Friday, June 8, 2012

First or Third: Which Viewpoint Should You Use?

When I asked my writer friends for ideas they wanted me to talk about in this blog series on point of view, my Nanowrimo buddy Lissa Clouser raised this question:

"Would love to know people's real opinion on first person point of view, especially in fantasy. It's a hot topic in some circles. Do they like it or not like it? Is the limited point of view more interesting to the reader, or more annoying?"

Choosing between first person and third person is a daunting topic. I tackled it a bit in the first post on this series, From a Certain Point of View. And I'll talk about how I personally choose point of view in a minute. But first, let's address the issue that first vs. third person is a hot topic.

A quick Google search brought up a conversation on the Absolute Write forums about this very issue, particularly in urban fatnasy. And it appears that yes, indeed, making a decision about which point of view you use for your book might make the difference between whether your book is accepted or not. (The conversation is here if you want to check it out...after you finish reading this post, of course!)

In a nutshell, here's what you need to know: At least one agent out there believes the market is too glutted with first person urban fantasies, and was willing to turn down a book because of it. Now, one agent does not equal all agents. But it's a fair point to acknowledge: A lot of urban fantasy, maybe most, is first person. It seems to be expected. But is it effective? Is it likable? Is it more interesting, as Lissa asks?

The answer, to me, is that it depends on the story and the writer. And it especially depends on the voice and personality of the character doing the talking. After all, first person is like listening to someone tell you about their experiences over a cup of coffee. And if you're going to sit there listening for hours, you want to be entertained.

Jim Butcher is the paragon of a writer who does first person fantasy right. His character, Harry Dresden, is super appealing for a number of reasons, including his sense of humor, his self-deprecating speech, his sincere and rather charming lack of insight into how dangerous and intimidating he can be, his heroism, his cleverness, and his overall likability. All of these traits you pick up clearly through his tone and speech as he tells his story first person style. Can you tell I like Harry? Actually, I love him. And it's because I do that I love to read him as he tells story after story, 13 and counting, and I'm not tired of him yet. He can talk to me in first person all he wants to.

But not all first person stories are equally compelling. This may partly be in the eye of the beholder (the reader). Several readers in the Absolute Write forum mentioned that they prefer third person, while others prefer first person. But I think it's also a matter of how the writer writes the story. Some writers are much better at telling a compelling story in third person, and this is perfectly acceptable, even beloved. Amazon's customer discussions board also raises this question, and the people who commented came up with quite a few third person fantasy stories worth taking a look at.

Take Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series. This is young adult urban fantasy, told in limited third person point of view, and it is fantastic. As a reader, I feel just as attached to Clare's characters as I do to Harry Dresden. In this case, third person is probably the most effective point of view to choose because the characters are mostly teenagers. And let's face it, teenagers can be hard to listen to for a long time. They lack the sense of experience and grounding that age brings.

In a sense, they are unreliable narrators because they can't do the high-level critical analysis that an adult brain is capable of. (This is a physiological fact. The brain isn't fully developed until age 25 or so. Read this NPR article on the teenage brain if you don't believe me.) So, perhaps you may need to write your YA UF novel from third person to balance out the fact that your teenaged characters don't see things as adults do. Or on the other hand, you may wish to take advantage of this unreliability, as Rajan Khanna suggests in his column on first person narratives in fantasy.

Ultimately, I think the question of first person vs. third person, especially in fantasy, isn't an either-or proposition. It really depends on your character, and your ability as a writer to make the story work in the point of view you choose. Some stories are going to demand third person, because you want to use multiple viewpoints. I'll talk about that in my next POV post. Other stories will be great in first person, and if you can make your character's voice feel welcome enough for a reader to stick with it for 400 pages, go for it.

Now, to tell you in a nutshell what I do: I generally write in third person limited. I can talk about my approach in a future post, but the bottom line is that if I write in first person, my characters end up sounding like me. You can get a sense of what I sound like from some of my humorous posts, like Cheeze-Its Are Out to Get Me. This never seems to work long-term in long fiction. I don't want all my characters to sound like me. Maybe it wouldn't drive you crazy as a reader, but it's not working for me as a writer right now, so I'm not doing it in my fiction.

By contrast, my flash fiction prizewinner, Strange Vacation, shows what I can do when writing in third person. I like the flavor that third person POV brings to my fiction, and my style seems to come out more appealingly in third person, so that's what I'm doing. It's not so much a choice of what I think an agent will like, or what I think will sell. Rather, my choice of point of view is a result of knowing what I do well as a writer and being true to what works for me. I'd encourage you to take the same approach. Do what works for you, because if it doesn't work for you, there's no way it will work for a reader. If you build your writing well enough, they (the readers) will come.

So, to help answer Lissa's question, what do you think? Do you prefer first person or third person, or do you not care as long as the story is good? Do you ever find first person annoying, and if so, when and why? Have you ever been unable to sell a piece of your writing because of the point of view you used in it? Share your insights in the comments below.

Read part 1, From a Certain Point of View.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. Thanks for a great post on this topic! Looking forward to reading comments. =)

  2. Hello, stranger! *waves* As fate would have it, I just finished the rough draft on a first person ghost story. I usually stay away from it, but thought it called for it. I don't know. When I crack open a book, I want to be transported away. How the author does this is up to them. First person? Third person? They just need to make it happen! ;)
    I hope life is taking good care of you and yours, my friend. Take care.


  3. I'm fine with either first or third person. I've actually seen both done - in the same book - and it turn out spectacularly. Michael Stackpole's "Once a Hero" follows the adventures of Neil in first person as he and his best friend, the Elf, have adventures and fight wars. 500 years later, in the present, another group of characters is picked up, in third person. the chapters trade off from the past to the present until both sets of characters meet up. (I won't spoil it with how -you have to read it!)

  4. Thanks, Lissa! Hope you like the rest of the series.

    Jimmy, hello! *waves back* I agree with you that ultimately, the story dictates the POV you choose. And yeah, if the author makes it work, it's easy for a reader to read anything.

    Derek, looks like you agree with Jimmy. I haven't read Once a Hero. It sounds interesting. I like Stackpole and will have to check it out. You know, I can't think of any books offhand that swap between first and third like that. But there must be others. Hmm...

  5. Ah, yes, my brain is working now. I remember that Steven James is mixing up first and third POVs in his Patrick Bowers thrillers. It works quite well.

  6. Great essay :)I find writing in the third person more natural for myself. But I splurge with both direct and indirect thought, another "taboo".

  7. Thanks, Marianne! I relate to your choice of third person, obviously, since I usually prefer it. Direct and indirect thought, eh? Well, if it works, why not? Taboos can be broken for the right reason.

  8. I have only been writing seriously for about two years, but I find that when I start a story, I automically write in a certain POV. Later when I go back and edit, I consider why I chose that POV. Just as you said, it depends on the story and the character. I feel more comfortable in third person POV.

    Oh, and I am also a HUGE Jim Butcher fan. I knew I liked you!

    Thanks for the great post!


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