First person, third person

And I’m not talking about Adam or Cain. I’m trying to decide if my new book should be written in first person or third person.

For the non-writers, first person is when the book is told from the “I” perspective (“I paced the hall”) and third person is when the book is told from the “he”/”she” perspective. (“She paced the hall.”) For the most part you don’t see second person, although I’ve written it (“You pace the hall. Look in the mirror to find a grey hair. Pivoting, you stalk back to the kitchen.”) And I’ve talked about the one time I’ve encountered a first-person plural narrator.

One agent said about the string quartet novel that it’s a lot of everyday stuff, and on balance, I believe that’s true of that particular book. The tensions emerge from the interplay of the characters, not from external stressors. So in the planning stage for another book, I devised a compelling external question that will cause a lot of plotting and a lot of non-everyday living.

I’m using Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method for this, a departure for me because I do all my planning in-head. But I’ll try anything once. I’ve just finished step four (a one-page synopsis) and realized this is the place I’d normally start writing. I don’t use an outline, but I get to know the characters intimately, know the conflict and the major steps on how it’s going to get resolved, then turn them loose.

I’m not starting yet — I’ll give Ingermanson’s method a shot. What’s stumping me now is whether to tell it in first or third person. Do I want to be in my MC’s head? Or do I want to see her from outside herself?

First person appears more intimate, but readers don’t trust a first person narrator as much as third. You actually get closer in third. But if a lot of this is intuition, I don’t want to be telling too much. (“Her spider senses were tingling!” — hah) and intuition is easier to show in first person. (“No matter how often I tried to pay attention to Martin, my gaze kept returning to the bookshelf.”)

I want to write in third simply because I haven’t in so long. The book feels more like first.

Oh, decisions. If you’re not a writer, you never realized we angst about things like this, but a tiny decision here changes the flavor of the whole book, like beginning a soup with beef stock instead of chicken stock. I know a writer now who’s rewriting a book from one person into another, and she says it’s like writing a different book.

I may do a few pages in each flavor to get a sense of how it flows. The result will, I hope, turn up one version that feels just-right in how no one could possibly imagine it any other way.


  1. Jason Black

    I say it depends on how close you want readers to be to the characters:

    It depends on a few other things, too, but I talk about those in that article, too.

    1. philangelus

      Your article states the opposite of what I’ve always been taught, that we get closer to the characters in a third person narrative than in a first person narrative. We instinctively feel we’ll be closer to a first person narrator, but apparently that’s not the case (according to a bunch of college professors.)

  2. lbdiamond

    Interesting topic, philangelus.

    For my frist two novels, I wrote in third person. The characters were in their thirties. After that, I switched to first person. And it wasn’t on purpose. It just sort of came out that way. However, the characters were much younger–teens to early twenties. So, I wonder if that makes a difference. ??? I’ll have to think more about that.

    1. philangelus

      I’ve written angel stories in first person (Winter Branches and Damage are both first person POV) so I don’t think it’s the age of the narrator. It’s definitely about narrative distance and what best serves the story. I just can’t figure out what this story requires yet.

  3. Tzalaran

    i’ve only written in first person since i started writing as an adult (as a high schooler, i only wrote in 3rd person). i absolutely disagree with “the bunch of college professors” who claim 3rd person is more intimate to the main character.

    3rd person is more intimate with multiple characters i will grant, as you have the freedom to get inside each character’s head with minimal confusion from POV shift, and that gives the illusion that 3rd person is more intimate.

    1st person forces you to only focus on that character’s motivations, experiences, and inner struggles. This leaves other characters more distanced from the reader, but it allows the reader to become the main character for their time with the book, and that is escapism at its finest.

    either POV can be effective for any story, but i wouldn’t put too much faith in what college professors say. ‘There is a reason they are professors instead of working writers’ according to an author who’s blog i regularly follow.

    1. philangelus

      These guys were working writers, at least one of whom has been on the bestseller list. 🙂

      The idea is that first person narrators can lie to you, and the way you’re always weighing what someone says when you’re talking to them (the same way you’re disagreeing with me now even as you’re reading my comments) you’re going to do that with a first-person narrator.

      But a third person narrator is presumed to be telling the truth with no filer and no slant, so we listen more readily and draw closer to the people that way, the way we do our loved ones.

  4. capt_cardor

    One of the very best books I have ever read is by Alberto Moravia, entitled “The Lie”. It is a first person narrative and as I read it I was completely convinced by the central character only to be startled to find, almost three quarters through the book, that he had been lying from the beginning. It was so startling because I had been so trusting and so gullible. I should have been clued in by the title, but…d’uh. It changed the way I read first person forever.

  5. cricketB

    Thinking back over the last few months of reading, 1st person tends to be grittier and more exhausting, but I don’t think it was just the choice of narrator that did it. The characters spent more time working on fumes, suffered more violence and abuse, were left with no clear path, and had less outside help.

    The 3rd person books didn’t abuse the characters quite so much. They had a better idea where they were going, had more friends around them, and avoided the physical damage. It was a calmer reading experience. Still gripping, but not as intense.

    I think 1st person encourages the narrator to say, “I’m working on fumes,” more than 3rd person does, even for the same scene. It’s also harder to see the ally at your back, so you feel more alone.

    1st person makes it easier to rely on the big revelation at the end. Stories that rely on that are weak to begin with, regardless of narration choice. Read enough of those, and you’ll associate 1st person with bad stories.

    At first glance, it’s harder for 1st person to give a feel for the big world, but meeting that challenge can create an incredible feeling of bubble of clarity inside a large world. 3rd person authors don’t always take up that challenge, and we get a more evenly described world.

    One book was 1st person, with about 5 short bits in a different type showing the victim’s situation. It added tension by showing us things the hero didn’t know, and made us want the victim to be rescued. Once she found the victim, those scenes stopped.

    I don’t enjoy living in the characters’ heads enough to write a novel in 1st person. The time I tried, I got sucked in too far, and spent more time in her head than in my own. I sometimes use it for short stories, side-pieces and exercises, but not the long story. I prefer “3rd person switching” (not sure the proper term). The challenge for that is to pick the right narrator for each bit. Often I’ll write several POVs to catch body language and reactions, then pick my favourite.

    3rd person gives a bit more flexibility, but that can be abused. The book I’m reading now, which Husband assures me is good, is 3rd person switching and the switches between characters give me whiplash. Husband doesn’t get into the heads as much as I do.

  6. cricketB

    Just thought of another POV: 1st person omniscient. She’s telling the tale after she’s talked with other survivors and looked at the records. Not entirely omniscient, as it’s still translated through her POV, but it’s more than just her own observations. “I almost puked, but he ate it with much enjoyment. He later told me it reminded him of his mother’s cooking.

    There are probably other ways of doing it.