First person point of view is the default choice for many novel writing beginners.
Not only is it thought to be the easier viewpoint to handle, it is believed to be somehow warmer and more intimate, too, because you can get as up close and personal to the main character as it’s possible to get.
There is some truth in both of these beliefs. But, as I will demonstrate below, the real picture is a little more complicated.
Anyway, here is the first (supposed) advantage…
Advantage #1: First Person Point of View is Easier
Make no mistake: the issue of how easy or difficult any particular point of view is to use is important. If a viewpoint is difficult to handle, and you make a bodge of it, your novel is a whole lot less likely to get published.
Handling viewpoint badly is one of the surest signs there is of an amateur at work. To stop yourself looking like you don’t know what you are doing, you can either learn how to handle viewpoint like a pro, or you can keep your use of viewpoint as simple as possible (or both).
Learning how to handle viewpoint like a pro comes from a total understanding of how viewpoint works (which is what I’m trying to teach you!) and from practice. But you can make life easier on yourself by keeping your use of viewpoint simple.
How do you do that?
By having as few “working parts” to go wrong as you can get away with. And according to a lot of writing guides, that means…
- Writing your novel from the point of view of a single character throughout (as opposed to different characters narrating different chapters in a multiple viewpoint novel).
- Writing in first person point of view.
Now, I would certainly agree with the advice to stick to a single viewpoint if there is no good reason to do otherwise. (Not that there is anything too difficult about writing a multiple viewpoint novel. But having to switch from one point of view to the next is still another of those “working parts” which can go wrong.)
But the advice about preferring first person point of view to third person, because first person is supposedly much easier, I would take serious issue with…
- For one thing, first person point of view, written well, is not quite as simple to pull off as many people suppose. (And there are technical considerations like how to describe a first person character.)
- Second (and this is the good news) third person point of view needn’t be as tough as some people think.
Let me explain those statements one at a time…
1st Person Point of View Is Not As Simple As People Think
First person point of view is certainly the most natural voice to use in writing, probably because you use it all the time in your everyday life. Whenever you tell somebody about something that happened to you (and you do that every day), you use the “I” of the first person.
To do the same thing in a novel, you simply need to slip into your viewpoint character’s skin, as it were, and away you go.
But telling somebody about something that happened to somebody else in the third person isn’t so natural, particularly when it comes to communicating that third person’s thoughts and feelings.
I believe that it is the naturalness of writing in the first person that accounts for the fact that most first-time novelists choose it. It strikes them as being altogether more straightforward.
But is it?
Well, it all comes down to the question of who is telling the story…
(I’m about to repeat some of the material from the article on Third Person Theory here, but I make no apologies for it. This stuff is important to your future success!)
In a third person novel, you have the narrator (who you can imagine as either an invisible, godlike witness to the events, or as a kind of movie camera), and then you have the viewpoint character.
The godlike narrator can tell the story from on high, as it were, using their neutral and non-opinionated voice, and they can home-in on a scene, and on the viewpoint character in particular, showing us the events through the viewpoint character’s eyes, letting us hear their thoughts, and allowing their neutral voice to become “colored” by the viewpoint character’s voice.
But in a first person novel, the narrator and the viewpoint character are both the same person, meaning you don’t have to make any tricky shifts from one voice to another. That is why first person point of view is often referred to as being the easier viewpoint to handle.
But there are two counter-arguments to this…
The first argument is that, in a third person novel, you don’t need to use a “neutral” narrator at all. You can tell the entire story from behind the character’s eyes. (I call this 3rd Person “Character” Point of View, and I will be looking at it later on in this section.)
The second argument, and one that it is critical to understand, is that a first person narrator is not precisely the same person as a first person viewpoint character…
- A first person narrator is older and wiser than a first person viewpoint character, and is looking back on the events after they have finished.
- The viewpoint character is the narrator’s younger and more naive self, and for them the novel’s climax still lies in the future, meaning they have yet to be changed by the events. The narrator already has been changed.
Now, it is perfectly possible to do what most beginning writers (and even some published writers) do and ignore this subtle but crucial difference. Alternatively, you can decide to handle viewpoint like the professional you intend to be.
Yes, it is a little less straightforward doing it the correct way – but not drastically so. And the upside is that it will raise you above a lot of the other unpublished writers out there – and that can only be a good thing when it comes to getting published.
So that has explained why first person point of view, written well, is not quite as simple to pull off as many people suppose.
Now for an explanation of why…
Third Person Is Not As Difficult As People Think
In a third person narrative, you have the narrator and the viewpoint character. The narrator isn’t a character in the novel – they simply tell the story, sometimes from on high and sometimes through the eyes and mind of the viewpoint character.
When the narrator tells the story from on high, their voice is neutral and non-opinionated. When they slip into the skin of the viewpoint character, their language begins to approximate the character’s own voice.
Now, there are two things to say here…
- First, making these transitions from the neutral narrator’s voice to the more colorful viewpoint character’s voice really isn’t that complicated.
- Second, as I just mentioned above, you can do away with the neutral narrator totally if you want. Sure, it will give your novel extra dimension if you do use a narrator – a kind of sweeping, cinematic feel – but it is perfectly acceptable to keep the “camera” fixed behind the viewpoint character’s eyes for the entire novel, from the first word to the last.
(Like I said above, I call this 3rd person “character” point of view and I will be explaining it in detail later on.)
Bottom Line? How easy or difficult each viewpoint is to handle shouldn’t really come into the equation at all…
- This is partly because viewpoint decisions should be based on more important factors – like which is the right viewpoint for the particular story you want to tell.
- And it is partly because neither viewpoint is any easier or more difficult than the other, at least not when you handle each one properly.
Now for the next (supposed) advantage of 1st person prose…
Advantage #2: First Person Point of View Is More Intimate
When we read a well-written first person novel, it feels like the narrator is sitting right there in the room with us, telling us their story first-hand.
The language tends to be less formal, too, than in third person prose. It is more like the main character is telling us their story orally than writing it down for us to read.
For the classic example of an intimate first person viewpoint novel, just take a look at the opening sentence of The Catcher in the Rye…
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Which of us could fail to be hooked by an opening like that? Talk about intimacy!
If it is total intimacy you are after, and if your character has a voice as quirky and as compelling as Holden Caulfield’s above, there is no doubting that using first person point of view is the best way to achieve it.
But – and you knew there was a “but” coming! – the fact is that third person point of view can be almost as intimate.
There are a lot of myths and half-truths in novel writing. One of the biggest is that you can only achieve intimacy between the reader and the main character in a first person point of view novel. Not that there isn’t some truth in the statement that third person point of view is less intimate. But the question is…
How much less?
As I will demonstrate below, the answer is not very much at all – so long as you do it right.
There is no doubting the intimacy in the 1st person point of view passage I quoted above. Now compare it to the opening of If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler (another of my favorite novels)…
When Ben Joe Hawkes left home he gave his sister Susannah one used guitar, six shelves of National Geographic, a battered microscope, and a foot-high hourglass. All of these things he began to miss as soon as he hit New York.
Less intimate, right? Which isn’t to say that the writing is somehow not as good – far from it, in fact.
It is just that we are being told about the character by someone else (the narrator), not being shown them from the inside – though we will get to do that to an extent, of course, when the action “heats up” and the camera is placed in the viewpoint character’s head.
Like here, from later in the novel…
Ben Joe put his feet up on the seat beside her and leaned back, watching her face. Her skin seemed paper-thin and too white. Every now and then her blue-veined eyelids fluttered a little, not quite opening, and the corner of her mouth twitched. He watched her intently, even though his own eyes were growing heavy with the sleepy rhythm of the train. What was she thinking, back behind the darkness of her eyelids?
This, I think you will agree, is much more intimate, particularly in the last line where we hear his thoughts directly.
If it is total intimacy you are after, like in The Catcher in the Rye, first person pov is definitely the viewpoint for you. But choosing to write in the third person isn’t to turn your back on intimacy altogether.
As the passage immediately above illustrates, it is perfectly possible to achieve almost as much intimacy in third person prose as it is in first person.
Still don’t believe me? Then take a look at another first person extract, this time from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…
I never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. Then we hung up our signal lantern, and judged that we was free and safe once more. I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday; so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage, and greens – there ain’t nothing in the world so good, when it’s cooked right – and whilst I eat my supper we talked, and had a good time. I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
You can’t get much more intimate than that. It really feels as though Huck is sitting right there in the room with you, sitting back in an easy chair and chewing on a grass stalk while he recounts his adventures in his unique and charming way.
But now take a look at this next extract. With apologies to Mark Twain, I have roughly translated it from first person to third person…
Huck never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi. Then they hung up their signal lantern, and judged that they were free and safe once more. He hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday; so Jim got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage, and greens – there wasn’t nothing in the world so good, when it was cooked right – and whilst Huck ate his supper they talked, and had a good time. He was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp. They said there wasn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places seemed so cramped up and smothery, but a raft didn’t. You felt mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
I think you’ll agree that the original is stronger (who am I to compete with Mark Twain?) But be honest now…
- Has translating it from first person point of view to third person caused it to lose all of its intimacy?
- Is the language now devoid of all traces of Huck’s voice?
- Do we no longer feel that we are standing in his shoes?
Not a bit of it! As a matter of fact, it has hardly changed at all. And also remember this…
If you do choose to write your novel in the third person (and thereby lose a tiny bit of that first person intimacy), you will still be able to use plenty of your viewpoint character’s direct, intimate, first person voice every time they open their mouth to speak. It’s called dialogue!