Updated: Jun 15, 2020
First Person Vs Third Person: how do you know which narrator to use? This is one of the most commonly asked questions in writing circles. But the answer really is very simple: decide whose story it is and then from whose point of view their story will best be told.
Decide: is the story yours, mine, theirs, ours, his or hers?
Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of using a First Person or Third Person point of view will help you decide who should tell your story. Largely, this comes down to how broad or narrow the perspective on the events being told will be a benefit or a handicap.
How it will expand or limit the scope of your story.
The First Person Narrator
A First Person Narrator will offer a reader an intimacy and empathy that a Third Person Narrator can only approximate. Their experience will be up-close and personal, confiding, confessional.
Sometimes, colluding, even.
Think how in some movies a character speaks into the camera, addressing you, their audience, directly, inviting you to acknowledge something the other characters do not and cannot know.
Or in literature, think how J. D. Salinger does this from the very opening of Catcher in the Rye when he introduces his seminal teenage character, Holden Caulfield.
“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.”
Readers will accompany a First Person Narrator on their journeys of discovery, share their highs and lows. They will hold hands with them, listen to them, as though to a best friend. Enjoy their triumphs and glories.
Feel their pain.
A) “I’m so hurt Harry broke up with me. I just can’t stop crying. What should I do?”
B) “Sally couldn’t stop crying after Harry broke up with her and started seeing someone else. She wondered whether she should forgive him or kill him. ”
So, which writing example carries the biggest emotional charge? A) the First Person? Or, B) the Third Person?
Entering the head of the narrator and seeing the world from only a single POV can be a hindrance, too, however. A story told from this viewpoint can only ever be one-sided, subjective, limited to what is in front of their eyes. And the reader, in turn, can only see and know one version of events.
And that creates a burden of truth on its authority.
Otherwise known as the "unreliable narrator."
In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis creates something of a narrative paradox. While the First Person stream-of-consciousness perspective allows us private access to the mind of his “yuppie”, serial killing narrator, Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman, Bateman’s observations are largely concerned with the surface of things, the vulgar, aesthetic vacuity materialist capitalism curses modern societies with.
“Paul Allen has mistaken me for this dickhead Marcus Halberstram. It seems logical because Marcus also works at P&P and in fact does the same exact thing I do and he also has a penchant for Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses. Marcus and I even go to the same barber, although I have a slightly better haircut.”
― Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
But - this distancing, voyeuristic POV is more akin to the Third Person limited category.
An so it is, then, that by the end of the novel, the reader finds themselves questioning the truth of the grotesque and graphic murders his narrator has described himself committing. So much so, they wonder whether they have all along been misled and if Bateman has killed anyone at all, and whether he is just a mentally-ill fantasist.
It’s unlikely this brilliant conceit could have been pulled off so expertly in any other POV than the First.
So, with this in mind, writers should therefore ask themselves:
What is it I want my reader to know or think they know about my primary character and/or secondary characters?
What level of trust do I want a reader to invest in him or her or them?
Will my narrator be likeable, detestable, damaged, a hero or a villain, courageous or craven, alpha or beta, funny, serious, morose, morally ambiguous, etc, etc?
In what way do I want my reader to engage and sympathise with, or think about, my narrator?
And what is the best way to convey that information?
It is, then, in the hands of the writer to control how a reader responds to the thoughts or actions of their narrator. A writer can manipulate a readers’ opinions of their primary character by:
Showing their behaviour in a given situation.
Demonstrating their interactions with others.
Allowing them to listen in on their interior monologues.
Any of which might serve to reveal or conceal, enlighten or fool.
The Third Person Narrator
Though that isn’t to say that this cannot be achieved with a Third Person Narrator. For there are in fact a number of different approaches to this viewpoint. It is up to the individual writer to decide how much or how little their characters will know. How deeply into their thoughts they will probe. And whose thoughts they’ll be privy to: all their characters - such as with multiple viewpoints? Or just those of the main protagonist?
But a writer must be mindful. Writing without any self-imposed constraints on perspective can sound very much like authorial intrusion.
In other words, an idea or opinion expressed might sound as if it belongs to the writer rather than to one of their fictional characters. Which can come across not only as highly subjective on part of the writer, but biased, and a little preachy, besides.
Listen to Jane Austen pontificating in Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
There is a name for this sort of narrator: the Third Person Omniscient.
Or, the all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing, Godlike POV.
The danger of this perspective is an author’s inclination to lead their readers down philosophical corridors and into white rooms where their wise musings on human nature are presented on high pedestals for the benefit of lesser mortals. Showing a reader how clever they are, or think they are, and causing a distraction away from the main narrative, and ultimately slowing the pace.
Thankfully, perhaps, this rather condescending POV has been resigned to the dusty shelves of Victorian libraries and rarely used by modern writers.
These days, writers are more likely to use a Standard Third Person point of view. Either, one that describes only the surface-level narrative arc, avoiding mind-reading its characters’ thoughts and expressing their emotions through their actions, attitudes, exchanges of dialogue, or in the weather of pathetic fallacy - or else it performs all the former and permits us to listen in to one or all of their characters unspoken feelings, considerations, opinions, and judgements.
This latter, however, must be handled with great care. Jumping from one head to another mid-chapter can be jarring enough. Bouncing around inside several minds mid-paragraph, or worse still, mid-sentence, will almost certainly result in causing a sort of schizophrenic confusion for the reader. Inasmuch that they cannot keep track of whose voice is doing all the inner-talking.
The trick to pulling off this multiple POV narrative successfully might be to follow the lead of Naomi Alderman. In her novel The Power, which imagines a world in which women have evolved to become the dominant gender, she dedicates each chapter to a specific character, heading each with the name of the character who will be the 3rd Person Narrator, and who represent a different facet of society, and remains with them and only them throughout.
More often, though, a writer writing in the 3rd Person will set up their primary protagonist from the beginning and stay with him or her or them and their thoughts for the duration of the story, and never deviate. Everything the reader hears or witnesses will be through their mouth, their eyes. This POV is the closest to the 1st Person perspective without resorting to using the “I” lens to show who is telling the story.
Regarding “voice” in this perspective - that is, inventing that difficult-to-find, unique register - there are two primary options:
The author can choose to remain neutral in tone. In this, readers can often recognise a “writer’s voice” from the individualistic construction of sentences on a page, which remains pretty much the same across all their novels written in the 3rd Person. Thriller writers, in particular, such as Dan Brown or Lee Child, present good examples of this. Which can be a pleasing, reassuring comfort to their readers. Though literary writers, too, such as Ian McEwan, have their distinctive personal style that is satisfyingly familiar to their loyal fans.
Affect a voice that is perhaps more localised to a specific time and place, and which imitates a “viewpoint character’s” natural rhythms of speech. Certain skilled American novelists can capture the lexical manners and vernacular of the people of an era and area with exceptional accuracy, without resorting to emulating dialect (as did Scottish writer Irvine Welsh in his expertly crafted book chronicling the lives of drug-addicts in Edinburgh, in Trainspotting). Cormack McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Richard Ford: all write this way with such effortlessness, a reader unwittingly find themselves reading with a mid-western accent or in the voice of a late 19th Century prairie cowboy.
“A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.” ― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.
One of the major pitfalls of writing in the 3rd Person, however, and one for which a writer should remain super vigilant, is saying and doing too much of the work for a reader. But by sticking to the Cardinal Third Person POV Rule: Show, Don’t Tell – showing the reader Sally’s face wet with tears and her eyes mascara-smeared, rather than telling them, passively, “Sally was crying”, and trusting a reader to intuit a character’s emotional state – a writer’s credibility will be maintained.
A Final Word on the First Vs Third Person Question
After everything that’s been said on this matter, spend too long deciding whether you should use a 1st or 3rd Person Narrator for your story (or even the rarely used Second Person Narrator, which we have not covered here), and you will achieve only one thing: procrastination. Often, the answer arrives once the writing journey has begun. A writer may find they reach the end of the first draft before an understanding the story would be better told by someone other than the character they had initially gone with.
Recall how Wuthering Heights is told by neither Cathy nor Heathcliff, but rather by a third-party observer, the housekeeper, Nelly? Perhaps this was a change of mind on Charlotte Bronte's part some way into the writing of this classic.
But this all just part of the larger writing process, of recognition and realisation. One of the lightbulb moments every writer experiences. And really, there are no wrong answers. Only a gut-feeling when something isn’t right.
So, stop fretting and start writing: the answer is out there.
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