Last Updated: March 7, 2021
It’s funny how the 3rd person vs. 1st person question gives novel writers such problems.
Chances are, you could write two versions of a novel, one in 3rd person point of view and the other in 1st person, and both would turn out fine. They’d just be different.
Oh, and the beauty of point of view in novel writing is that you can always change your mind.
The great American novelist John Irving (I’m a fan, in case you were wondering) initially wrote Until I Find You in first person. He didn’t change it to third person point of view until a much later draft. And Until I Find You is over 1,000 pages long!
The purpose of this summary article is to help you make up your mind once and for all.
Rather than merely running though the arguments again, I’ll get down off the fence and make a clear recommendation…
Third Person Point of View Is Best!
There, I’ve said it!
Don’t get me wrong – 1st person novels are absolutely fine. (More on that below.)
But if you’re unsure which way to go, the arguments clearly stack up for 3rd person point of view. Almost overwhelmingly so. Here’s why….
3rd Person Is NOT Difficult
One advantage of first person point of view, according to many teachers, is that it’s easier. But that’s simply not so.
True, third person can be more complex. For example, you could…
- Have several characters as viewpoint characters.
- Have a narrator (or storyteller) who describes events from outside the skins of any of the characters.
But you don’t need to do that. Just take a first person novel and change each “I” for the character’s name or a pronoun and you’re pretty much there.
Even if you do go for a complex variety of 3rd person, it’s still not difficult. You’ve just got to take a little time to get to grips with the theory of third person.
1st Person Is More Intimate
Again, this is true up to a point. Believing that readers feel closer to a 1st person hero is one of the main reasons folks choose to use “I.”
But it’s possible to virtually replicate this intimacy in third person prose. Don’t believe me? Pick a favorite 3rd person novel off your shelves and see how “distant” you feel from the hero. The answer is probably not much at all.
Just because you’re not hearing directly from the character, in their own words, doesn’t mean you’re stuck on the outside of that person. A good novelist will allow you to get right under the skin of a 3rd person character. And the language will at least approximate their natural speaking voice, even if the “I” of 1st person is never used.
3rd Person Is More Immediate
What do I mean by immediate? That feeling you get that the story is unfolding right here and right now.
You don’t get that so much with first person. How come? Because a first person character usually tells their story from the future, after the novel’s events are over. (The only exception to that is 1st person present tense, which is a little strange.)
That’s not the case in a third person novel. Even writing in the past tense doesn’t destroy this illusion of the events being rooted in the here and now.
3rd Person Is More Flexible
This one’s a biggie, at least in my humble opinion.
What do I mean by flexible? I mean that third person point of view gives you the greatest freedom as a storyteller.
In a first person novel, the storytelling “camera” is stuck behind the hero’s eyes all the way through. In third person, however, you can move this camera around more. For example, you can…
- Position it behind the eyes of more than one character. (Not at the same time, though!)
- Point it at viewpoint characters from the outside, rather than always looking through their eyes.
- Even point it at something none of the characters could see, like storm clouds rising a hundred miles away.
So Is First Person a Bad Idea?
Absolutely not. Sometimes, writing in first person will be exactly the right choice for a novel. It’s like James N. Frey said…
With whatever viewpoint and voice you choose, you should exploit the possibilities of the viewpoint and voice you have chosen rather than feel constrained by its limitations.
Does your viewpoint character have a compelling voice and a unique way of looking at the world, like Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn? First person point of view is the viewpoint for you.
Or perhaps you really don’t care about all this “moving the camera around” business. You simply want to tell an intimate story through one pair of first person eyes. That’s fine!
Whatever your reasons for choosing first person, just follow your gut if you truly believe it’s the best way to tell your story. So long as you’re aware of the limitations of the voice, and you’re happy to work within those limitations, you’ll be fine.
But if you’re unsure of which viewpoint to use? If you can see your novel working equally well (just differently) in both first and third person? Then my advice would be to go with 3rd person point of view.
While a majority of novels written by beginners use first person, a majority of published novels are written in third person point of view. Go figure!