POV: First Person or Third Person?

One of the questions that frequently comes up when novelists get together and talk writing is which point of view do they prefer to write in—first person or third person.

I’ve written novels and short stories in both first- and third-person past tense, and I’m comfortable in both. Choosing which to use, I think, depends on the structure of the story and the voice you want to use.

Writing in the first person is fun. It allows you to put more of your character’s personality into the narrative itself. The narrator can be sardonic, snarky, goofy—whatever you want. Some writers prefer the first-person narrative because it allows them to sneak a little of themselves into the character. This was certainly the case for me as I wrote my first Peter Brandt mystery Empty Places, which was also the first book I wrote in first person. (Of course, later I had to edit a lot of that out.) First person also allows the writer to pontificate on a subject without it distracting too much from the narrative of the novel. John D. MacDonald was an ace at this with his Travis McGee novels.

On the other hand, the first-person narrative severely restricts your plotting because the reader sees everything through one point of view—your narrator’s. Third person narration allows for multiple viewpoints, and that can lead to more complex plots. My friend, mystery author G. M. Ford, had been writing his successful (and first-person narrative) Leo Waterman PI series for years before he started his Frank Corso series. Ford says he specifically switched to the third person in his Corso books because he wanted to learn how to plot. Before that, he was strictly a panster.

With a new book, it’s sometimes not obvious which narrative device is right. I was half way through my third rewrite on my sci-fi novella Eden when I realized it just wasn’t working. The third person narration just didn’t pop. I set it aside and was on the verge of giving up on it when, weeks later, I heard a voice in my head saying what became the book’s first two sentences: “‘If this is Paradise, how bad could Hell be?’ To this day, Staff Sergeant Estrada’s words still haunt me.” Yet, the first-person narrative presented its own problems, since the book bounces between contemporary times and ancient times. I solved that problem by having the first-person narrator adopt an as-told-to-me third-person narrative when the story switched to ancient times, essentially becoming a story-within-a-story, as Joseph Conrad sometimes did with his character Marlowe.

I’ve never written in the second person simply because I’ve never been fond of that technique. But I remember hearing (or reading) someone describe the difference between the three devices as this: First person is a friend telling you a story; second person is someone ordering you what to do; and third person is like watching a movie. That pretty much sums it up