First Person Perspective or Third?

There is no right or wrong answer to this. Both options have pros and cons, and it is down to the writer to pick the one they think will work best. Sometimes we get it wrong. I wrote fifteen thousand words of Happily Ever After before I changed my mind and decided to switch from third to first. I then spent months correcting all the incorrect pronouns. Every time I thought I’d got them all, someone would point out another.

So why did I decide to swap? What made first person a better choice than third? As I said, there is no correct answer, and your view may vary, but here are my thoughts on the options.

First person:

In my opinion, this works best when combined with the present tense. It gives the reader the impression of sitting on the character’s shoulder and watching things as they unfold. It also means that, because the story is taking place in the here and now, that there is a believeable risk that the narrator won’t make it out the story alive, which can be useful for horror and other tense stories.

First person works well for stories about a person. You’re putting the reader directly in the main character’s head, so they’re going to get to know them intimately. That means that you need a character with a strong, interesting voice. They have to be able to carry the story by themselves, and tell it in a manner that not only gets across all the details the reader needs, but also in a believeable manner.

First person also works best when the story unfolds around the main character. The reader learns things at the same rate as the character, so is able to tap directly into the character’s fear, confusion, shock etc as they experience it.It means you do need a plot where the majority of things happen to the main character and they aren’t taken out of action too much. If they just hear about things, rather than experiencing them, it has less impact.

You can have multiple narrators, but you need to make sure they have very distinctive voices. A name at the start of a chapter is not good enough, because if they sound too similar, the reader will simply forget a page or so in who they are reading about.There should also be a reason for switching narrators. Just using it to provide a piece of information will almost certainly feel clumsy.

Third person:

Third person is harder to do badly in my experience. Narrating from outside the character means you don’t need to worry so much about a distinct voice, just a narrating style.Characters can be good protagonists but poor narrators and third person lets you deal with this. This isn’t to say your characters don’t need strong voices themselves, just that the voice is confined to their actions and dialogue, rather than colouring the whole story.

Third gives you the chance to show things to the readers that the characters are not aware of. Or to step away from the main character if they’re not going to be the focus of the plot and keep the attention up by following other characters. If your plot is spread around different locations and characters, third person is much easier to manage. And revealing things to the reader can create great tension when they know the characters are about to be set up, while those in the story are blissfully unaware.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of what you feel comfortable with and what works best for the story you have planned. You can even mix and match, with the majority of story first person interspered with sections of third person for example. Let me know: Do you have a preference or do you change with each story?


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