How to Write a Book: First- and Third-Person Points of View

Narrative point of view is one of the major ways in which your readers interact with your story. In this post, let’s talk about the two most common points of view, first- and third-person.

In first-person, a character narrates the story directly to the reader. You could have something like:

“I felt the gun in my back. I thought, man, why’d this kind of thing always happen to me? Why was I the one always getting in trouble with some punk wanted to pop me, huh? I turned around real slow and said, ‘So, you gonna do it or what?’ ”

Some advantages of first-person:

  • It creates immediacy. The reader is right in the moment with the character, experiencing the scene right along with the narrator. It places the reader in the middle of whatever is going on, which is key to building immersion.
  • It feels instinctive. Many writers find first-person more natural than third-person. It’s the way people instinctively tell stories, and this often translates to the page during the writing process.
  • It lets the reader interact directly with the narrator. The reader hears the character’s voice all the way through the story. We can learn A LOT about a character from the way they sound. And from their attitude. How do they see themselves? How about the people and the world around them? First-person narration brings the reader into close contact with the character and his/her sound.
    • Notice that in the example above, our narrator (let’s name him Vinnie) sounds like a mobster. You hear his voice in the narration, because he is directly telling the story to you. Grammar is sacrificed in this instance to portray Vinnie’s rhythms of speech.
    • My favorite example of great first-person narration in the voice of a character is Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. You probably read it in high school, but I recommend revisiting it if you want a refresher. If you want a crime fiction book, try anything by Raymond Chandler.

A disadvantage of first-person:

  • It limits you to one character’s point of view. Unless you want to use a mix of first- and third-person in your work, which I’ve seen done successfully many times.  Usually, though, it is incredibly clunky for a writer using only first-person to switch between narrating characters. The best approach is to stick with one narrator.
    • This does limit you, however, to one character’s perspective on the story. You have to develop the other characters through your narrator’s opinions and descriptions of them.
    • You also can’t give the reader any information that remains unknown to your narrator. You are stuck with their point of view and ONLY their point of view (again, unless you want to mix first- and third-person). For a good example of the POV switch, try Michael Connelly’s The Poet. Scenes about his hero are in first-person, while scenes about his villain are in third.

There are two types of third-person narration that I’ll cover in this post. First, let’s tackle third omniscient. In this case, the writing is done from the perspective of an omniscient narrator and uses he-she form. The narrator knows everything about the characters, including their thoughts.

So, let’s change the above example to third omniscient:

“Vinnie felt the gun in his back. This kind of thing always happened to him. He was always getting in trouble with punks who wanted to pop him. He turned around and said, ‘So, you gonna do it or what?’ ”

The grammar is cleaned up, because we’re no longer hearing Vinnie’s voice. It’s now a distant narrator telling you the story, not the character.

Some advantages of third-omniscient:

  • It lets you switch between characters. You have the option of using different characters’ perspectives, because the narrator knows all. You’re not limited to one character’s point of view. This can be immensely freeing for authors. Especially those with complicated plots.
  • It gives the reader an unbiased view of the characters. In first-person, the reader sees everybody else in the story from the narrator’s biased point of view. But in third omniscient, the all-knowing narrator can be unbiased, giving the reader the facts of the story and letting them make judgments on their own. This can be an interesting tool. A good example of it is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Unless classic Russian literature is your thing, I recommend only reading Part I to see this on display.

Some disadvantages of third-omniscient:

  • The distance sacrifices immediacy. Remember how first-person creates immediacy by placing the reader right into a scene with a character? Well, third omniscient does the opposite. The reader experiences the story through a narrator that is distant from the action. It provides a wider perspective, but that can destroy the immediacy.
  • You lose the character’s voice in the narration. The unbiased narrator often has a straight-forward, classic writer’s voice. Instead of hearing the character’s voice tell the story, as in first-person, the reader hears the plain, untarnished take of the omniscient narrator. It’s another kind of distance, in this case from a character’s sound, personality, and thoughts.

Finally, let’s look at my preferred narrative point of view: close third limited. It’s a combination of the two we’ve already seen.

It uses the he-she form of third omniscient, but the narration is in the characters’ voices.

Let’s change our example one more time to close third limited point of view:

“Vinnie felt the gun in his back. Man, why’d this kind of thing always happen to him? Why was he the one always getting in trouble with some punk wanted to pop him? He turned around real slow and said, ‘So, you gonna do it or what?’ ”

Notice that the character’s voice, complete with grammatical errors and his rhythms of speech, has returned. It’s Vinnie telling the story, but with he-she form instead of I-form.

Why do I like it so much?

  • It has the same immediacy as first-person. While also giving you the freedom to jump around between characters. We could put a scene break after Vinnie’s line of dialogue and switch to the point of view of the guy holding the gun. His voice would, of course, be different from Vinnie’s, but we’d execute the narration the same way. You get the best of first-person and third omniscient all in one.
  • It lets the reader interact with more than one narrator. Just as first-person allows the reader to get close to one narrator, close third limited makes that happen with several characters. You interact with Vinnie’s voice and attitude in one scene, then with the guy holding the gun in the next. And the author has the freedom to do that with any character interesting enough to have a point of view. Again, combining the merits of first-person and third omniscient.
    • For my money, the best close third limited author is Elmore Leonard. If you follow the blog, you know how big a Leonard fan I am. And this is a major reason why. Check out any of his crime novels to see this technique on display.

So, those are some basics on point of view. Is one the best? I like close third limited, but it really depends on what you’re trying to write. First-person or third omniscient might be just what you need.

Hope this post will help you decide. Happy writing!

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