First, Second, Third: Points of View and Which is Best.
Updated: May 12, 2020
Point of view is the perspective from which your story is told; the person who is holding the camera, if you will.
The person could be an active participant in your story, present but not active, or not present at all. While there are three main personas, within those three are variations which hold their own advantages and disadvantages.
Today, we’ll be going into each perspective and looking into how to use them effectively, and also what they’re good for.
First person point of view is characterised by the use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in relation to the narrator.
Advantages of writing in first person:
First person allows the reader access to the inner-most thoughts and feelings of the narrator. For this reason, it is great for providing your story with intimacy. Intimacy will help your reader feel whatever emotion it is you’re trying to convey, particularly sadness or, contrastingly, lust. Romance stories are often best equipped to utilise first-person perspective to the best of its ability; from the build-up of sexual tension to the inevitable heart-breaking conflict and following resolution.
Disadvantages of writing in first person:
If you’re not careful, your first-person narrators across different stories could end up sounding like the same person. Writing in first person gives you a great opportunity to characterise your narrator’s narrative voice, and it’s important that you don’t squander it. Read my post on how to do exactly that here.
First-person narrators are limited to their own perspective and opinions. You should ensure you’re not describing things that your narrator can’t realistically see, and also should make sure you aren’t delving into the minds or assuming the emotions or thoughts of other characters. If you want your character to assume another's emotions, justify how they are able to do so through body language. For example, instead of saying “John didn’t believe me,” say, “I could tell by the way his left eyebrow raised that John didn’t believe me.”
It is worth noting that there is a percentage of readers out there that adamantly dislike novels written in first person and won't go near them. Some say they find the voices bland, and other find the intimacy an issue; they feel uncomfortable being so close and personal, and much prefer reading stories written in third limited for that reason. Some publishing houses will reject adult fiction simply because it is written in first person. In fact, first person perspective is arguably the most popular perspective for YA Fiction.
First Person Multiple is when you write from multiple characters’ eyes across your story, usually separated by chapters or scene breaks. This is growing more and more common in today’s novels; especially in the YA Fantasy and Romance genres. And it can be tricky to get right, for the same reason I said above in that your characters’ voices can end up all sounding the same.
However, you do get the benefit of deep insight into more than one character, which can come in handy if their plot lines separate. When those two characters end up in the same scene, you also need to be wary of head-hopping; just because you’ve been inside both of their heads before doesn’t mean you can do so in the same scene.
Keep to one mind at all times, and if you want to switch, do so after a scene break or at the end of a chapter.
Second person point of view centres around the pronoun ‘you.’ This perspective isn’t very common in novel-length works as it can be quite claustrophobic and is widely known as the most difficult point of view to master, as you have to ensure you story doesn't come across as instructional.
Advantages of writing in second person:
Your reader is immediately thrown into the story. They are part of the action, and so your story can be quite thrilling in that sense. Second person, for this reason, works best in genres like Action Adventures and even Amateur Detective Crime Fiction. In fact, as the reader is being forced through the plot and having decisions made for them that they wouldn’t necessarily make, this is why second person works well for choose your own adventure books; it allows the reader the freedom to make their own choices and not feel frustrated that they are being told they are doing something that they didn’t want to do.
Second person grants the reader a huge source of empathy for the main character and emotional investment in their story. Much like first person narratives, the writer can put across the motivations of the main character, so this can actually make second-person good for more emotionally raw stories that explore deep themes, such as the definition of the self, morality, or mental health. You might also find yourself switching to second person in a small section of your novel to address a specific issue that you really want your reader to gain a certain opinion on.
Disadvantages of writing in second person:
It is incredibly difficult to master and has the highest likelihood of frustrating readers for the reason I stated above; you’re forcing them through a story in a way you can’t predict they’d naturally want to do. (Here’s an example: In a horror film, the MC hears a bump in the basement. Would you go down there? No. I’d burn my house down, thanks.) You should avoid giving the main character so much personality that the reader becomes distracted by thoughts of ‘That’s not me!’ but you should also be wary of too little characterisation, as this will lead your story to come across as bland and unmotivated.
As second person can be hard to get one’s head around and are generally less popular, short stories tend to work better than novels. If you have written your novel in second person, you may also have difficulty finding an agent or publisher who believe your story to be marketable, but that doesn't mean it's not possible.
A few second-person stories: Self-Help by Lorrie Moore (1985); The Cave of Time by Edward Packard (1979).
Third person point of view involves the author telling the story from an outside perspective. This point of view is split into two: third person omniscient and third person limited.
Third Person Omniscient
Third person omniscient is when the narrator knows all there is to know about the story and its characters. There is nothing they cannot see, and nowhere characters can hide. Anything the narrator explores will be a choice on the author’s part, so in order to maintain tension and mystery, you will have to hold back on the temptation to explore every aspect of your story.
You can play with dramatic irony with lines such as “He kissed the baby tenderly atop its forehead. What he didn’t know was that the woman that had coughed on him at the checkout was infected; and now so was his niece.” Allowing your reader access to these details can give every subsequent action new meaning. Now, every time that baby is passed around, the reader is thinking ‘There goes another one.’ What about when the baby coughs into the soup on the stove that is then fed to the entire camp?
You can reveal details to your reader about different characters that give them history, as well as move the plot forward. For example, “When Susan was five years old, she fell out of the boat while fishing with her father. Since then, she’d had a phobia of open bodies of water. She wouldn’t tell them this until they were at least a mile from the shore.”
Primarily, third person omniscient allows the reader to clearly see the difference between what are the characters’ opinions, and what is fact.
Focusing across too many characters will make it difficult for your reader to connect with any one character. The more characters you choose to focus on, the less ‘screen time’ each one gets. This can make it harder for your reader to empathise with your characters’ struggles and motivations, which can affect their enjoyment of your book and investment in your story.
Third Person Limited
Third person limited is when the narrator follows only one character; they can only see inside that specific character’s mind and watch the story unfold as the character does. Anything happening away from that character, the narrator will be unaware of.
It is the most comparable to first person of all other perspectives, and contains the same disadvantages, although you are less at risk of having your readers mix up your characters, as you are speaking from the narrator’s voice, not the character’s. Instead, you are effectively keeping your reader at arm’s length during the story, intimate moments can naturally feel less so.
Across any third-person narration, a narrator might occasionally slip into first person to express the internal monologue of a specific character. This helps to bridge some of the gap that third person creates between the reader and the character.
Third Person Limited also grants you the use of Third Person Multiple; this is when you can follow a few specific characters. The rules for this apply exactly the same way as they do for First Person Multiple. Maintain your focus on one character’s perspective until a scene break or the end of a chapter.
So, which point of view should you choose?
The first question you have to answer is ‘What are you most comfortable writing?’ If you write great in first person and not so well in any other perspective, then stick with that. However, if you fancy branching out and trying something new, then read on:
What is your story about? If it’s about the intersecting lives of two people, consider first or third person multiple. If you’re writing about a hard-hitting subject such as mental health, consider venturing into first person or even second person. If you’re writing a thriller, third person omniscient could be a great option if you plan on taking advantage of dramatic irony and delving deep into the facts. If you’re writing a romance, first person will help your reader connect with the relationship you explore.
Use this post to inform yourself of what each point of view can offer you, and make an informed choice.
Write a scene multiple times, and each time switch your point of view. While you’re writing, think about which one comes out more quickly and flows more naturally. And when you’re done, read over the extracts, see which one works best.
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to deciding which point of view you’ll write your story in.
And if you find you’re halfway through your novel and are having second thoughts about your point of view, don’t be afraid to experiment for the next chapter that you write. If it really does come out better, it will be a chore, but go through and do it all again! You’ll thank yourself later.