Why I prefer third-person

In spite of my current overall weariness with the first-person trend, I really don’t dislike it at all. I’ve read quite a few books that were absolutely perfect and natural with first-person, and can’t imagine how they would’ve been in third-person. These include Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (one of the most haunting, unforgettable books I’ve ever read), several of Hermann Hesse’s novels, anything by Mark Twain, Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Adventures of Motl, the Cantor’s Son, and of course the classic Catcher in the Rye.

But since first-person has become so common in the last 5-10 years, it really seems to have lost a lot of the zing it used to have. When every other book feels like it’s first-person these days, it makes it harder for a distinctive first-person narrator to stand out. It’s really hard to capture that POV well, and there needs to be a compelling reason why this person is telling the story in the first place.

Some of my reasons for preferring to read and write third-person:

1. It obviously differs by genre, but in the genres I most prefer to read, there are many characters and storylines. You can’t cover all that ground when the story is being filtered through only one person’s POV. Breaking a complex story up into alternating narrators just feels disjointed to me, like watering the story down.

2. It feels easier to create a distinctive voice and personality for each character, even minor ones. You’re not limited to deep character development for only one person.

3. There needs to be some important reason why a story can only be told by a first-person narrator. When in doubt, use third-person. To me, it’s not about needing to feel super-duper close to a narrator and right in his or her head. It’s about the overall feel of the story. A more personal story like Demian or The Painted Bird works in first-person because it’s so focused on the journey of just one person.

4. There are some situations I’d hope that everyone, at least 21st century Westerners, would find morally repugnant, like a 13-year-old having a sexual relationship with a guy in his twenties, a 15-year-old dating a 30-year-old, or incest. But sometimes these situations arise out of very complex circumstances. It’s harder to convey that this kind of relationship is wrong and can’t end well if it’s in first-person. Third-person also gives us more backstory into it than “SQUEEE! I must be soo mature if a college guy wants to sleep with me! We’re soulmates after only two dates!”

5. The misuse of first-person leads to the unreliable narrator, someone who might be lying about everything, someone without enough maturity or distance yet to put any kind of self-reflection on things.

6. If I hate the character or find him/her boring, I don’t want to spend 300+ pages in his or her head. It’s easier to take a flawed character if there’s that distance of third-person. We have a better sense of their motivations and backstory, and don’t just have to take their word for everything.

7. If the stakes are high, I basically know a first-person narrator will survive. In third-person, the suspense is there all the time. Will this soldier survive the war? Will this family escape Vietnam? How many of these characters are going to survive the Shoah?

8. I like to see things beyond just one person. We’re stuck with one person’s experiences and voice for a whole book in first-person.

9. Third-person feels more like reading a story about someone, instead of someone telling me a story.

10. There’s a strong tendency for less-experienced writers to put too much of themselves into a first-person voice. Sometimes it feels more like the writer’s voice and opinions, not those of a fictional character.

11. If a book is set over a long period of time, it’s easier to change someone’s voice in third-person. I don’t want to read essentially the same voice from the 12-year-old in the beginning, the 16-year-old in the middle, and the 25-year-old at the end. A first-person voice needs to mature along with the character.

12. You can use more mature language and thoughts in third-person. Just because a typical 13-year-old might not know a word like gregarious, xenophilic, or pilfer doesn’t mean the narrator can’t use it when describing his or her thoughts or backstory. And if I have to see one more young narrator reflecting with a maturity way beyond his or her years…

13. I just like the objective distance that comes with third-person, and the ability to follow multiple characters and storylines.

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12 comments on “Why I prefer third-person

  1. Number six is a big reason why I’d quit reading. At least with multiple points of view, there’s a better chance of liking at least one of the characters.
    I write in third person because I don’t WANT to be in my character’s head.

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  2. Aloha,

    Well, am I SOOOOOO happy I found this article (by way of Morgan Shamy’s latest post)

    I’m starting WIP#2 on July 1 and it’s going to be a mid-to-late 20th century historical romance…

    But I didn’t know which voice to write with… and your post makes soooo perfect sense.

    I’ve already bookmarked it, it will be honored with the keys to my kids’ Lego city and I feel like a weight has come off my shoulders 🙂

    Cheers, Carrie-Anne

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  3. I usually write first person, but I’m enjoying my third person WIP. There’s a versatility and freedom I have that was lacking in my other manuscripts.

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  4. Dan J. says:

    Variety is the spice of life, and I certainly won’t try to tell you that you or anyone else is wrong to prefer third person. But it seems to me that many of the reasons you list above boil down to some variation of “First person is harder for the author to do well.” I’ll agree that first person is more difficult in some respects, and if the author fails then it makes the book less enjoyable. But I’d also argue that that’s a failure of the author’s skill and not a criticism of the viewpoint itself. To me, what makes or breaks a book is the character. Compelling characters in a mediocre plot can make great reading. Flat characters in a terrific plot make boring books. I like to get as close and intimate to a character as possible, and first person does this much better than third person. I dislike the current fascination with multiple POVs. Yes, there are some stories which demand it. I can’t imagine Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” being told in any other manner. The story is simply too big. But, much as I love ASOIAF, I generally prefer smaller, more intimate stories. I want to forget myself and to become engrossed in the character – to live the story through their perspective. First person, done well, is much superior for that.

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  5. Dan J. says:

    I also disagree with points 5 and 6. Unless it’s done by accident via a poor author, the unreliable narrator is not a “misuse” of first person. It’s an advantage that doesn’t exist in third person. Nor do I have to like the character to enjoy being inside their head. A single counter-example to both points is Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun.” The narrator, Sevarian, is neither likable nor dependable. He is a torturer who lies to us consistently. Rather than detract from the books, they’re a big part of what makes the work an absolutely stunning work of literature.

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  6. […] Why I Prefer Third Person – (I might write in third person after all….) […]

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  7. […] Why I Prefer Third Person – (I might write in third person after all….) […]

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  8. M.G.A. says:

    Sorry, but it’s pretty obvious you have never heard of MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV. Here are my answers to your points.

    1. Use MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    2. Use MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    3. Use… MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV!
    4. Use a different perspective to relay these events (yes, it’s MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV).
    5. First person isn’t always about unreliable narrators. And they’re actually quite fun to read!
    6. The answer is MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    7. Not if you try some MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    8. What’s the problem? Use MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    9. First person isn’t always about listening to some guy telling you his life story.
    10. It happens in third person too. Just don’t read crappy authors.
    11. MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    12. You can’t use such language in FP? No, you can, with MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.
    13. MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON POV.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I actually have a number of posts expressing my strong dislike of the current trend of alternating narrators. Are you just trolling, or did you not grasp the point I was making in that post? Why so hostile towards someone who prefers the tried and true old-fashioned default instead of thinking all books must be first-person to conform to modern trends? Clearly you’re of the modern school and seem not to be familiar with any literature written prior to about 10 years ago, since otherwise you’d be quite well-acquainted with third-person omniscient. Can you honestly picture a sweeping epic like War and Peace, Winds of War, or The Forty Days of Musa Dagh bopping back and forth between multiple narrators, one chapter at a time? It really feels like many writers these days have no clue how to even write third-person, so much so they can only do multiple first-person narrators.

      It was really nice how you paid attention to the line above the comment box, “Share your thoughts respectfully.” Nothing about your comment was respectful of me, my opinion, or the time and effort I took to write this rather old post.

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      • M.G.A. says:

        Alternating narrators is not a “trend” – it’s a natural feature of first person. So posts like “I hate first person because there’s only one POV” look rather strange to me. Another oddity is telling me that I’m not familiar with literature, while in reality my knowledge of this matter is widely praised by every person I meet. Have you ever heard of the Storyteller’s POV? First Person Omniscient? The epistolary genre? A combination of these is great if one chooses to write an epic like War and Peace, but in first person. Third person isn’t the only option. In fact, I find third person a very weak form of writing, and most, if not all, literary fiction writers and readers would agree with me.

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        • Carrie-Anne says:

          Your original comment comes across as supremely rude and dismissive, the likes of a comment I’d expect from some impudent teenager. I just don’t understand why some folks feel the need to comment on a blog post just to thoroughly disagree with an opinion and basically tell the writer s/he’s wrong. I recently blacklisted someone on my other blog for this very reason, her constant rude, dismissive, disrespectful, know-it-all, negative comments.

          I never said I hate first-person, merely that I hate the modern-day trend towards it. It’s hardly a secret first-person is quite popular nowadays, as are alternating narrators/POV characters. This wasn’t something I ever saw growing up, and when it was done, it was done for a carefully-considered reasons, not to mindlessly go along with a trend. I’ve seen numerous comments from people who feel third-person, let alone omniscient, is outdated, impersonal, etc. They don’t even try to write third-person omniscient, but use first-person since it’s all they have examples of.

          I remain baffled as to why you so strongly feel alternating narrators is so much more preferable to third-person omniscient. That kind of storytelling feels extremely disjointed, since we can only see one character’s perspective at a time instead of skillfully weaving in and out among characters as needed.

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  9. M.G.A. says:

    The “reply” button has gone somewhere else, so I’ll post the answer here.
    The kind of narration I prefer is not important. What’s important is the content of your post. It basically claims that “In first person, there can be only one POV”. It’s just so wrong.

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