Point of View: All About First and Third, Plus How to Choose
Hi! I’m writing a story and I want to write it in third person, as I’m currently reading one in it and love their third person descriptions. However I’ve heard many people say they prefer first person stories. That matters to me as one day I’d like to be published. I’m really conflicted and wondered if you would help me by telling me why it’s frequently said third person isn’t as good/personal. Thanks so much for reading! I love your blog, it’s so helpful.
It isn’t true that third person isn’t as good as first person–it’s just different. While there are many readers who prefer first person, there are many readers who prefer third person. And many are okay with both. What matters much more is what’s right for your story.
There are three types of third person:
Third Person Objective - the narrator is tied to the protagonist, only able to go where the protagonist goes and relay what the protagonist has observed or experienced. However, the third person objective narrator does not know (and may not comment on) the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist or any other character.
Third Person Limited - the narrator is tied to the protagonist, only able to go where the protagonist goes and relay what the protagonist has observed or experienced. However, the third person limited narrator DOES know (and CAN comment on) the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, but not any other character.
Third Person Omniscient - the narrator is not tied to the protagonist, and is able to go anywhere at any time and relay anything. The third person omniscient narrator knows all and can comment not only on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, but the thoughts and feelings of other characters, too. The third person omniscient narrator can tell the reader things that even the characters don’t know.
There are also three types of first person:
First Person Protagonist - the narrator is the protagonist, so can only know and comment on what they observe, experience, or are told. The first person protagonist can’t know what other characters are thinking or feeling unless they are told, however they can guess or make assumptions.
First Person Observer - the narrator is not the protagonist, but they are typically part of the story. They are only able to know and comment on things that they, themselves, observe, experience or are told. They cannot know what any other character (besides themselves) is thinking or feeling unless they are told. They can guess or make assumptions, though. Although they are often telling someone else’s story that they either witnessed or experienced, they are imbuing the tale with their own observations, experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
First Person Retold - the narrator is not part of the story. They did not experience or observe the events that took place, they simply heard about them from someone who did and are repeating what they heard. They can know as much as their source (or sources) knew or were able to tell them, and can only comment on the thoughts and feelings of characters if that information was made available via the source/sources. They can, however, make guesses or assumptions about character thoughts and feelings, and they can imbue the tale with their own opinions as well as related or unrelated experiences.
How to choose between them
The first thing you should do when choosing a point-of-view is to consider what information you need your reader to know:
Reader needs to know things the protagonist doesn’t. In this case, you probably want to look at third person omniscient, first person observer, or first person retold.
The benefit of third person omniscient is that the narrator doesn’t have to be part of the story or told what happened by someone who was part of the story. They simply know what happened, and what people thought/felt, because they know everything.
The benefit of a first person observer is you get a narrator who experienced what happened, but who has the benefit of learning things the protagonist doesn’t know.
The benefit of first person retold is that, since they’re retelling something that already happened, they have the benefit of hindsight as well as the ability to know information from multiple sources. Plus, they can filter what they’re telling through the lens of their own experiences, thus adding to the story in a way.
Reader knows only what the protagonist knows. In this case, the point of view you choose will depend on what’s more important to your story: your character’s internal world, their external world, or both.
- Internal world is more important - When the protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, internal motivation and goals, hopes, dreams, fears, etc., are important, you may want to go with first person protagonist. This allows your reader to dwell inside the protagonist’s mind, knowing what they know and feeling what they feel, experiencing everything through their eyes. It’s a very intimate point of view which is great for character driven stories.
- External world is more important - When the setting, other characters, action, external motivation and goals, etc. are more important, you may want to go with third person objective. This allows the narrator to focus on what’s happening outside of the protagonist’s mind, without filtering it through the lens of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and emotions can still be shown by the protagonist and other characters through dialogue, but not told or commented on by the narrator. This would be good for an action driven story where it’s less important for the reader to have an intimate connection with the protagonist, and where the characters communicating their own thoughts and feelings through dialogue (or hinting at them through their actions) is enough.
- Both internal and external world are important - When both the protagonist’s internal and external worlds are important, third person limited is a good choice. Third person limited allows the intimacy of knowing what’s inside the protagonist’s heart and mind, while still allowing for a more objective look at the world surrounding them. For example, in first person it can seem unnatural for a character to wax poetic about how the sun is shimmering on the surface of a pond–unless there’s a reason they’re noticing that. Third person limited allows that sort of description without seeming out of place and without sacrificing character intimacy.
If you’re not sure what the demands of your story will be–which may especially be the case if you’re winging your story rather than planning it out first–remember that first drafts are rough drafts, so it’s okay to start out in one point of view and change to a different one in a later draft. In this case, choose whichever point of view you’re comfortable with or which will work best based on what you know going in. Again, you can change it later. :)