Point of View: First vs Third

What things will your narrator throw light on? What will he or she keep in the dark?

Point of view can be such a tricky point to ponder when you start writing a piece of fiction. There are so many options, and the same story told from a different point of view becomes quite different, emphasizing different points, and painting characters in different ways. I thought today I would examine some pros and cons to two points of view that come into conflict most often in writers’ minds: first person and third person limited.

THIRD PERSON LIMITED: I’ll start with third person limited, because that was the point of view I chose for the first novel in my Herezoth trilogy. The main difference here from first person point of view is that the narrator is NOT a character in the story, but follows one character closely (your protagonist). The narrator knows only what your chosen character knows. (Gérard Genette has called this character the “focus” of narration The grad student part of me wants to let you know his “A Narrative of Discourse” is a great narratological study. Check it out for an in depth, academic study of these matters.)

Some things to consider: This point of view creates a greater distance between your character and audience than first person, so if you’re worried about your audience not understanding your MC and his motivation, first person might be a better choice. It will let him present his own case in his own words, thus garnering sympathy/understanding. On the other hand, if you’re seeking a sense of mystery not just about events but about your MC himself, hoping that will hook your reader in, this might be the way to go. It’s easier to hide things about your characters in third person POV.

Remember, this third person narrator should be more or less invisible in the text and not draw attention to himself. This means: hold off on lengthy, flowery, detailed descriptions. If that’s how you write, you might consider first person and adopting a character who would notice such detail and consider it worthy to pass along.

One last point: One option here is to vary your focus character from chapter to chapter or scene to scene, if you wish. This is a great way to create dramatic tension/irony (the situation that exists when the readers know something a character does not.)

FIRST PERSON: First things first: first person is HARD to write well. I have never trusted myself to write a narrative in the first person that was not a memoir. Why is this POV so difficult? Well, you have to know your character inside and out. You have to write as that character. Every word on the page is character development as well as plot advancement or setting description or dialogue. Your character must have a motive to be writing, and that will influence his tone as well as his choice to include or exclude certain things from the narrative. How much the narrative digresses, how much detail is given, how characters who are not the narrator are described: all that depends on the narrator. That’s HUGE. Think about it. The only “truth” is the eyes/mind of your narrator. If she has a grudge against another character, then that character will come off in a negative light as long as the grudge holds, even if it’s technically undeserved. Of course, might you have the innocent character’s words plead his or her case or have your narrator clearly overreact to him, to clue in your audience maybe her judgment is not astute (the whole unreliable narrator dilemma comes into play here.) Just as the narrator’s presence is as invisible as possible in limited third person, the AUTHOR is invisible here.

Just some thoughts: I got the idea from this post from another blog a while ago, and I would love to link to it, but I can’t remember when/where the partner post is. If you know if an article with a similar theme to this, feel free to post about it in the comments, as well as give your own thoughts.

And don’t forget: you can download my YA fantasy “The Crimson League” free today through September 5.

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