February 14th, 2018

Using Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives

Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton on Writing

Hi folks,

A source of discussion that always comes up at the beginning of my classes is whether the writer should use first- or third-person. The short answer I usually give, is: “Whatever the material calls for.”

Since that doesn’t adequately address the question, I go on to amplify the answer, and that’s what I’ll do here as well.

First, I ask the student who wants to employ first-person why they chose that stance. Almost without exception, they’ll state, “Well, it’s just more intimate. Third person is too formal for the character I want to create for the story.”

That’s when I proceed to knock holes in that theory.

Before I do that, here are a few things I’ve observed. More beginning writers than established writers tend to write in first-person. Far more people who’ve been published are aware that third person is considered the “professional” POV and that first-person is often considered the “amateur” POV.

Now, before everybody starts yelling at me that there are tons of excellent books out there written in first-person, let me assure you I’m well aware of that. If I may, I’d like to refer you back to my short answer: “Whatever the material calls for.” There are often times when the material calls for first person. However… not as often as is sometimes realized.

Let me explain.

The chief reason many agents and editors prefer third person and call it the “professional” POV, is that the overwhelming percentage of successful books and bestsellers are written in third person. This isn’t an accident. There are reasons this is the case.

Actually, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts that arrive in a publisher’s or agent’s office are written in first-person. If that’s so (and it is), then why would more third-person efforts become published? Well, because many more manuscripts are submitted by beginners than by pros. By the time one goes from the beginner’s group to the published group, the numbers in the second group have dramatically diminished. That means the second group is going to be predominantly writing in third person. Fewer people by far in that group, but a much higher percentage of publishable manuscripts. Most in third person…

This simply goes back to my observation above that more beginning writers employ first-person than do seasoned pros. Editors and agents have also noted this fact. Overwhelmingly so do beginners prefer to write in first- rather than third-person.

That means that when a gatekeeper encounters a first-person manuscript, it goes without saying that a little red light goes on (from his/her past experiences) that chances are pretty good this mss came from a… less seasoned writer. And, it’s just a fact of life and the business of writing that the newer the writer, the less likely the mss will be of publishable quality.

Does that mean when your first-person opus lands on an editor’s or agent’s desk it is doomed from the start? Of course not. But, a writer should be aware that there’s a bit of a bias already in place against first-person.

If it’s a book that should have been written in first rather than third, and it’s written well and is of publishable quality, no problem. Any good editor or agent will be able to tell within a couple of pages if it’s written well or not, no matter what POV stance the author has elected.

Why do agents and editors feel this way about first-person? This gets to the heart of the matter. The reason many hold first-person in a negative light is that anyone who’s read many manuscripts knows that a great many first-person novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies, usually espousing some recently-learned political or social philosophy, or, if not that, their imitation of some current (or just-over) line of bestsellers. At present, this includes vampire or zombie opuses, or invincible characters who look suspiciously like Jack Reacher but have different names.

Another reason many choose a first-person narrator is that it seems easier to newer writers. Many (many!) first novels are written with characters saying and thinking things the writer him- or herself thinks in their own minds. Novels that are fiction in name only; primarily many are just vehicles to assign the writer’s own thoughts to in a loosely-degenerative plot.

Those are all secondary reasons why some writers choose first-person. Overwhelmingly, however, the biggest single reason lots of writers choose first is that they feel it’s a more intimate POV. It seems to make sense. After all, if one is writing “I” from their character’s POV, one can’t get much closer to the character, can they?

You saw this coming, didn’t you!

Of course there’s a way to achieve the same intimacy with third person as there is with first. And, it’s easy.

Simply by employing a close third person, not a formal third. A narrative that uses a close third achieves exactly the same intimacy with the reader as a first person does. The good news is that by using a close third person you get all the positives and none of the negatives of first person.

The bad news is… well, there isn’t any bad news. It’s a win-win situation.

And, how does one achieve this magical close third that feels like first person with none of the baggage of first? 

Again, it’s easy. You simply substitute personal pronouns for the character’s name. That’s it. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Let’s take a look. Examples are the best way to prove a point.

I’ll give you a section of narrative in which a formal third is used. Then, I’ll give the same passage in first person. And, finally, I’ll follow that with the same narrative, only this time with personal pronouns in a close third person. I feel confident that as soon as you read them you’ll see and feel the difference.

***

From my short story, “My Idea of a Nice Thing” first published in Breeze and included in my short story collection, “Monday’s Meal.” (The two people are at an A.A. meeting and it’s about a third through the story.)

First, the passage in a formal third person:

            “My idea of a nice thing,” he said, “would be a world where you could get drunk and it wouldn’t harm you, physically, anyway.”

            Raye turned and offered her hand. “My name is Raye.”

            “Hi, Raye. Emory. Like the board.”

            Raye didn’t quite get it and first and then she did and smiled.

            “I liked what you said that time, about sorting yourself out.”

            Again, Raye didn’t get it at first, and then she realized he must have been at the meeting she’d first gotten up and spoken at.

            “Well, yeah,” Raye said, “It’s kind of like that, but boy did I get in trouble saying that!”

            “From Jim, right?” ‘You shouldn’t talk about the joys of drink at a meeting or a place where that’s all the people think about?’ That Jim?” He grinned, and Raye saw he had great teeth, even and white, and what was nice was the way he smiled. Like he was unaware of how great his teeth really were, that he was smiling just because he was happy or had thought of something funny. “There’s been talk of replacing ol’ Jim. He gets his meetings mixed up, thinks this is Parents Without Partners.”

            There must have been something in Raye’s face that made him realize he’d said the wrong thing.

            “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Go get a drink.”

            They use the same pickup lines here that they do in bars, Raye thought.

            “I don’t mean a drink with liquor in it,” he said. “I mean a Coke or something, but in a bar. This place feels like a hospital. It’s depressing.”

            “This is a hospital… Emory,” Raye added his name haltingly, knowing that once she’d said it she was going to leave with him.

That’s a formal third. Now, read the same passage as first person.

            “My idea of a nice thing,” he said, “would be a world where you could get drunk and it wouldn’t harm you, physically, anyway.”

            “Raye,” I said, turning and offering my hand. “My name is Raye.”

            “Hi, Raye. Emory. Like the board.”

            I didn’t quite get it at first and then I did and smiled.

            “I liked what you said that time, about sorting yourself out.”

            Again, I didn’t get it at first, and then I realized he must have been at the meeting I’d first gotten up and spoken at.

            “Well, yeah,” I said, “It’s kind of like that, but boy did I get in trouble saying that!”

            “From Jim, right?” ‘You shouldn’t talk about the joys of drink at a meeting or a place where that’s all the people think about?’ That Jim?” He grinned, and I saw he had great teeth, even and white, and what was nice was the way he smiled. Like he was unaware of how great his teeth really were, that he was smiling just because he was happy or had thought of something funny. “There’s been talk of replacing ol’ Jim. He gets his meetings mixed up, thinks this is Parents Without Partners.”

            There must have been something in my face that made him realize he’d said the wrong thing.

            “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Go get a drink.”

            They use the same pickup lines here that they do in bars, I thought.

            “I don’t mean a drink with liquor in it,” he said. “I mean a Coke or something, but in a bar. This place feels like a hospital. It’s depressing.”

            “This is a hospital… Emory,” I added his name haltingly, knowing that once I’d said it I was going to leave with him.

And, finally, the same passage as a close third. See if you don’t agree it feels exactly like first person.

            “My idea of a nice thing,” he said, “would be a world where you could get drunk and it wouldn’t harm you, physically, anyway.”

            “Raye,” she said, turning and offering her hand. “My name is Raye.”

            “Hi, Raye. Emory. Like the board.”

            She didn’t quite get it and first and then she did and smiled.

            “I liked what you said that time, about sorting yourself out.”

            Again, she didn’t get it at first, and then she realized he must have been at the meeting she’d first gotten up and spoken at.

            “Well, yeah,” she said, “It’s kind of like that, but boy did I get in trouble saying that!”

            “From Jim, right?” ‘You shouldn’t talk about the joys of drink at a meeting or a place where that’s all the people think about?’ That Jim?” He grinned, and she saw he had great teeth, even and white, and what was nice was the way he smiled. Like he was unaware of how great his teeth really were, that he was smiling just because he was happy or had thought of something funny. “There’s been talk of replacing ol’ Jim. He gets his meetings mixed up, thinks this is Parents Without Partners.”

            There must have been something in her face that made him realize he’d said the wrong thing.

            “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Go get a drink.”

            They use the same pickup lines here that they do in bars, she thought.

            “I don’t mean a drink with liquor in it,” he said. “I mean a Coke or something, but in a bar. This place feels like a hospital. It’s depressing.”

            “This is a hospital… Emory,” she added his name haltingly, knowing that once she’d said it she was going to leave with him.

***

See how by simply replacing the POV character’s name with personal pronouns instantly transforms it into a read that feels exactly like first person. The same level of intimacy? Kinda neat, isn’t it!

How do you know when the “material calls for first or third person?”

There’s a handy-dandy litmus test. If you can substitute personal pronouns for all the “I’s” in the narrative and it doesn’t affect the story… then it should be in third. If it does affect the story and in a negative way, then it should be in first. Most of the time I think you’ll find that it works better in third person. A close third person.

Personally, I often write in first person. Mostly for short stories. For novels, occasionally I’ll use first person, but mostly I opt for third. A close third.

Try it yourself. Take a passage written in a formal third (where the POV character’s name is used often) and rewrite it, taking out all the instances where the name is used and substitute personal pronouns for the POV character’s name. (This is once the character’s name is on the page and the reader knows who the “he” or “she” is.) Then, recast it in first person and compare the close third version with the first person version and see if you don’t agree they feel pretty much the same.

Or, take a previously-written passage in first person and substitute personal pronouns for the I’s. If you don’t feel any or very much difference, guess what? It might be a better POV to use.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,
Les

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Les

Les EdgertonLes Edgerton is an ex-con, matriculating at Pendleton Reformatory in the sixties for burglary. He was an outlaw for many years and was involved in shootouts, knifings, robberies, high-speed car chases, drugs, was a pimp, worked for an escort service, starred in porn movies, was a gambler, served four years in the Navy, and had other misadventures. He’s since taken a vow of poverty (became a writer) with 18 books in print, including Finding Your Voice and HOOKED.

Three of his novels have been sold to German publisher, Pulpmaster for the German language rights. His memoir, Adrenaline Junkie is currently being marketed. Work of his has been nominated for or won: the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), Derringer Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Spinetingler Magazine Award for Best Novel (Legends category), and the Violet Crown Book Award, among others.

Les holds a B.A. from I.U. and the MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He was the writer-in-residence for three years at the University of Toledo, for one year at Trine University, and taught writing classes for UCLA, St. Francis University, Phoenix College, Writer’s Digest,  Vermont College, the New York Writer’s Workshop and other places. He currently teaches a private novel-writing class online.

He can be found at www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/.

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34 responses to “Using Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Love close (I call it deep) pov. I did have one character who demanded first, but otherwise, I'm Deep 3rd all the way. Doesn't mean you can't have more than one POV character in the book, but I prefer reading 3rd. (And don't get me started on present tense... ugh.)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I prefer reading third person all the way. It's got to be a super-likeable funny main character to keep me engaged in first person. And I find present tense so distracting. I have a really hard time reading it, although I have seen it used well in some short stories.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Thank you for this clear, well thought out defense of third person, Les. Had a hard time getting past the 'less than' of 1st, but I get what you're saying.

    One more reason to use third (deep third) - I'm writing a 3 book series. The voice that came to me in the first story was first person, so I wrote it that way. The second story should be third - but my editor told me I'd have to stick with 1st the whole 3 books.

    Or, I could rewrite the first in third.

    Um, no thanks.

  3. Mary Bailey says:

    Dear Les,

    I read your article with great interest. You are very good at what you do! I am writing a novel in omniscient 3rd POV. Is that the same as close third person?

    Mary

    • lesedgerton says:

      Mary, don't make it more complicated than it is. A close third person is simply one that uses personal pronouns instead of the character's name. It simply closes the psychic distance and gives it the same feel as first person without the negative baggage. There's a red flag for me in your comment--the "omniscient" third person. An omniscient pov--the "god" pov--has been verboten for about fifty years. As a society, we no longer believe in the omniscient god and therefore literature doesn't believe in it. It's virtually unpublishable. It's why we no longer see references to diety capitalized. I'd urge you to read Janet Burroway's craft book On Writing for an excellent explanation of this. In my opinion, this is the best book on writing ever published. But, I'd really avoid omniscient povs!

  4. Maggie Smith says:

    I have until tomorrow to submit 50 pages for a workshop in April and I've been writing in third person for the first time (my debut novel is in 1st- yup, just like you said above-first time author and all that). Readers have been saying the new story seems too distant. Went through and changed those "names" to the personal pronouns and voila! all the difference. Thanks, Les. Couldn't have come at a better time. I know there's a bit more to it (like observations that this character would make in a particular scene that only she would be attuned to to make it seem more "close") but your quick fix gets me most of the way there,

    • lesedgerton says:

      Happy you saw the differerence, Maggie. Actually, there's no more to it than that. You simply report from the same limited stance either a first-person or third-person character would make. No more, no less.

  5. Though I have to consider myself a beginner, third person is my preference – partly because most of what I personally read is in third, but mostly because I like stories with multiple plot threads. Sharing other character's POVs to advance their threads. I'm sure you'll receive much push-back on first person being a tendency for beginners. Also, I'm not so sure the third-person bias you mention is still so true, given the explosion of first person series we are witnessing. Publishers, I'm sure, are still looking for what is popular.

    • lesedgerton says:

      Hi Jerry--I don't think there's been much change in beginners using first-person--pretty sure it's the same as it's always been. What you may be seeing is the product of lesser publishing as more indies get into the mix. But, quality publishing remains pretty much the same, I believe.

  6. I sincerely wish I could edit my posts here to clean up errors. Oh well.

  7. mesmer7 says:

    I use third person where I need multiple POV characters. First person if I only need one POV character

  8. Hi Les! (I just started reading HOOKED--you can't ignore that many recommendations, but first time I've seen you blog). THANKS for addressing the subject. First as a reader I'm feeling vindicated because I really can't stand READING books in the first-person. Never quite sure why. Maybe 'cause the MC can't say anything positive about herself without being stuck up, or point out her own flaws without sounding falsely self-deprecatory--heck, the minute they start to talk about themselves at all, it's ruined for me.

    So. I think I write a close 3rd in the heart of scenes--with dialogues, interactions. But surely there's more to it than replacing pronouns? I pick a POV and mostly stick with it for the scene, using italics for their thoughts if needed. I spend a little more time getting in their heads. I'm not Hemingway.

    Having said that, Mary had a good question. My "narrator" is at other times more of an omniscient one; I have a definite voice (I'm told, hoping that's a good thing). If I juxtapose two seemingly unrelated sentences for effect, giving the reader a potential "ah-ha" moment, isn't that the work of an omnisicent narrator? Or dropping bits of back-story, world-building--there isn't always a character to attribute those thoughts to.

    I really don't know if I'm conflating omniscient and close 3rds in a way that could be disastrous. It feels natural but the POV-police could give me a ticket if they caught me.

    • lesedgerton says:

      Hi Gabriella, I have to confess I cringe every time I read the words "omniscient pov." I'd really urge you to forget about omniscient povs. They're truly considered archaic and have been for many ages.Nobody's interested in a character that sees everything, knows everything, is everywhere and all-knowing. We have the Bible for that and don't really need another such narrator... one's enough... 🙂

  9. Very interesting. I hadn't know there was a bias against first person. As it is, I write almost always in deep 3rd. Where I struggle with using only pronouns for the pov character is when there are conversations between two males or two females. Sometimes I find I have to use the POV character's name instead of the pronoun for clarity. In your example, if Raye had been male, how would you have handled it? Would you simply have used Emory's name instead of he in every instance, and said "the man" for the first "he' when Ray doesn't know his name? It sounds a bit stilted that way, especially in the long paragraph.

    • lesedgerton says:

      Hi Deborah, There has been a bias against first person for many decades among gatekeepers. It;s not as well-known today as there are far fewer people who've paid their dues by learning the history of publishing and how it works. There are people today who don't realize that self-publishing is just another word for vanity publishing. But, the first--person bias exists. It isn't the kiss of death, but it is a potential bump in the road to publication; As to your question, the sex of the character doesn't matter in the least--it's still written the same way. Why would the sex of the character make any difference?

  10. Libby Sommer says:

    very interesting article. thanks so much for the info Les. shame you have the same typo repeated three times in the examples 🙂

  11. lesedgerton says:

    Sorry I can't reply right now but came down with a severe case of the flu two days ago--as soon as I'm up to it I'll address the issues--thanks for your patience! Blue skies, Les

  12. Jim Crocker says:

    No flu for me, Butch. Sorry you got it. Of course, I rarely leave the house. I'm intrigued with writing in present tense. In fact, I rewrote a piece that was past tense. What do you think about that? At first I thought the change would be difficult, but after a short time, I fell right into it.

    Cheers! And Happy B-Day, again!
    Jim in Mt

    • lesedgerton says:

      Hi Jim,
      About present tense--in general, I abhor it. It always draws attention to itself and largely seems to appear in new writers who are trying to look "original" and different. Mostly, they look like new writers trying to look original. The only more egregious things i see are attempts at second person--ugh! The "past tense" of stories has been used so many millenia, it's actually the "present" tense of fiction. Present tense is simply trying to be too cute by half. It's like thinking first person is more intimate when third person can be just as intimate. When a writer starts trying to be different, usually he/she comes across as mostly due to a bit of an inferiority complex. Just tell a story--that's all that's important. The bells and whistles can only distract. There are only two rules to a good story--be interesting and be clear.

  13. I'd never heard this explained in quite this way before. Thanks!

  14. Fae Rowen says:

    When I use deep POV I can get more emotion into my writing because I'm in my character's head. For me, it's much more than just a change of pronouns; it's sharing the inner thoughts and fears of the character with my readers. Although none of my five books are written in first person, young adult books are generally written (and bought by editors) in first person.

    • lesedgerton says:

      Fae, the term "deep pov" is relatively new to me. If it's the same as a close third, it's been around for several decades and I've been urging and promoting it forever. Funny, I had a new student in our last online class session who kept saying she was focusing on achieving a "deep pov" and I had no idea she was talking about what we've always termed a close third. She seemed to view it as something new but it's been around forever and has made the difference between publication and not getting published often. She was also trying to make it more complicated than it was, I think. I know I learned about it in high school and I'm 75, so it's nothing new. Just maybe not taught that much...

      Thanks for having me on, Jenny. Sorry it took awhile to respond but I was actually near death. Didn't think I was going to make it there for awhile. In closing, let me recommend again the best book on writing ever published---Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. It's the most intelligent, most comprehensive book on quality writing ever written.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Oh no!!! The flu is just vicious this year. I'm so sorry you had a bad case! I was lucky to get Tamiflu early so I was only down a week and my fever didn't top 105. I know many, many people who weren't as lucky.

  15. dholcomb1 says:

    liked the way you explained it..it made a lot of sense

    denise

  16. Quine Atal says:

    Is there a general rule for work that is intentionally autobiographical?

    • lesedgerton says:

      Hi Quine, Yeah, there's a rule--autobiography, by definition is exactly like memoir. It's always cast in first person. It has to be--it it isn't, it isn't autobiography. Not sure what "intentionally" autobiographical means... Is there such a thing as "unintentional autobiography?"

  17. […] Every story has large, overarching elements writers have to deal with. Daeus Lamb gives us theme made easy, and Les Edgerton unpacks using 3rd person vs. 1st person novel narratives. […]

  18. Bryan Fagan says:

    My debut novel is making the rounds of agents. A comedy/romance told in first person. I knew I was facing steep odds the moment I wrote it. I also knew it had to be in the voice of the protagonist. A writer should trust their gut. The idea is the tell the best story they can and if they are good enough the book will find success.

    Good stuff. Thanks!!!!

  19. Pete says:

    My mind is distracted today, so I'll have to read the comparison on a day when I can see the difference - I found it difficult at best. But, I will say my Middle-Grade is about a kid who's suffering and it's hard to write anything other than first-person. And, young readers prefer first, and find third person uninteresting (tweens hardly care whether a person turns on their heel, or the armrest of a couch is torn). Still, I do try (perhaps unintentionally) to include deep third POV within the text.

    I think what also bothers me is the issue of publishers preferring third, because it increases the chance of a best-seller. Always the money issue (perhaps they didn't read A Walk to Remember, and many other best-sellers in first person - perhaps they need to put greed aside for a change (no pun intended)).

  20. […] Using Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives […]

  21. […] Using Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives […]

  22. […] you write in third person or first person? Why? Writers in the Storm has an excellent article on third person vs. first person writing and the considerations that should apply to an author’s choice in the […]


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