Friday, January 27, 2012

Persnickety POV: First Person vs. Third Person.

POV is always an interesting subject. For writers, and even some readers, it's a source of great debate. Every person has their own opinions and preferences, myself included. The question then is: Which should YOU choose?
Whichever one you like.

That might seem too straightforward, but really there's no right or wrong answer. Certain genres lend more acceptance to one or the other, but that doesn't mean your story won't sell or readers will ridicule you for stepping outside the box.

So, how do you choose? Let's explore that thought a little further.

Narrative Distance

This is how far from the POV the reader feels from the story. The more distance you put between the protagonist or narrator, the less attached the reader feel from the lead character. Your plot and characters are a couple of things that will help you out when choosing which route to take. You have to ask yourself: Do I want this story to be observed or be experienced? And there's no wrong answer.

Some people don't like first person because they think it takes away from the story itself. I personally favor it, because I'm such a character driven person, and I love being inside their head. I want to experience their journey first, followed by the actual journey. Others don't like third person because it limits how attached the reader will feel to what's happening. If you haven't lived through their angst/joy/triumph first-hand, that takes away from your experience.

Preference plays an important role in choosing between the two. If you feel more at ease and confident writing first person, don't choose third simply because you think it'll sell better with your target genre. A GOOD story will sell itself but only if it's written well. There's no need to force a POV for something as trivial as "the norm" of the genre.

Exploring Narrative Distance

Narrative distance has a few options because, like the term implies, there's distance involved. How much distance is up to you. Here's what I mean.

Far Narrative Distance

Evie sighed and decided to put on the first clean shirt she came to.

This is an example of far narrative distance. By using the word “decided,” the author is telling the reader what the character is doing. We don't see Evie make that choice. Using far distances puts the reader on the observation deck, oftentimes getting information the character doesn't even know from an unknown narrator.  

Medium Narrative Distance

Evie spotted the overflowing clothes hamper and sighed. This shirt will work, she thought.
This sentence falls under a medium narrative distance. We've added the phrase, “she thought,” which allows the reader to get inside Evie's head. The reader sees Evie's actions, but they need to see what she's thinking. Medium distances uses phrases like "she noticed" or "she considered" to remind us that we're still reading a story. We can "see" the action, but the mental stuff has to be there because we aren't fully in the character's head.

Close Narrative Distance
Evie spotted the overflowing clothes hamper and sighed. No time to do laundry.

This example is close narrative distance. The way we see that is because there aren't explanations from the author. The reader "hears" Evie thinking just as she thinks it. Close distances let the reader see, hear, think, everything at the same moment the character does. If something is contrary to what the character thinks, we have to figure it out as they do.

Choosing Which POV to Use
You have to listen to your instincts here and choose the POV you believe work best. If your story is telling you it wants/needs to be in third person, take that into consideration even if it's different than what you're used to. A note of caution, if you choose to write first person, be absolutely certain your character is interesting enough to write about! If you still aren't sure, consider this...

1. Think about the plot.
Do you have a plot that revolves around multiple subplots/events? Are there places where the story would drag if the reader was solely focused on one character? Will there be scenes that don't involve the main character, yet need to be explored? If you choose to write first person, you limit yourself entirely to ONE person's head. The reader misses everything the character misses. While it's becoming more and more popular to go between character POVs per chapter, this doesn't always work well! If you have a plot that revolves around one character pursuing their goal, then your POV is optional.

2. Think about the characters. 

In my book, Haven, I I knew Ashton was the focus of the story. I never considered doing anything but first person because A) I preferred it; B) It made sense because the story revolves around her life and journey. If you have a slew of great characters, each with their own vital role to play in the story, third person may be the better way to go. As most people have read the Twilight series, we all know there were times no one wanted to be in Bella's head. (No snarky comments needed here, guys ;) Meyer made an interesting choice to switch to Jacob's POV in Breaking Dawn. While it was somewhat jarring after three books, it was the better idea. The reader gained valuable info on what the wolf pack was doing and missed out on some tremendously boring pregnancy scenes.

The wrong POV can hurt a story and limit its potential, but as long as the story is good, the POV won't matter. In other words, don't worry about your story not doing well from a POV perspective. People have preferences, and you can't do anything about that. Write your story the best way you know how using the best POV for the job. If you feel like you can only do that in one type, then write everything in that type. If you can handle both, choose what feels best for that particular story.

Which style do you prefer to read or write?

Happy writing!


  1. Choosing a POV is always interesting for me. Some stories I feel more comfortable in first person, and some stories I need to write in third person. For a while I was scared to do first person because I was scared to speak for the character in a sense (especially when my main character was a guy), but I've been able to use my abilities as an actress to really get in their head and write something that sounds authentic. I used to worry about all my first person stories sounding the same, but when I focus on the character they come out vastly different.

    Third person can also be great, and I've used it a number of times. In general, though, I find that writing in first person helps me get more engaged and invested in the story, and the same goes for those who read my work.

  2. Seriously, I might jack the subject for another blogpost. Picking POV really depends on the depth of the characters and the story you want to tell. I think that if there is quite a bit of action that takes place away from the protag, the writer has no choice but to use either 3rd person or omniscient. It's a tough shot to call, that's for sure! Thanks for the wonderful post!

  3. @Tiffany, that's so true about focusing on the characters!

    @Chi, steal away. That's the whole point of the blog. This is all stuff I've learned along the way.