Hello, and welcome to Authors Ask, the Renegade Word column where I answer your writing questions! Whether you’re curious about finding inspiration, learning to write, building a career as a writer, or getting published, I’m here to help. If you have a question you’d like to see me answer on the site, just click here.
Today is the second in a series of questions I received from Vishvesh P. In my last column, I suggested a number of writing exercises to help find creative inspiration. This week, I’m tackling Vishvesh’s second question:
How do you decide which perspective to use — first person or third person?
I could give a simple answer: it’s really a matter of your personal preference as a writer. But that would be a pretty short column, and there are some other factors you can take into consideration as you’re plotting your story that might help you decide.
But first, some quick definitions. A first person story is one that is written as if the character is speaking or writing about their experience — the “I,” “me,” and occasionally “we” point of view. This is popular in fiction, but also gets used in memoirs and other types of less formal nonfiction. Third person is when you write about your characters as if narrated by an outside observer — using “he,” “she,” or whatever gender-neutral pronoun you desire. Also worth noting is second person, which would be stories written as if addressed to the reader — these narratives center all around “you.” If you’re still not sure what I mean by this, I recommend reading what Grammar Girl has to say on the topic.
So, how to know which perspective to use? First and foremost, think about the type of story you’re trying to tell. Is first person the norm for your genre? If you’re writing about, say, a hard-boiled detective, first person is the convention for that genre, while epic fantasy tends to be told in the third person. Of course you should never force yourself to write a certain way just because you think it’s “expected,” but if you’re purposely trying to write based on a genre formula, perspective can be part of the equation. It can help set the expected tone for the rest of your tale.
Another thing to consider is the context in which your story is being told. If your hero is recounting an event that happened to them, either through oral storytelling or a written account like a journal or diary, first person makes the most sense. In fact, some writers like Patrick Rothfuss purposely play with perspective at different points of the story — in The Name of The Wind, the parts of the story set in the present are told in third person, from several points of view. When the central character, Kvothe, is telling his life story, those passages are in first person as the other characters listen to his narration.
Also consider how much information you want to give your reader when deciding on the point of view you’ll use. When writing in first person, you really only want to include whatever that the character is actively observing in their environment — and you’ll want to include the character’s thoughts and opinions on everything they experience. In this sense, first person stories are usually a more intimate view into the mind of your character. It’s possible to do the same in a third person story, but it can be more challenging to get it right. This characteristic of first person stories makes it ideal for stories with unreliable narrators — when you want to keep the reader guessing about whether the character is telling them the real story or not.
How many viewpoint characters you have is another potential concern. While it’s completely possible to have each chapter told from the first person perspective of another character (William Faulkner was certainly fond of this approach), this can quickly get confusing and works best when limited to 2-3 major characters max. Also remember that each first person perspective needs to be focused around that character’s unique inner voice. With third person, it’s easier to maintain a consistent narrative style from chapter to chapter without all of your characters sounding more or less the same.
Last, but not least, consider your character’s ultimate fate. With a first person story, particularly one told in past tense, the assumption is that the character must have survived the events of the story long enough to recount them. It’s possible to subvert this assumption by having your character tell a story from beyond the grave, but if you’re going to take that approach, you really need to plan it out ahead of time and have an explanation for what’s happening. Keep in mind that even if you pull this off well, there will be readers who feel cheated and lied to. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s a risk you’re willing to take!
As for second person… Well, there’s a reason I haven’t touched on it in this column so far. Personally, I’m not a fan of it in fiction, and I’ve only experimented with it in a handful of stories. The only time I generally use it is in writing instructional materials. Unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book or heartfelt song lyrics, I’d personally steer clear of it in fiction. However, if you’d like some advice on how to use it well, here are a few resources to help you out:
- Why You Should Try Writing in Second Person
- The Power of You: 5 Stories Written in Second Person
- The Second-Person Point of View: Give Your Story a New Perspective
Just keep in mind that not all editors are open to second person perspective in stories, so if you’re planning to submit your story or novel to a publisher, only target those who are interested in a break with tradition. If this is a perspective you’re interested in exploring, don’t let my lack of enthusiasm hold you back!
I hope this helps with your next story. Tune in next time when I dispense some advice on how to actually finish that novel you’ve been wanting to write.