Perspectives: First Person versus Third Person

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So you’ve got yourself a good idea for a story, which is arguably the hardest part. You have a basic framework for how you want your story to progress– it’s okay if you don’t have all of the details down; I usually don’t. But, once you have the basic idea, you have to make a decision: from what perspective will this story be told?

It’s not always a cut-and-dry call to make. Sometimes a story will work better in first person, sometimes it needs to be third. For those just getting started, I’ll begin by defining both terms.

First Person point of view is when the story is told from within the constraints of one of the characters within it, or at least within that universe (I won’t overcomplicate things, but sometimes a story will be told by some omniscient being who watched everything happen but wasn’t technically a character). This is when you have stories that contain prose– not dialogue– that says things like, “I walked into the room and saw my dog had vomited on the carpet.” Popular first person stories include The Hunger Games trilogy and the Dresden Files novels.

Third Person point of view is told from the perspective of a third party, usually disconnected or unrelated to the story. Rather than say things like the example above, the same line would be written “Mark walked into the room and saw that his dog had vomited on the carpet.” Third person comes in a few flavors, usually limited or omniscient. Omniscient is when the narrator is in everyone’s head, like the Lord of the Rings. Limited is when the narrator is only ever in one character’s head at any given time, like A Song of Ice and Fire.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about what advantages and disadvantages are offered by each.

Third Person is vastly more popular for longer fiction. It is significantly easier for most people to write, and it allows the writer to do things they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Because the author– and by extension, the narrator– is not locked into a forced perspective, the narrative can jump from character to character at will. One chapter can follow John Smith’s perspective, and the next can focus on Lord Demoniculous, his arch nemesis and the villain of the story (as should be obvious by his ludicrously evil name). This can prove very useful when writing longer fiction, as it can help keep your readers engaged.

More than that, though, is the opportunity to make sure that nothing happens “off-camera.” Every single thing that happens, even if John Smith isn’t there to witness it, can be easily written and chronicled by following another character, or no character at all. Obviously, you can choose to leave stuff out– I don’t think readers are terribly interested in watching Lord Demoniculous use the bathroom, unless you’re writing a comedy– but you can put that in there if you want to, and it won’t be jarring for the reader.

This is the most common point of view for stories that have large casts. Imagine if George R.R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones locked into Arya’s perspective. The story wouldn’t work– seriously, it’d be unreadable. Stuff would just happen with no context.

But, because we can read it from the perspectives of Ned, Tyrion, Jon, Cersei, Littlefinger, and so on, we get a much larger picture. We get to look inside their heads and get a feel for their motivations, and in a story like that, it’s necessary. It makes characterization not just relatively simple, it makes it possible in the first place.

First person, on the other hand, has been on the rise lately, and it’s easy to see why. Many young adult novels use that perspective, especially ones aimed at the female demographic (I’m looking at you, Twilight. Eurgh).

This perspective offers some advantages as well. First, it puts you directly inside the head of a single character– usually the main protagonist (and is especially interesting when you’re dealing with a villain protagonist). This gives you the opportunity to really have the reader connect with the narrator. People can identify with Katniss because they begin to understand her, and do so rather quickly. Katniss gets to tell people exactly what she’s thinking at any given moment, because her thoughts are already on the page.

Basically, first person allows a far more intimate connection between the perspective character and the reader.

A second advantage is more mechanical than emotional: it lets you ignore outside events. If the perspective character doesn’t know something, the reader doesn’t know it either. That means that if a different character isn’t around the narrator, whatever it is that takes place isn’t the reader’s business. This allows you to cut some of the background noise out.

The fact is that not everything needs to be said for a story to be good or well-written. Sometimes, it’s better if the reader doesn’t know what’s coming, or for them to find out later what it was that Peter was doing when he tells Mark that he’d be right back. It can help you set up a pretty good sting on the reader, and those are always fun– or, you can prove the superiority of the narrator by having them predict exactly what is happening when it’s all taking place off screen!

Of course, this is perfectly doable in third person as well, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect.

The final advantage I’ll mention is this: in first person, it is easy to make your character the story’s Watson. Harry Potter, for example– a story you really should be familiar with by now– is all about the titular character’s trials and tribulations over seven years. Harry is the focus of the entire series; everything, in each book and the series in general, boils down to him.

Imagine, for a minute, what the books would be like if they were told from inside Ron’s head. I’ll wait.

 

Weird, right? But that’s exactly what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. All of the stories were told from the perspective of Watson, his best (and possibly only) friend. Now, anyone who’s read the stories will tell you that Watson is no slouch– dude was a doctor who served in wartime, is an accomplished writer and is smart as a tack– but compared to Sherlock, Watson is a dunderhead. In fairness, so is everyone else.

But if your story has a larger than life character, one who is crazy brilliant or who has superpowers or something, consider how useful it would be to write from the perspective of that character’s friend or sidekick. Watson winds up serving as what is called an Audience Surrogate. He asks questions that you or I would want answered and he reacts in ways that you and I would. This can be a pretty cool way to both give the perspective of a character intimately involved in the story while also maintaining the air of mystery around a monolithic character.

Now that you know what’s good about both styles, how about we talk about what’s not so good?

The best and worst thing about third person is that you can jump from character to character at will. This can be a great narrative tool, and can keep a story interesting and moving quickly. Unfortunately, what happens sometimes is that a couple of characters become more and more dominant in the narrative. They will either take up more and more time on the page, possibly to the detriment of other characters, or the writer, not wanting to shaft those other characters, will instead focus on minutiae simply for the sake of fairness. This is a mistake that some writers make. Do not be one of them!

The fact is that jumping from one character to another too frequently can get very tedious for the reader, especially if they’re jumping to an uninteresting character, or there is something unrelated going on after the jump. A lot of writers like to use this device to create artificial cliffhangers. Terry Brooks is notorious for that; just when I think one of the Ohmsfords has had it, he jumps to Allanon. (If that didn’t make sense, read the Shannara books. They’re fun). Try to avoid this if possible; it can be pretty frustrating when I can’t find out what happened to a character who was about to be stabbed to death by the villain because we’ve switched perspectives.

Then there’s the potential for confusion. Sometimes, a writer will switch perspectives within the same page or paragraph, with no clear break! Do not do this. Stick with one character, and introduce some kind of section break between perspective changes. If you don’t, your reader is likely to become totally confused.

Finally, there’s length. Occasionally, a writer will artificially increase the length of his work beyond what it should be simply because of the nature of the perspective. He or she will be so invested in adding as much detail and backstory for each character that the overall word count will explode. I urge you not to do this. A story should be as long as it needs to be, no more or less. It can get really difficult to cut things later on, so make sure you aren’t abusing the perspective just to add more prose.

First person, on the other hand, has a lot of disadvantages.

First, because you’re locked into one person’s head, it can become harder to adequately characterize the rest of the cast. Only things that the perspective character knows and sees can ever be shown on the page– at least,without breaking the point of view.

Second, because you’re limited to one character’s perspective, it can be really tedious if your reader doesn’t like your character. If there’s no connection, either because your character is unrelatable or just unlikable, your reader won’t bother with the rest of your book. This is more a problem with poor writing than with the perspective itself, but the point of view does add more pressure to make your character interesting.

Finally, there is bias. Everything that the narrator sees must be viewed through the lens of that narrator’s thoughts and feelings. In other words, the perspective character will view all of the events that take place in the book from his or her (or its) natural inclinations to view them. This can be difficult to track for a writer who is less experienced; usually the character will wind up being just a mirror of the author, or an idealized version of the author. That can work just fine– once. Eventually, though, if you keep using the perspective, you’re really going to have to get inside the head of your narrating character.

So which should you use? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you.

I will say that first person is best used in situations that include a small cast of characters and when you really want to limit the perspective to one person’s experience.

Conversely, third person is most effective when you have a relatively large cast, or you want to give multiple perspectives.

Really, after weighing the strengths and weaknesses, it depends on the story you’re telling. For what it’s worth, my first book was written in first person; it has a small cast (only about five characters that are actually important), and the plot hinges on the main character not knowing certain things. I also couldn’t really tell you why, but in my head, the story was always first person. I even went back and attempted to rewrite it in third when I was about halfway through, and it just didn’t work.

Pick what’s best for your story, and do what you’re most comfortable with.

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