Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 27, 2011

First Person vs. Third Person

Originally posted July 9, 2007, revised with some updates

First person or third person? Ah, the great debate that begins before a writer types their first "Once upon a time." Thousands of virtual trees have been felled for all of the pages and pages of debates on Internet writing message boards about this very topic. So which should you choose to write that novel??

Only you can answer that. Ha! You probably thought this was going to be easy. Twenty pushups, on your knuckles.

Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts that you might keep in mind as you're both making this decision and then putting it into practice.

First Person

The absolute most important thing to keep in mind as you're crafting a first person narrative is that everything that occurs has to be filtered through your narrator's perspective. Everything the reader sees is therefore infused with the narrator's personality and pathos. Things don't just happen in a first person narrative, they happen through the narrator's perspective.

The really compelling first person narrators are the ones where a unique character is giving you their take on something that is happening, and yet it's clear to the reader that it's not the whole story. You're getting a biased look at the world, which is central to the appeal of the first person narrative.

Think about it like this:
reality (slightly hidden) -> || prism || -> the narrator's perspective and thoughts (what the reader sees)
One of the great tensions in a first person narrative, then, is between what the narrator is saying and what the reader senses is really happening beyond the narrator's perspective. This doesn't necessarily have to mean that the narrator is unreliable, it just means that we're seeing the world through a very unique character's eyes -- and only through that character's eyes.

A protagonist might really convince herself, for instance, that she isn't sad that her mother died, but the reader senses that there's more to the story. Not necessarily unreliable, but it's also not the whole picture.

The other great essential element of a first person narrative is that the narrator has to be compelling and likeable (and redeemable). I may get a lot of grief for the "likeable" part, but hear me out. Nothing will kill a first person narrative quicker than an annoying narrator.

Now, this doesn't mean the narrator has to be a good person, and hopefully the narrator is well-rounded enough to be a complex character. But the narrator has to pass the "stuck in an elevator" test. Would you want to be stuck in a room with this person for six hours? Would you want to listen to this person give a speech for six hours? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider.

Third Person

There are many different ways to craft a third-person narrative, and perhaps the hardest part is deciding how far you want to get inside your characters' heads. Do you want to use that god-like ability to really show the reader every single thought? Or do you want to keep their thoughts slightly hidden?

I tend to believe that the most interesting third person narratives jump into character's heads to show their thought processes but leave some distance between what is happening on the outside and what the characters are thinking. This way, to take the example of a character's mother dying, rather than knowing exactly what the character is thinking, the reader does the work to try and empathize with what the character is feeling in that moment and based upon a character's actions.

Think about it this way. The diagram for first person is reversed for third person:
reality (what the reader sees) -> || prism || -> what the characters are thinking (slightly hidden)
The tension, then, is still between what's really happening and what the reader gets to see, but in this case we're using our reading ability and natural empathy to deduce the character's motivations and feelings based on the god-like narration of what's really happening in the world of the book. In other words, we see the outside world, but the inside is slightly hidden.

One of the very most common mistakes writers make in third person narration is doing too much work for the reader -- using the omniscient perspective to tell the reader what the characters are thinking and how they're reacting, rather than trusting the readers to do that job. Show not tell is the cardinal rule of third person -- show the characters acting upon their emotions rather than telling us how they feel. This keeps up that really fascinating barrier between what we're reading and what we sense is happening behind the prism.

Wrapping It Up

So, to boil all this down:

The tension in first person is between a character's unique perspective and what is actually happening in the outside world.

The tension in third person is between what the reader sees in the outside world and what is actually happening from the characters' perspectives.

Now, there are many more distinctions between first and third person, so that's where you come in -- please add your two cents in the comments section. First person or third person? How should we further distinguish them? What are your tips for both? 

Photo by Spigget via Creative Commons


JP Kurzitza said...

I loooove Pink Floyd!

Ashley Prince said...

I really love both first and third person.

When it comes to reading, I like first person because I like seeing the mistakes the narrator makes in assessing situations. That being said, it also drive me crazy. But in a good way.

When it comes to writing, I prefer to write in third person. I really don't have a reason for why I prefer it. I'm sure subconsciously my favorite books are written this way, so I am trying to mimic them.

Great post!

Liz Fichera said...

Excellent post. Probably the best explanation I've seen.

Anonymous said...

I almost always write in the third person because I like the control it gives me. But the few things I've written in the first person have always been excellent sellers. I've never gone into detailed analysis, but I've often wondered if it meant something about readers preferring first person.

Anonymous said...

Anyone looking for a really good use of first-person should read the Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald. 20+ novels all told in first person, and you get to see exactly what Nathan's talking about: the discrepancy between the character's perspective, and the real world comes through in the way the protagonist filters the world. They're also exciting reads in their own right. Enjoy!

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

I love Brent Hartinger's "Geography Club" and its sequels. Such a witty narrative voice. "Split Screen" is even more fun, because the first part is from Russel's perspective, and the second part is from his best friend Min's (both of them are complete books, over the same time period). It's fun to find out things that are happening when one of the POV characters are not around.

"The Half-Life of Planets" is also a good read, because the story alternates between two perspectives: a girl who's labeled a slut, and a boy who has Asperger's. The voices are so different, but so engaging.

Ah. I love first-person stories when they're executed well.

mooderino said...

While that approach to first person is certainly one approach i don't think it's the most common. Usually first person provides the reader the same perspective as the MC and we learn stuff as he does, tension being generated by whatever makes him tense. So if he gets home to find a note saying his girl's been kidnapped, then we feel his fear for her. If it turns out she was in on the kidnapped and not much of a girlfriendhe'll probably start to suspect something's not quite right at the same time As we do.

The type of 1st person story where the MC doesn't know what's really going on, and the reader does isn't the first that springs to mind with 1st person POV, for me anyway.

Moody Writing

Rina said...

The Elevator Test! Perfect. Need to share this with my critique group tonight. Thanks!

Kelly said...

This is one concept in writing that I just don't get. When I'm doing the writing, I just can't wrap my mind around the differences. Reading them is different. I get it. I just can't seem to bring it to the page naturally.

Rick Daley said...

Great post! I'm going to listen to "Dark Side of the Moon" now.

C.E. Hart said...

Great explanation. I enjoy reading and writing both first and third person.

First can be a little tricky at times. You can't write about what's happening in the next room unless the MC overhears. ;)

Love the elevator test. :)

Lauren B. said...

I tend to be picky about reading first-person. To me, the best first-person narratives are ones where the POV character has not just a perspective, but some kind of agenda. You get the sense there is a reason they are telling this story, and an unseen audience they are telling it to (who may or may not be the reader), as opposed to just the inner dialog of someone narrating a play-by-play version of events, as though they're talking to themselves.

For instance, "The Handmaid's Tale" is a secret diary, an expose. "Catcher in the Rye" and "Lolita" both feel like defenses/confessionals.

Cathy Yardley said...

I totally agree with your point re: people sometimes using third person to give too much detail -- to tell, rather than show. I see that more than anything else in my critique/editing work.

That said, I often see in first person a desire to showcase voice over action, especially if it's a humorous voice. I get lost in so many asides and so much internal commentary, I forget what's going on in the scene!

Shawn Lamb said...

The few first person books I've read, I feel 'robbed' of a good story. There is so much beyond the single POV that I want to know. So now, if I see a story in 1st person, I don't bother.

Michael Offutt said...

First person is an immediate turn-off for me but sometimes the writing is good enough that I can keep going.

lora96 said...

I am sooo much more comfortable writing in first person but, the last novel I drafted, it became clear to me that the narrator was kind of weak and annoying.

I've read too many books that made me want to smack the narrator. I scrapped that one and I'm trying my hand at third person.

Only thing is, I get sick of typing the mc's name. That's a minor gripe but still... :)

Mira said...

Excellent post - totally on point, clear explanation. Completely agree with you about what makes each voice compelling! Also, love how you tend to make equations about this kind of thing. :)

Gorgeous picture.

Hope said...

"The tension in third person is between what the reader sees in the outside world and what is actually happening from the characters' perspectives."
This is the most helpful sentence I've read on 3rd person outside of John Gardner. Thanks,

Sierra McConnell said...

I just can't seem to do first person when I try. It often just stalls. So that's why I do third. I can get into more people's heads and make a much more interesting book with more detail and less telling that way.

First person narrative tends to be more 'it's all about me and how I'm feeling' and less about the world and what's going on around the character. Which is great if you want a YA book that explores a character who's focus is growing up or learning something about themselves. But for a more interesting read on the outside influences to their lives, I tend to like third person. Because there is more to a person than the person themselves.

Misha said...

I think that 1st person vs. 3rd person depends on the story.

If there's a lot going on in a story, I'm using 3rd person for my main WiP because I have multiple perspectives on the unfolding story and I wanted to change story lines as seamlessly as possible. Having to explain which character is doing the talking would make the story too complicated.

On the other hand, my secondary WiP is in first person, because the tension in the story comes from the fact that the main character has to deal with disparities between her memory and what is considered normal. So in her head is the best place to be.


The English Teacher said...

I find I really love first person in YA fiction, as it forces the author to try to think like a teen and decreases the possibilities of the author's falling into didactic mode. That being said, I love Rowling's style, and she, of course, writes in limited 3rd person most of the time.
For adult's books, either 1st or 3rd person can work -- and, occasionally in literary fiction, even 2nd person can work. It depends on the author's skill and style.

Stephsco said...

I wrote a draft of a YA contemporary fantasy in 3rd person. As I researched YA as a genre I had a hard time finding any 3rd person perspectives; almost all YA seems to be in 1st person. I think there's a reason for this, that it can be easier to connect wtih a character initially when told in the character's voice. Maybe that appeals more to younger readers. It's interestign to play around with POV to see what works best. I used to be annoyed with 1st person, but it depends on the character and story.

Miss W said...

I have to agree with Shawn Lamb -

I feel like it's easy to get robbed of interesting story in 1st person. One of my favorite series is written in 1st, but the other characters are constantly having to fill the MC in on what happens when he's not around.

In 3rd, not only can you see what's going on elsewhere, you get it filtered through someone else's worldview. I also like playing with how different characters perceive each other.

On the other hand, I feel like a character's personality just SHINES in 1st person in a way it doesn't in 3rd.

I like both when I read, but I much prefer writing in limited 3rd.

Dave Shepherd said...

If you can name one person who'd enjoy being stuck in an elevator with Holden Caufield, I'll give you a million dollars.*

*Offer only open to those who've seen J.D. Salinger in person

Suze said...

You have to write out of a voice with which you can, at the very least, marginally identify. You can't ask for advice on which tense, point of view or tone you should employ any more than you can ask a personal shopper to tell you who you are.

Well. I suppose you can but then the personal shopper oughta get the byline.

Incidentally, I write first-person, present-tense narrative and feel a deep immediacy to my narrators in that way. But this may not work in the least for the guy in the hat at the next screen.

Do your own thing, writers. Over time-- mastery.

Two cents.

M.P. McDonald said...

I favor third person in both reading and writing, but if the writing is good, I can enjoy a book in 1st person.

For Shawn who commented before me, you might want to try The Help. It's in first person, but the pov person changes between four different characters, if I remember correctly. Each chapter is soley from one person's pov, so it isn't confusing, and it is so well-written, it's never confusing. I didn't think I'd like it at first, but ended up loving it.

Himbokal said...

Great post, Nathan. For myself, my first inclination is always to write in first person so I do. For five pages. That length is usually enough to figure out if I can tell the story that way (and if I am bored to tears of the narrator). If it isn't, I re-write in some variation of 3rd. In rare cases that I haven't become sick of the 1st person, I figure that's the sign, so I stick with it.

I think of it as the five page gymnastics test. If I'm having to do a lot of mental gymnastics to knock out 5 pages, I picked the wrong type of narration.

Anonymous said...

I honestly hate third person. There is an author I really like (but don't love)and will read (but not buy)all of her books. I think the thing that keeps her from being really great is the 3rd person narration. Idk, something about first person really helps me to connect to the MC. I've only read one 3rd person book that really made me empathize with the character.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great description. There's more variety available in third person if only because of the different options. You can get almost as good as first person by using the very close, third person. Jo Rowling used it with the HP books. With only a handful of exceptions, everything the reader sees is through the Harry filter. That includes all his biases.

Hart Johnson said...

I fairly strongly prefer third person close. I only want to see into one head at a time. I like the 3rd person better than first though, because first gives a self importance to a character who needs to tell the story themselves or something... there are books that overcome it really well (a lot of them) but there are also a lot of them that read like diaries and that bugs me. I REALLY don't like omniscient, and I ALSO really don't like objective... I want to know what SOMEBODY is thinking.

D.G. Hudson said...

Really liked this post, Nathan. This is one of those decisions that either falls out naturally due to the type of story, or it causes us much consternation.

I'm not fond of first person, in my writing or reading (especially first person, present tense). Just my perspective, but 1st person seems to be popular in young adult, and I wonder if that's due to the immediate feeling one can get -- like talking to your BFF. This may be a current trend, but still. . .

My preference is for third person, sometimes omniscient, sometimes limited. I do like to know some of the character's thoughts or even all their thoughts, depending on the situation. I enjoy good narrative, sprinkled with lots of

An annoying narrator will turn me off a book before I get very far along in the story. It's a fine balance to get the voice just right for the story being told.

Looking forward to reading all the discussion comments on this subject.

Beverly Diehl said...

I've written in both, and to me, it may sound counterintuitive, but I think the reader can become more intimate with a character written in third person.

When I read something in first person, I'm constantly thinking - wow, I wouldn't do that, say that, think that. When it's third person, I'm more willing to sit back and wait to be shown why that character is doing, saying or thinking something. I trust it will be revealed sooner or later, and am willing to go along for the ride.

Roxanne Skelly said...

I seem to be one of the rare people who prefer first person. I really like to get into the protagonists head, and for the most part, first person gives me that.

I find that often third person leads to too many characters and too many subplots. Just too much to keep track of for the light urban fantasy that I prefer.

Funny, I'm also picky about tense and prefer past tense.

Of course, good writing is good writing, so I'm not that picky.

Sheila Cull said...

Wish I could add some tips, however, you you said about tension in relation to the first person pov, was powerful and something I should've known years ago.

But right now, it's in my secret arsenal of composition notes, that are handwritten even.

Thanks Nathan! said...

"The absolute most important thing to keep in mind as you're crafting a first person narrative is that everything that occurs has to be filtered through your narrator's perspective."

As always there are exceptions that prove the rule. James Patterson outsells everybody with his first person Alex Cross thrillers, yet always manages to show the villains in third person when convenient.

As an author I hate it when he does that. It just screams WRONG!

As a reader I keep going back for more.

Neil Larkins said...

This is a great post, Nathan, just what I needed to hear. I have a third person novel I wrote eight years ago and foolishly published through a POD concern. Now that it's rights are back to me I thought about rewriting it in first person. It's Early Teen and like YA, seems to work well in first person. I've begun, but find that I'm also writing it in present tense, that the MC is relating events as they happen. Not comfortable with this, but don't know exactly how to make it sound as good in past tense. Your thoughts, and anyone else have this problem, if indeed it is one?

Mr. D said...

I agree with Shawn and Michael. Because I never could stand first person. I used to endure it, but lately whenever I open a book and learn it's first person, I put it right back down.

It's just not for me.

I'll give an example. I started reading this novel not long ago. It was in first person and the narrator went on to describe her reaction when she saw a handsome man. She wrote something to the effect of, " pussy twitched..."

Seeing that I've been a man all my life, I felt very uncomfortable suddenly having a pussy. And a twitching one? I didn't even know they could do that!

RobynBradley said...

I enjoy reading both; I enjoy writing both, when executed well (and that disclaimer is aimed at myself as much as it is at anyone else). One way around the issue (mentioned above) with the first-person narrative being too limiting is to offer multiple first-person accounts (e.g. Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper or Chris Bohjalian's Trans-Sister Radio).

brianw said...

I chose to write my first novel, a YA fantasy, in first person for a number of reasons.
1. Its easier for young writers because you don't have to make the decision about which character's perspective you should write from for each scene like you do in 3rd person limited.
2. Its easier to show the reader who your character is.
3. Its way easier to make your main character funny, sad, misunderstood, etc. (although I chose it for the humor aspect mostly)

All that being said, I like 3rd person a lot in adult literature and epic fantasy because the world can feel so much bigger, and the reader can get to know so many more characters.

The most interesting twist on 1st person I've read lately is House Rules by Jodi Piccoult, but I think this should be approached with caution. She is very good, but I feel like I might not know my characters well enough up front to differentiate as well as she did (I'm not a big outliner/planner:).

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, why didn't you reference first person plural, or second person? I know, they're rarely used, but I'd be interested in your take on them - & other variants.

Sherryl said...

Most writers these days (especially in YA fiction) tend to jump into first person as though it's a given. But as you say, an unlikeable narrator can kill a story, especially one of those whiny ones!
Also a large number of writers unfortunately think that present tense goes along with first person, which can get you into all sorts of problems with tedious rhythm and verb constructions. Ugh.
I suspect readers think they want first person because of the world now - reality TV, instant communication, FB etc, but maybe us writers should make a big move back to third person, and show the world as being about more than one character and one problem.
I'm blogging about POV at the moment and it's giving me lots to ponder!

Robert Michael said...

I believe some genres lend themselves better to 1st person POV than others. Also, the reason that I think people enjoy 1st person is that it is easier for a reader to project themeself into that character's shoes. This means the conflict has more punch, twists seem more personal, and overall story becomes truncated, rather than expansive. The biggest tip (no news here) is that the narrator has to be likeable.

In third person, authors love the freedom and versatility. The challenge becomes that too much information can dull your reader to the conflict.

So, I think 1st person POV provides such a narrow viewpoint, it creates a personal, harrowing, tour-de-force experience for the reader. On the other hand, third person POV lends itself to a larger, more complex view of a story, allowing an author more control of the information to which the reader is exposed.

D.L. Orton said...

I went to Amazon and looked at the 25 top-selling novels (with kindle versions). More of them are first person POV (64%) than third person (36%). If you're interested in the details, the numbers are here.

Nancy Coffelt said...

I've found that when writing in the first person that I'M tired of my main character then it's time to reevaluate - or have them devoured by marmots.

Art Rosch said...

The only first person fiction I've written has the narrator dying in the first sentence! It's liberating to write in first person, there's a looseness to it that aids in the flow of words. I choose to write most fiction in third person because the omniscient POV serves the complexity required of my story.

Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

I prefer to write in first person. My protagonist or main characters are usually creations that I strongly identify with and their story's and dialouge consist of things I'm personaly interested in or want to say or address, but not always. It's kinda like acting where I get to play a role and participate rather than just observe and dictate.
It's harder to do, stay in character that way, and I've heard people say things to the contrary when it comes to writing in 1st. But writing in another characters skin that's nothing like you, is hard and you have to constantly watch for tense,tense can get slippery, but it's great fun to walk in those shoes and feel them come to life.

Ron Gould said...

There is also the sense of immediacy that shows through in first person narrative that is often missing in third person.

I feel it depends entirely on the story and which fits the overall "feel" more naturally.

Ron Fritsch said...

There is a another option that one of the commenters mentioned in passing: third person limited. The reader knows first hand only what one character knows, but that character has to be the MC (or protagonist) or someone intimately close to the MC. Third person limited naturally omits the whining and self-obsession many readers dislike in first-person writing. And yet it opens up the story to epic complexity without removing the personal, human take on what it all means.

Mary E. Ulrich said...

Currently, it seems most of the books I am reading are in first person. Thanks for the explanation, but can you give some good examples of 3rd person. The omniscent thing is still confusing to me.

Caleb said...

There is third person omniscient and third person limited. third person omniscient lets you in on every aspect going on from different characters, but as Nathan said, it doesn't mean you tell everything. Third person limited is very similar to first person, because it follows only one character around, but it more limited than 1st person because you are more obligated to show. I am glad that I clicked on this blog tonight. I hadn't looked at it in awhile and I was having withdrawals. This was a very good blog to read to get my fix.

Jeff Fischer said...

As a mater lecture as that was, I say write it like you like it and don't worry about who's person it is coming from. That's for scholars to debate. I say, tell the story you must tell in a way that seems beautiful to you. All this first person and third person is old-hat book selling, giving literature professors a job. No offense to anyone. I say three perspectives weaved into a whole is far more interesting than, say, Salinger. He was interesting enough at the time, but man, now, that is kindergarten (Is that a German word?.) My Nemesis is The Third Policeman and the other works that Irish man has done. I think Two Birds at Swim is another. First or third person? As writers? Is there a difference? For simple readers, there just might be. I don't know. I know this is a throw from way left field, but I can't help but think about it.

marion said...

Neil & others, I don't know why you all think first person must be present tense. Listen to someone telling a story (their trip to the mall yesterday, or whatever.) They use past tense, but sometimes switch to present tense, especially for dialog, or for a dramatic incident. Just do what feels natural.

As a newbie writer, I can't imagine doing anything but first person. It keeps me focused. I don't get bogged down in detail (as I did in history tests.) I don't have to worry about voice, because the voice is the voice of my protagonist, so if I nail that I'm OK.

I prefer reading first person,too--fact or fiction. More immediate. Whatever.

By the way, if any emotional comment creeps into my story, I usually have to take it out. My narrator is not in touch with his feelings. They emerge through the narrative, though.

Jeff Fischer said...

Marion, you're confusing me. If you are writing a first person narrative and leaving the first person perspective out of the book, what are you writing? No offense, but a text book? I don't know if you have realized this yet, as a newbie, as you called it, but everything the narrator, what we are calling first person in this post, is the poetry of the story, the words that are worth reading. So, if you leave them out, and I'm not really sure what you're saying, what are we reading. Possibly omniscient? I would need to read your stuff to know. Nathan is pretty good about that on his forums. Last time I checked, which seems now to be another life time ago. But give it a shot. Most writers actually love and support other writers. I could, of course, be naive, and Nathan is a hand wringing evil troll that has set this whole web site up to steal people's genius ideas. But, I'm going with don't be shy or paranoid and throw it out there and let his fans tell you what they think. And Him, or he. Subject or object. I'm still having trouble with that. Anyway, writ it out.

Karen A. Chase said...

I'm just beginning to write my novel based on my outline, and decided to write it first-person, so your blog could not have been more timely.

As far as a best example of how first-person can let you crawl into the character's perspective, is in the book "Chocolat" upon which the movie was based. It alternates chapters - one is from Vienne, the chocolate-shop owner, then one from the viewpoint of the priest of the same events. Fantastic writing, and it's all about what isn't said, or how the characters think. As the reader, you can see who is good and who is evil, but the characters (especially the priest) are viewing it the other way around.

Marian Pearson Stevens said...

Great distinction between first and third, Nathan! I started my current project in first and didn't realize this is such a sticky subject. But I guess it's like anything else-subjective and about preferences. My protagonist lives a secret double life so it needed to be told from her view. And I've never had so much fun. First was a new beast for me, but I'm happy I went this way. A blast.

R.D. Allen said...

I tend to write in both first and third person, letting the story dictate which perspective works best for it. Overall, my play-by-post role-playing tends to be in third-person and my independent fiction tends to be in first.

I don't usually have trouble unless it's a writing *assignment*, in which case I nearly always have trouble finding the character's true voice. Not sure exactly why that is.

Anonymous said...

Where's tuesdays post?

Nathan Bransford said...


The dog ate it. Sorry!

Tammy said...

Overall, I prefer the 3rd person pov because if I don't have enough in common with the main character in a 1st person pov, I can't empathize with that character and I'm already left out of the storyline from the first pages.

That said, if the 1st person pov is someone I can empathize with, then the story becomes more personal. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen as often. I read for escapism. I like the adventurous, dangerous life of fictional characters probably because I don't live that way thereby making it harder to read from the 1st person. As much as I would love to be Lara Crofts, James Bond or Indiana Jones, I'm not.

This ideology may account for my reduced reading of YA novels in the last 15 years. No, I didn't suddenly become an adult, but I could no longer identify with protagonists in the video age with cell phones, absent parenting, and a mall lifestyle.

I think mass reader identification is the key to whether or not to use 1st or 3rd person pov. Ask yourself, "Who is my audience? Who is going to read this book?"

Random Chick said...

Thank you for this! You just confirmed my decision to keep my novel in the third person.

Celesta said...

I appreciate your analysis of the key differences between the two viewpoints. I am in the process of re-writing my novel from the third person into the first person because two editors at a writing conference suggested it. I have been questioning my decision but proceeded anyway. I see now, given my protagonist's view of the world, why these agents suggested the change. Thank you!

Rachel Neumeier said...

I enjoy both equally when they're well done -- but I think first person is harder to do well, and so far I've always written in the third person myself.

You didn't mention this, Nathan, but first person is harder to handle grammatically -- among other things, verb tense errors creep in; the author should be switching from past tense (to tell the story) to present tense (when the narrator makes a statement about the world or human nature or something else that was not just true in the past, but is still true). Not handling verb tenses properly leads to awkwardness and a kind of micro-confusion about what's true right now vs what used to be true but isn't anymore.

Also, first person introduces the question of the frame story -- who is telling the story to whom and why and how long after the action is over? A poor frame story can make the real story feel awkward, but if there's no frame story, then that lack can feel awkward as well.

One great resource is Orson Scott Card's book on character and viewpoint. He spends quite a bit of time analyzing first versus third person and the problems and advantages of each. It's one of the few books on writing which actually seemed helpful to me.

Jen said...

I think both first and third person have their place. My preference for writing is first person. This is because I'm writing character-based books, and I love reading these types of books in the first person. I feel like I connect with the characters on a deeper level when the books are in first person. But there are many other types of books that third person is really well suited for.

Dave Thome said...

Interesting definitions, Nathan. My question, though, is why everyone suddenly seems to think there is no such thing as third-person omniscient--and never was! Seriously, if you write omniscient, someone's gonna accuse you of "head-hopping," as in, "You can't have what Bob and Julie are thinking in the same scene." If you say, "But, it's in third person omniscient," they'll look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears.

Third-person limited seems to be an odd-duck perspective that caught hold like a rash fairly recently, but no one remembers being healthy.

Nathan Bransford said...


The trick with third person omniscient is to write it so that no one notices the head hopping. That usually means that you don't actually head hop, you're either in the omniscient narrator's head or you're showing more through action than jumping around to various people's thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Love Third Person narrative. Dislike First Person style so much that if all fiction books were written in First Person I would quit reading.

M C Chance said...

Nathan, thanks a bunch for this article. It has put some things in perspective for me and now I know how to move forward. The story I want to write needs more than one perspective, so third is the way to go. I just have to stay behind the 'prism' (smile). Excellent article.

Stacie McKay said...

Thank you, this is great information for the novice writer with no background experience. Being a first time writer is not what it's cut out to be and it's refreshing to know that you are willing to help the little guy out. I myself write a majority of my books in first person but once in awhile you come across a story that just has to be told in more than one person's perspective.

Anonymous said...

My first novel is third person but I'm drawn to first person for my second as it seems so immediate. It gets the reader straight into the mind of the narrator, reliable or not and allows the story to unfold naturally, more organically.

Anonymous said...

First person is the weapon of choice of mediocre writers.

Anonymous said...

First person is the weapon of choice of mediocre writers.

This is an unfortunate point of view, and I hear it often. But it's just wrong.

Not that I'm not a mediocre writer myself, but as a reader I like to think I have good taste in prose and storytelling. And so I pulled down three books just to see from my "favorites" shelf, and all three are written in first person.

Remains of the Day
The Sun Also Rises
The Great Gatsby

Anonymous said...

I am curious if a book can be written in both first and in third person. Can this be done?

Andrea said...

Curious... is it a huge "no no" to the readers to write in both first and third person? Would that be confusing?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, there are books that do that. It can be a little jarring, but if it works it works.

Chad said...

First and third person narratives in one novel usually happen with a flashback or written accounts that a main character might chance upon in the plot. I'm stil thinking about writing in first person, rather than third. But I thought that third was more popular than first, and beginning writers do not attempt much " first."

Ashlee Willis said...

I have seen only one or two books that alternate between first and third person (depending on the character being followed in the chapter). Is this something you recommend? Or is it much trickier to pull off than it appears?

Kelly said...


Thank you for your article. However, I'm still a bit confused. I'm currently taking a writing course through a local college but am finding it difficult to get much feedback from my professor. Would you be willing to read a short story of mine to help me figure out if I've written it in 1st or 3rd person narrative? The assignment was to write a short scene using mainly dialogue. Thank you,


Anonymous said...

I need peoples opinions and Third person - present tense, do you like or dislike it? For some reason my story went this way and I like how it feels, however I want you the reader to like the book more then me. Feed back on this narration please, thanks.

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