Go on any writing forum, whether it be a big one like KBoards or a little Facebook genre writers’ group, and you’ll see the question:
“First or third-person point of view. Which is better?”
I can tell you exactly how the responses play out, too: Someone will state that they flat-out refuse to read anything written in first person (and may admit in a later comment that it can be done well, but usually isn’t). Someone else will say that they really prefer to read stories in first person, but third is okay if we’re deep in one character’s viewpoint. Someone will say either is fine as long as it’s done well. Someone else will insist that omniscient POV is the best, but they’re the only person who knows how to do it right, so back off, NOOBS. Another person will say first person POV is cool and all, but it’s just so damned limiting to be stuck in one character’s head for a whole book.*
And then I jump in and I’m like, “You know you don’t have to stick with one…”
It’s a tough question for a writer, and an important one.
For anyone not familiar with the terminology, POV (or point of view) is how the story is told. First person is an “I” story–a character is telling is what happened to him/her, or what is happening in the case of a present-tense story. Third person is the writer or narrator telling us about the characters and what’s happening to them. He said this, Kelly said that, Marcus gesticulated wildly.
Dammit Marcus, stop being dramatic.
Third person POV might be “deep third”, where we’re anchored in one character’s thoughts and experiences, seeing the world through their eyes, even hearing their thoughts. We can’t see what other characters are thinking, or what’s happening in the next room. At the other end of the spectrum is omniscient third person, in which we can see everyone’s thoughts and know anything that’s going on.
As a reader, I dislike omniscient, or anything that involves jumping from character to character with nothing more than a paragraph break. I’ve seen it done well, it’s just not my preference.
And that right there? That last sentence? That’s how a lot of people feel about first person POV, which is what I chose to use in the Bound trilogy.
I’m not here to defend that choice, as I don’t think it requires defending. I just thought it might be interesting to look at why the heck I’d do a thing like that when some people refuse to buy if the Amazon “Look Inside” pages feature the dreaded “I”.
1) I write the stories I want to read, and I prefer reading first-person POV stories. I love how clearly character voice can come out. Yes, this is possible in very deep third-person POV, but I still feel a sense of distance from the story in that format. That’s not to say I don’t love me some third-person POV books. I do. But there’s something incredible about being right there with the character, hearing their tale straight from their lips and minds, that I’ve yet to find elsewhere.
2) It doesn’t have to be limiting, especially if you use more than one character’s point of view. Bound features what’s called “dual POV.” Torn has three characters. This gives us the opportunity to not only see the world through multiple sets of eyes (and therefore not be trapped in one place), but it changes the way we see our POV characters. The first draft of Bound was almost entirely told from Rowan’s POV. Readers’ view of her changed when we had a chance to see her as Aren did, and his character changed and deepened when I climbed into his head.
3) It’s fun. Writing in first person, and especially in multiple first, brings challenges. Characters have to have different voices as they tell their story, even more in first person than in limited third. They’ll use different words, different idioms if they’re not from the same place. Two characters will look at an autumn forest and see two completely different things. One might be flooded with emotions while another barely registers them. A thief’s daughter from the back alleys of Luid won’t think the same way as a princess, even in sections of text that seem on the surface to be narration.
4) It’s how the story wanted to be told, how it naturally started when I finally got over my stupid nerves and started writing. I tried it in third person, and it didn’t have the same feel. It felt flat and distant, and that was the last thing I wanted. Other stories have worked well as third-person tales in the past, but Rowan most definitely wanted this one told in her own words. Aren was a little more reluctant, but he came around.
I guess the take-away from this is a piece of advice to writers. Wait… I hate giving advice. Okay, it’s a bit of experience that I want to share in case it helps you.
The reason I tried writing Bound in third person that one time was because I heard it would sell better.
Had I chosen to follow that advice, to make my story bend to what someone else wanted, I would have ended up with a book I didn’t like. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have finished writing it.
There are times when it makes sense to take advice, like when it comes from your agent, or an editor who has bought your book (or who you’re paying to make it bleed red).
And there are times when you have to go your own way and write the story that’s in your heart, bring your vision into the world in a way that only you can.
Tell Me: …no, I don’t want to start the “first vs third” debate here, because the truth is that there is no right or wrong answer. What I want to know is this: what’s the strangest perspective, point of view, or method of getting a story across that you’ve encountered. Epistolary storytelling? Strange framing of a story within a story? Second-person *shudder*?
*The other objection people frequently have to first-person narration is that it decreases tension because you know the narrator lived to tell the tale. I would respectfully argue that multiple first-person POV alleviates this, as well… as long as there’s one person left to finish the story, anyone could die. OR BE A GHOST nope that’s a bad idea. Bad Kate.
July 2nd, 2015 at 10:55 am
I always thing present tense is weird, probably because I look at a book and think “this is the story of something that happened” and present tense takes that away, and therefore takes me out of the story. That being said, I know a lot of YA authors use it and (though I consider what I write to be for the gap between YA and adult fiction) I am experimenting with present tense for a short story.
I like your reasons for using first person. I like to write in first person, but I’ll read a story in any POV. Your last point about first person decreasing tension also depends on what a reader is looking for – in some cases they want the suspense of not knowing. In other cases they don’t care. After all, it’s the journey and not the destination, right?
July 2nd, 2015 at 11:20 am
I found present tense off-putting until I read The Hunger Games and found I didn’t even notice it. It really depends on the story for me now, and I find I tend to enjoy it in suspenseful stories set in our present world or or its future. If it’s well-written and absorbing, I can handle most tenses/POVs. I still have a ton of trouble getting into third-person present tense, but I’ve even found a few of those that didn’t bother me. I guess it’s personal taste more than anything, and what we’re used to.
The only problem I currently have with present tense is when the author allows the character to know things they only could have learned later, like one recently that started off with a character knowing what was happening in other rooms of a house when she actually only found all of this out later. It really threw me off when the book turned out to be in present tense, and bugged me the whole way through what was otherwise a great story. I’m trying to be careful about that in my own work, but it’s hard when you’re used to the flexibility of past tense.
Thanks for your comment!
July 4th, 2015 at 9:34 am
Oh, that would bother me too! I think that’s a problem that a lot of first person books have – and not all of them get addressed. I read one that did the “knowing things early” thing really well – because it ended up being a character writing his story after it had all happened. I really enjoyed that and his knowledge of future events worked as a reminiscing over things in his past vibe.
July 5th, 2015 at 10:37 am
Yeah, it’s really only a problem in present-tense first person. It makes sense in past-tense if they know what was happening elsewhere, but it’s impossible with present tense unless they’re psychic. 🙂