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Perspective preferences, First or third person?

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Lex Mac

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I am working on my first novel and I am struggling to decide whether I want it to be in first or third person. I have sections written in first and others written in third, and I see benefits to both in a story like this. There is one MC who narrates through the entirety, which pushes me into writing in first person but I wonder if other characters perspective could add depth to the story.
Any thoughts on which people prefer to write in or read for that matter?
What do people think are the pros and cons of each?
 

ChaseJxyz

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To me, first-person feels very YA-y or very visual novel; it's very easy to read and it's very easy for the reader to project onto the main character. Third person is more "formal" and "standard," most fiction is in third person, and it allows the narrator to see/know things the main character does not. There is some amount of "distance" or "filter" between the narrator and the point-of-view character which really isn't there in first person.

Pretty much everything I write is in third person limited because I like the balance of being in the character's head and the ability for the narrator to use language in a way the character wouldn't. The narrator tells the story and the reader doesn't have to think about it.

I have one project that is first person and that's BECAUSE I want the reader to project onto the main character. It's an interactive story, so I want the reader to think "How am I going to get out of this problem?" and not "How is [character] going to get out of this problem?" or even worse "What am I going to make [character] do to get out of this problem?" I have a very specific tone and theming I'm going for, and part of that is being reminiscent of visual novels, especially the kind I read.

There are definitely stories that have both first and third, though!
  • There's plenty of "classic literature" where the framing story is 3rd person, character A telling character B a story, and the main story is Character A 1st person
  • Story-centric nonfiction like Bad Blood and Super Pumped are, technically, first person stories, but when it gets to the point for the writers (journalists) to say "oh yeah I'm the narrator this is the part I was personally involved in!" it's super late in the book. There's no narrator intruding saying "well _I_ think she was a Steve Jobs stan for this reason...." so it is, essentially, third person most of the time. It works with these stories since the writer/narrator is a "character" in these stories, but they're also not the MAIN character.
  • There's this one visual novel where it's third person, which goes against genre conventions. But you learn at the 95% mark that it's ACTUALLY first person, the narrator was in the MC's head and watching all of this happen. So now there's two first-person narrators: the MC, and this person you thought was just a narrative convention but is actually the most important character in this whole thing.
  • Stories that are made of different documents. A diary or letter might be first person, a journalistic article might be third. Or maybe the person chose to write their memoirs in third person but they also included letters for some reason.

I have attempted one (1) story in second person and I couldn't finish it; normally I like a challenge and trying new things out but this was not fun at all. I also wrote something in what I think was supposed to be third-person omniscient but I wasn't a huge fan of it.
 

mccardey

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We had a thread about this really recently - I think within the last couple of weeks, - and it got a pretty good response. Unless I dreamed it. I've just done a search, but I can't find it now.

Anyone?

FWIW I probably said I write and read both and love them equally.
 
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We had a thread about this really recently - I think within the last couple of weeks, - and it got a pretty good response. Unless I dreamed it. I've just done a search, but I can't find it now.

Anyone?

FWIW I probably said I write and read both and love them equally.
I remember that thread. I'll go digging for it tomorrow.
 

Lakey

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And this one, from August, with a broader reach than the one Helix linked (not specific to romance), and which is now locked:
The question comes up frequently -- it's something writers think about a lot. :)

My own views on the subject are laid out there, too:

me said:
I am drawn to third person (both as a reader and a writer) because close third has the potential for an incredible intimacy that even first person cannot readily deliver. First person has an implicit filter between the narrator and the reader; the POV character herself chooses what to tell the reader and what to omit. In close third, though, you have the potential to delve as deep into the character's interiority as you like, revealing thoughts that the character might never even fully acknowledge, much less confess to someone else.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as exceptionally confessional first person or rather distant third person. It's also not to say that there aren't some first-person books I absolutely adore or that I never choose to write a story in first person. All I am saying is that for me, as a writer and a reader, I am particularly drawn to the use of close third person as a way to strip away all the defenses of the POV character and get that peculiarly intimate perspective that the character herself might never be willing to share with the reader. (I favor limited third for various reasons, but omniscient can of course do this too.)

:e2coffee:
 
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Nether

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It's a 100% YMMV situation. Both first and third have their respective places.

I will note that the prevalence of each can depend on genre. Third-person tends to be the default for a lot of fantasy and scifi. First-person can be big among YA and horror. Literary fiction can really go either way depending on the story being told.

We had a thread about this really recently - I think within the last couple of weeks, - and it got a pretty good response. Unless I dreamed it. I've just done a search, but I can't find it now.

Anyone?

FWIW I probably said I write and read both and love them equally.

It was a fantastic topic, but it got closed for some reason. I'm wondering if it was just because the creator was banned. The topic was literally closed RIGHT before I hit submit on a new post, which drove me crazy.

And this one, from August, with a broader reach than the one Helix linked (not specific to romance), and which is now locked:
The question comes up frequently -- it's something writers think about a lot. :)

My own views on the subject are laid out there, too:



:e2coffee:

That was the one I was thinking of.

The post I was in the process of posting when it closed was an update since I wound up writing -- and enjoying -- a first-person novel, after previously stumbling with another first-person where I wound up going to third.
 
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Which I guess comes down to the combination of
1. What POV best serves this particular story?
And
2. What POV(s) does this author best excel at?
 

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I don't have a strong preference for either. Well, I have pretty much an equal preference for first person and third person limited; but I never write in third person omniscient.

A few times I have started in one POV, but after I have written a couple of thousand words it have just felt wrong and I've rewritten it in the other. Now, I'm just a hobby writer and haven't really bothered so far with what's most common within different genres.

In my opinion, first person works best when everything is written with the character's voice, and handled unreliable narrations a lot better. First person feels like the character is retelling what happened to me.

Third person, on the other hand creates a bit more distance from the character, even if it can be influenced by said character. Third person feels like I'm the fly on the wall, or basically as if I'm looking at the scene.
 

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I once wrote nine-tenths of a novel with a first-person narrator before I realized that given the ending (he dies) it wasn't going to work. So I rewrote the entire thing in third person (and I have a publisher interested in it now).

My thought is that ALL fiction is written in 1st person, technically. SomeONE is telling the story. SomeONE is speaking to the reader. The narrator pretty much must exist as a character in the writer's mind, as an entity apart from the writer who has the job of telling the story to the reader. Thus, first person.
 

Lakey

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Third person, on the other hand creates a bit more distance from the character, even if it can be influenced by said character. Third person feels like I'm the fly on the wall, or basically as if I'm looking at the scene.
For close third person, I would say exactly the opposite—with a third person narration with strong interiority, you are deep in the POV character’s thoughts, with knowledge that the fly on the wall couldn’t possibly have. You aren’t looking at the scene, you are experiencing it through the mind of a character, whether that character wants to share or not. As I said above, it is this intimacy, this depth, that makes me favor close third person as both a reader and writer.

My thought is that ALL fiction is written in 1st person, technically. SomeONE is telling the story. SomeONE is speaking to the reader. The narrator pretty much must exist as a character in the writer's mind, as an entity apart from the writer who has the job of telling the story to the reader. Thus, first person.
If that’s so, what insight does it yield into how we write? How does the observation help you analyze or approach your writing? In a close third person of the sort I was talking about above, I do not think the reader ought to be aware of the narrator as a separate entity from the POV character, although technically there is an author there or someone (other than the POV character) choosing what to show in scene, what to summarize, what to skip entirely. Any awareness of the author is typically an intrusion, a break in POV, a mechanical flaw in the writing. So, with that in mind, what do we gain as writers by being aware of the potentiality of that “someone” to be present—does it help us take care to keep that “someone” invisible, to avoid intrusion when writing? Or at least, if we must do it, to do it consciously and with intent?

:e2coffee:
 

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I am working on my first novel and I am struggling to decide whether I want it to be in first or third person. I have sections written in first and others written in third, and I see benefits to both in a story like this. There is one MC who narrates through the entirety, which pushes me into writing in first person but I wonder if other characters perspective could add depth to the story.
Any thoughts on which people prefer to write in or read for that matter?
What do people think are the pros and cons of each?
My thoughts are this: If you wish to trade publish, be aware of current conventions, both by genre and age category. You don't need to follow those conventions (in general, following your own instincts is wisest, after all) but being aware of them might help you lower an unnecessary hurdle.

Separately, there are plenty of books that mix first and third, but to do it, I believe you need a device that transitions and signals the switch from one to the other.
 

ChaseJxyz

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If that’s so, what insight does it yield into how we write? How does the observation help you analyze or approach your writing? In a close third person of the sort I was talking about above, I do not think the reader ought to be aware of the narrator as a separate entity from the POV character, although technically there is an author there or someone (other than the POV character) choosing what to show in scene, what to summarize, what to skip entirely. Any awareness of the author is typically an intrusion, a break in POV, a mechanical flaw in the writing. So, with that in mind, what do we gain as writers by being aware of the potentiality of that “someone” to be present—does it help us take care to keep that “someone” invisible, to avoid intrusion when writing? Or at least, if we must do it, to do it consciously and with intent?
A third person narrator is (most of the time) non-diegetic; that is, they do not exist within the world of the story. When you watch a movie, the cuts and jumps to different scenes/angles aren't a character's scope of vision literally changing, nor is the orchestral score something they hear or the little text that pops up to tell you that this is New York City is something they see. Most of the time, the third person narrator is just something purely mechanical to tell the story, it's sort of "invisible" to the reader and they don't think about it. It's part of the suspension of disbelief that you're reading a story, just like how you don't think about the exit signs in the theater when you're watching a play.

That doesn't mean it has to be boring and bland. The flavor/style/tone/vibe of non-diegetic elements is still part of the story-consuming experience, so it should help set up the mood/emotions you want the reader to have in the scene (hence why soundtracks in movies are so important). If thinking of the narrator as a separate character makes it easier for you to write it, then cool. There is definitely the philosophical argument as to whether a third person unreliable narrator is a character in itself but there's not really a correct answer here.

There's also stories where it's third person but it's obviously being written/made by a character, which would definitely make the narrator a "character." Dune is 3rd person omni and it's being written by the Princess Irulan about how her husband is just so cool and awesome, which explains why we constantly jump heads to hear people think "wow Paul is so cool and awesome." You can also argue that would also explain why everything is so grand and mythologized....because that's the point*.

The Handmaid's Tale, meanwhile, is first person, but the epilogue tells you that this is based off of journals/tapes from Offred and it's been compiled into this "non-fiction" book for Gilead academics. But that begs the question: how much of this has been edited? Which gaps have been filled in by some other writer? Did an editor take out the more lurid parts or up the horror of the situation? Did the stories of multiple handmaids get combined into one thing? So even though the narrator is the MC, it's maybe not really, but I also don't know how many people besides me have put this much thought into the subject.


*Though the very last paragraph is Paul's concubine saying "man it sucks I can't be his real wife 😢" and his mom says "yeah well legally she may be his wife but who REALLY has the power? Concubines, baby 😏 so screw her" which makes no sense for Irulan to write that and ruined the whole mood of the ending for me lol
 

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I was not aware that a third person omniscient narrator could be a character inside a story. Unless the character is telepathic or in some sort of hive mind or something.

I would think that a third person limited POV would almost have to be a character, with other thoughts inferred from the POV character's observations and interactions.

Movie POV seems like an entirely different beast where the watcher is effectively the third person watching what the filmmaker decided to show.
 

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In my experience, some narrative very much comes from the viewpoint character and their perspective and judgments, and other parts of the narrative come from somewhere more functional/structural.

Sometimes people talk about internal monolog (which is distinct from direct thought.) Part of narrative can be internal monolog, and part can be functional storytelling that is not internal monolog.

Different books play with the distance between these two kinds of narrative. Sometimes all of it feels closer to internal monolog (immersive storytelling) and sometimes all of it feels closer to functional storytelling (external; a cinematic/screenwriting feel)

On the other hand, making a narrator a dedicated character who tells the story using omniscient third (such as the character of Lemony Snickett in A Series of Unfortunate Events, or The Grandfather in The Princess Bride, and in neither case is the narrator the same as the author) requires a different approach and a few new writerly tools to pull off successfully.
 

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I was not aware that a third person omniscient narrator could be a character inside a story. Unless the character is telepathic or in some sort of hive mind or something.

I would think that a third person limited POV would almost have to be a character, with other thoughts inferred from the POV character's observations and interactions.

Movie POV seems like an entirely different beast where the watcher is effectively the third person watching what the filmmaker decided to show.
There are a couple of examples I can think of an omniscient narrator who is also a character in the story, or at least an entity plausibly present in the story world and observing it as such. In The Book Thief, Death is the narrator. In Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut, the narrator is a ghost that is haunting the ship that strands the human characters in the Galapagos, but it seems to know everything about everyone in the story, and the events leading to their situation (and what happened in the far future too).

With third person limited pov, a character in the story provides the focal perspective. There can be just one viewpoint character for an entire novel, or different ciewpoint characters can be used for different chapters or scenes. There is still an external narrator, since they are telling you the story about the character's experiences and thoughts, but it's as if they were riding around on the pov character's shoulder, or even inside their head relating their thoughts and experiences as they occur without awareness of things the pov character wouldn't know.

With third person limited/subjective, the narrative can be very much in the character's voice as well, or it can be more authorial, but the thing is not to share things the pov character wouldn't think or be aware of and not to shift viewpoints without a clear scene break or other cue that the perspective is shifting.

Omniscient narratives can vary too, with external narrators who mostly follow one person but zoom out occasionally to provide perspective or judgement about the bigger situation, to external narrators that share multiple perspectives within the same scene. They can be sort of invisible or they can have a very clear voice and presence in the story as well, as if you were sitting in a room with someone who is telling you a story (may even address the reader as "you" sometimes). Tolkien's voice in The Hobbit was an example of the latter type.

My personal preferences tend toward first person or limited third narratives in stories. I like the way they ground you in a character and force you to learn things alongside them, and to possibly figure out things the protagonist isn't acknowledging, or may even be hiding from the reader or themselves. Omniscient can be more distancing and is easy to mess up, as there's a definite art to knowing how much "big picture" stuff and background to share. Too many writers (imo) use omniscient (or retrospective first person) as an excuse to info dump backstory and world building at every turn, or to skip between characters without good reason.

However, I've read some writers who make very good use of omniscient, and it seems to be becoming fashionable again in SFF.
 
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I find it helpful to separate POV closeness from grammatical person. POV closeness works on a spectrum regardless of pronoun, and you can vary it at different moments--which I think mirrors the varying closeness or distance that we feel to ourselves in different moments in reality.

The techniques of closeness don't produce the same results in 1st and 3rd person (due to that inherent separation between reader and character that 1st person produces--someone mentioned that above). But it's a fascinating exercise to take passages in close POV and change them from 1st to 3rd or vice versa. After the simple switch of pronouns, you'll find other things you have to tweak (hard to explain) to get it to feel good.

It's kind of a nutty exercise, but I've even done this to whole novels--more than once. Switching out the pronouns and then doing that "person edit" helps you really get to know the character and practice different voices for them.

Juliette Wade is the master of teaching close POV, IMO. I love how she says, "deep point of view is not created by personal pronouns." http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2011/11/checklist-for-deep-pov-in-1st-or-3rd.html

Hope that's helpful. Cheers! :)
 

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I find it helpful to separate POV closeness from grammatical person. POV closeness works on a spectrum regardless of pronoun, and you can vary it at different moments--which I think mirrors the varying closeness or distance that we feel to ourselves in different moments in reality.

The techniques of closeness don't produce the same results in 1st and 3rd person (due to that inherent separation between reader and character that 1st person produces--someone mentioned that above).
Yes yes yes! Thanks, gtanders -- I wish I could "like" your post more than once. So often I see people saying "first person brings you more intimacy with the POV character" or "third person is like watching from a distance" and neither of those statements are necessarily or inherently or always true. It's such an important point that it bears repeating -- neither first nor third person is inherently closer or more distant than the other.

:e2coffee:
 
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gtanders

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So often I see people saying "first person brings you more intimacy with the POV character" or "third person is like watching from a distance" and neither of those statements are necessarily or inherently or always true. It's such an important point that it bears repeating -- neither first nor third person is inherently closer or more distant than the other.

:e2coffee:
Riiight? When a narcissist talks in 1st person, it's impossible to get close to them. :p

This is maybe a little weird, but for a while, when I was a kid, I narrated my entire day to myself in third person in my head (after Mom read us the Laura Ingalls books and I really got into stories). It didn't feel far away at all.
 

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Lex Mac said:
Any thoughts on which people prefer to write in or read for that matter?

What do people think are the pros and cons of each?

I've really only tried writing a 'serious' first-person story once, and even that was a mix of first and third. While the story that came out of it was fine as such, first-person doesn't really suit my style of storytelling. I'm more of a big picture/third-person type of writer.

That said, I found it refreshing to be able to give the main POV character a far stronger voice than the more neutral language that's typically used in third.



CMBright said:
Movie POV seems like an entirely different beast where the watcher is effectively the third person watching what the filmmaker decided to show.

Huh, I wasn't familiar with that term... because of the strong influence visual media has on me plus my relative lack of a literary background, I strongly suspect that many, if not all, of my stories are actually written in a Movie-POV.


Norsebard
 

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While reading through, I had a thought that video games might be a good visual example of first vs third, as you have video games where you're looking directly through the eyes of the character, then others where the camera is positioned up and behind them. Both work really well even in the same genre (for example, horror, where you have first person games like SOMA and third person ones like Silent Hill), but give a different experience. It's actually hard to pin down exactly what that difference is - kind of a 'tone', I guess?
 
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gtanders

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While reading through, I had a thought that video games might be a good visual example of first vs third, as you have video games where you're looking directly through the eyes of the character, then others where the camera is positioned up and behind them.
This is making me wonder. Do people visualize stories differently based on the grammatical person of the narrative? I don't (unless it's a really distant or omniscient 3rd, in which case the characters look tiny to me, like I'm seeing them thru the wrong end of a telescope).
 

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This is making me wonder. Do people visualize stories differently based on the grammatical person of the narrative? I don't (unless it's a really distant or omniscient 3rd, in which case the characters look tiny to me, like I'm seeing them thru the wrong end of a telescope).

The biggest difference for me is the "voiciness" of the non-dialogue bits - and, if I'm honest, filtering. With first person, I'm imagining the POV character saying all these words themselves, including the "he said" and "the door opened" kind of stuff. With third person, I can back off that a little.

A bigger difference is tense. One of the POVs in the book I'm revising is first person present tense. It's extremely useful for hiding clues in plain sight, but I have to be very careful when I'm writing this character. I need to really think about what she'd be feeling in that moment, without knowing what I have in store for her.
 

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While reading through, I had a thought that video games might be a good visual example of first vs third, as you have video games where you're looking directly through the eyes of the character, then others where the camera is positioned up and behind them. Both work really well even in the same genre (for example, horror, where you have first person games like SOMA and third person ones like Silent Hill), but give a different experience. It's actually hard to pin down exactly what that difference is - kind of a 'tone', I guess
For me, a big thing with first-person video games is feeling dizzy and disoriented while playing. Maybe it's because I'm old and games were always third person in my misspent youth, but I've never been able to handle first-person play styles for any length of time. The camera moves around too much and I hate having to spin it around constantly to search a room and to see what's too the sides and behind.

Fortunately, this vertigo doesn't extend to reading, though, and I actually tend to prefer first person overall in novels. But it really depends on the story.

I used to hate present tense narratives, but I've become more used to them and have enjoyed a number of books with this approach.

I can't say the same for second person. Yet, at least. I'm not quite sure what the point of second person is narratively speaking. But I have a short story idea I may try in both third and second to see how it affects the overall feel.
 
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Both have their uses. I'm not sure about genre conventions, but as I think about it, I suppose horror does lend itself to first person storytelling a bit more. And fantasy/sci-fi to third person. Mysteries could probably go either way.

Third person can allow you to be a little more neutral, if that's the voice you want. Of course you can do third person close if you want the perceptions, biases, and such of your characters to color the narrative.

First person lets you really do this of course. And my favorite version of first person is the unreliable narrator that has the reader questioning how accurate or truthful the version of events they are reading really are. Having a liar, a madman, or just someone with a vested interest in coloring the truth a certain shade can be fun as you sprinkle in breadcrumbs hinting at the mental state or biases that drive your narrator to tell the story in the manner they do. It also is a great aid for getting inside your character's head, since literally every word is either being spoken by him/her or written.

I can't think of a book I've read that switched from first to third. If anyone has a recommendation, I would be happy to check one out.
 
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