you go this route, it’s important to not have too many characters and that each of your point of view characters have a distinct voice. As a reader, there’s nothing more confusing than looking up at the middle of the chapter wondering who’s point of view it is!
Third person point of view, put simply, is when an unnamed narrator relays what is going on from an outside viewpoint. It uses words like, ‘she,’ ‘he,’ and ‘they.’ Books that are written in third person include ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings.’
There are two types of third person point of view: third person limited and third person omniscient. Let’s take a look at both.
Third person limited is when an outside narrator is describing what’s happening but their view is only limited to a certain character’s thoughts and actions. For example, in third person limited the narrator would say things like ‘Tom thought that there must’ve been a mistake’ or ‘Tom walked down the street’ but because it’s third person limited, the narrator can’t suddenly switch to Sarah and tell us what Sarah is thinking. It’s actually somewhat similar to first person in terms of scope, as are the pros and cons. Though third person limited is, well, limited, you can always have multiple point of view characters. And unlike first person, because the character’s name is constantly being used, it’s much harder to forget who’s point of view it is.
The second type of third person is third person omniscient. In this point of view, the outside narrator can see what everyone is thinking and doing. We can learn Sarah’s thoughts and skip to know what Tom is thinking and then see that event occurring a hundred miles away. This point of view is useful in letting the reader know what all of the characters are thinking, but a pitfall is spreading the narration too thin and ‘telling’ the reader what each of the characters are thinking instead of ‘showing.’ It might also be more difficult for the reader to get that connection with the characters that they can get through first person or third person limited.
So which one do I use?
Ultimately, whether you choose to write in first person, third person limited, or third person omniscient depends on your writing style and story, but it might help you out to try out different points of view to find out what works best.
What point of view do you write in? Any tips for writing in any of the different points of views? Leave your comments down below!