First-Person or Third-Person Point-of-View

Point of view isn’t up for much debate in Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance.  Upwards of 95% or more is written in first-person.

As for why – partly it comes down to word-count and pacing, partly to some audience preference, and partly because it’s a more natural way of storytelling and easier for new authors to delve into.

Neither first-person nor third-person is “better.”  Both have benefits and pitfalls and both can provide an extremely rich and rewarding experience – for both the reader and the writer.

First-person offers these benefits:

  • Immediate accessibility for both the writer and reader.  Normally, the writer finds her or his “voice” right away more easily with first-person.  It’s a natural extension of the storytelling we do in our lives.  And a reader can readily identify the voice, delve right into what’s happening with the narrating character, and proceed onward from there.
  • Compact narrative (normally).  Storytelling by first-person account can be epic (Moby Dick) and can cover a span of geography and time (Little Big Man).  But what makes first-person attractive to many writers is that you can convey quite a lot in a very small package.  This is why there is an abundance of first-person short stories.  Consider Stephen King – who’s written the bulk of his novels in third-person.  Glancing through his bibliography, offhand I can identify Christine as partly first-person, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Duma Key, 11/22/63, and maybe there is one or two I missed.  Next, look at King’s novellas and we begin to see a higher prevalence of first-person: three of the four novellas in Different Seasons, for example.  In his short stories, the percentage is also high.  Night Shift has 9 of its 20 stories written in first-person.  The reason first-person lends itself easily to compact narrative ties directly back into the above-mentioned “immediacy.”  Because many genres (as well as current reading trends and overall ebook trends) favor shorter narratives, first-person can pack a lot into a lower word-count.
  • Some people prefer reading first-person.  Often, it goes back again to immediacy and time constraints.  While a first-person account can be deeply layered in detail and third-person storytelling can be swift and concise, there is a higher prevalence of simple and straightforward first-person writing among certain genres.
First-person does have a few constraints.  Some of the more common ones have to do with description:
  • Describing the narrator is always a challenge in first-person.  I discussed that – as well as some possible solutions – in my post about Character Descriptions.
  • Describing other characters in a natural way can also require some thought.  When we look at someone, we gain an impression.  But how do we convey an impression of someone else – particularly someone we know very well – in a way that feels right to a reader.  Best to go for subtle and blend it into the action.  Like:  “Darcy came flying down the sidewalk toward me, blue eyes flashing and blonde hair catching the sunlight in an enviable way.”  Not that this is even a great description, but I had to throw something up quickly 🙂
  • First-person narratives are often interaction-based.  They tend to be heavy on dialogue, and less reliant upon locale and other description.  So when that’s the case, keeping description terse and as-needed does better service than weighing down a previously fast-paced narrative with lingering views of the scenery.

But there are also plot-constraints – since only the narrator’s point-of-view is being conveyed.  Some authors deal with this by shifting points-of-view, which can be successful or distracting depending on the skill of the writer as well as the reader.  Stephen King shifted between first-person and third-person in Christine.  Maggie Stiefvater shifted between two characters’ first-person points-of-view in her series that began with Shiver.  In her case, a criticism among some readers has been that they didn’t feel the two “voices” were distinct enough to separate from one another when the narrator shifted.

That can be difficult to do.  Some authors have created distinct first-person voices.  Anne Rice famously did this with Louis in Interview With The Vampire followed by Lestat in The Vampire Lestat.  And yet…for those of us who read later novels in the Vampire Chronicles, were we seeing as great a distinction between the voices of Marius, Armand, Pandora, etc. as we saw between Louis and Lestat?  As I said, it can be a challenge in even very good authors’ hands.  Authors often lapse into a style of voice that feels comfortable, just as we speak with whatever regional accent we spend the most time within.  Straying afield – especially far afield – can be rewarding but isn’t always simple.

Since first-person narratives tend to be narrator-centric and often heavily interaction-based, many authors develop plots through what the main character experiences, and supplement it with dialogue exchanges with other characters who can further the plot.  This will never replicate the kind of effect Stephen King achieved with The Stand, written in third-person with a couple dozen characters moving inexorably toward one another in the early part of the book.  So a writer should always consider her or his concept for what the intentions are for the story, and decide which path feels most natural.

Third-person lends itself to its own advantages and challenges.  A good third-person account dispels the myth that only first-person narratives can “get inside the head” of the character and bring them close to the reader.  There have been too many intimate accounts written in third-person that equal any similar first-person work.  First-person simply brings a reader into the character’s head a little sooner – as in, several pages sooner.  Stephen King’s first-person novels that I cited above are no different than his vast third-person work – the majority of which breathe with life and characters who feel real.

Patricia Briggs has two series in her werewolf urban fantasy world.  The “Mercy Thompson” novels, beginning with Moon Called, are in first-person.  The Alpha and Omega novels are in third-person.  In discussions I’ve seen on her forums, a lot of people express preference for one series or the other, and the ones who enjoy Alpha and Omega often talk about their impressions of the main characters.  Again, third-person is never a limitation.

And remember that Harry Potter is third-person.

Third-person’s typical advantages are:

  • Description – characters (including the main character), scenery, pretty much everything.  Since description lends itself to atmosphere and mood, we more often see third-person stories where those elements take precedence – such as horror.  Still, there are no rules and there are excellent first-person horror stories.  Just as there are fast-paced and compelling third-person stories.
  • Plot development – Particularly if an author is employing a shifting third-person view (as Stephen King has done in many of his works, and notably in The Stand), it can be very easy to give a reader a view of all the pieces moving toward an ultimate collision.  Tension becomes easier to create in such a manner (although tension is never truly “easy” to do).  As well, there can be an allure to getting inside the heads of many different characters – including the bad guys or gals.  And again, good storytelling in third-person will let a reader get inside the head of any character the author chooses.  Even with third-person limited, many readers will find secondary characters more attractive than the focal point.  This also holds true with first-person.  Consider the allure for Edward or Jacob in Twilight.  Readers never got inside their heads (especially after Stephenie Meyer decided not to proceed with Midnight Sun) but that was no obstacle.
  • Scope and Complexity – these tie back into what was just mentioned above.  It can cover a variety of characters and a lot of ground over the course of the story, and do so more readily than a first-person narrative.

Challenges of third-person narratives are, like with first-person, a flip-side of their advantages:

  • Accessibility – I would say that first-person stories can hook more easily within the first line, let alone the first page, than many third-person stories can.  This is entirely subjective – because every person has their own individual tastes.  But humans are wired as storytellers.  We have oral traditions that predated writing and extend into the modern age among societies that still do not practice writing.  There is an immediacy to first-person that third-person cannot readily equal.  Still, there are some great third-person stories that hook from the beginning.  I’d simply argue that there are even more third-person stories that we know will “warm up” rather than immediately start with a bang.  Even if there are readers with short attention spans who need an immediate “pop” at the beginning, there are readers who enjoy delving into the depths of a good third-person story, and there are readers who like pretty much any kind of reading experience.  In other words, there is no single type of reader, and any author only needs their work to be found by the readers who will enjoy their work.
  • Size – third-person isn’t normally as compact as first-person.  Since description tends to be greater (and description always takes more text than dialogue) and some  stories employ shifts between characters to advance plot, many third-person stories tend to be longer.  If a given genre favors fast-paced short works, this has to be taken into account.  Still, Kelley Armstrong has said that many of her novels have come in around the 125,000-130,000 word mark.  And while the first Harry Potter book was on par in size with others in its genre, its success allowed later books in the series to become quite large for any genre.
  • Keeping it interesting and flowing – third-person’s ability to revel in descriptions and bounce around between characters can offer the temptation for a writer to bog down the narrative with unnecessary details.

I do believe that it is easier for many new authors to begin with first-person than to work within third-person – again, because it’s a natural extension of human storytelling tradition.  I don’t believe that either point-of-view is “better” than the other.  I’ve enjoyed first-person and third-person equally and have absolutely no preference for one or the other.

What I look for is a story and characters that draw me in.  When that happens, I don’t even pay attention to point-of-view.  I had to glance over King’s bibliography and even crack a few books open just to remember which he did in either point-of-view.

The main thing to note is these are generalizations about the two main points-of-view.  Again, first-person can be epic in length, third-person can be compact.  Either kind can be enticing or boring, depending on the author’s skill and any given reader’s tastes.

3 thoughts on “First-Person or Third-Person Point-of-View

  1. One of the reasons why I like dropping in on your blog for some advice is the pleasant absence of, “Thou shalt not! If you are doing this way then you are wrong…Wrong…WRONG!”

    What I do get are pointers, things to consider, and weighed thoughts that treat me as an individual with a brain and my own creative instincts, not an automaton that: MUST. FOLLOW. THE ‘RULES’.

    Lots of solid stuff here Matthew, and somethings I need to possibly reconsider about my new story. I’m with you though, if the story is well-written then the POV will drift into the background as I get absorbed into the story and the character’s lives.

  2. Carefully thought out, great selection of pieces to back up you points and definitely something there for writers of all levels to consider. Well done Matthew.

  3. A well thought-out and informative post. You’re right – if it’s well-written, the reader won’t be considering the first versus third points. Different stories are highlighted by different points of view, and what POV works best for one piece could fall flat with another. Lots of things to think about.

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