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Writing

First Person vs. Third Person: How to Use Different Points of View

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 22, 2020 • 4 min read

In the broad world of prose fiction writing, you must make a key decision that will affect every aspect of your novel, novella, or short story: What narrative voice will you use? When narrating fiction, authors traditionally choose between first-person point of view and third-person point of view (second-person point of view is less common). While first-person writing offers intimacy and immediacy between narrator and reader, third-person narration offers the potential for both objectivity and omniscience. This effectively makes both forms of narration appealing to both first-time and seasoned writers.

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What Is First-Person Point of View?

In a work written from a first-person POV, a character in the story narrates the action, making frequent use of the pronoun “I.” Examples of first-person narration include Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Stingo in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Note that both these novels feature first-person narrators who also describe scenes where they were not physically present.

4 Benefits of Using First-Person POV in Writing

First-person point of view puts a reader in direct contact with the narrator of the story, lending the narrative a sense of immediacy and intimacy. Here are some other benefits of writing from first-person POV:

  1. A first-person narrative can raise the emotional stakes. Because the narrator is living the action of the story, an empathetic reader can find themselves more invested than they might be with a more detached narrator. Suzanne Collins’ choice to narrate The Hunger Games in first-person voice makes the story all the more gripping as tension rises. The serialized Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle feel all the tenser because they’re narrated by Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson.
  2. First-person POV can be conversational. When Herman Melville begins Moby-Dick with the statement, “Call me Ishmael,” he seems to be initiating a dialogue with the reader. Narrator Holden Caulfield’s dry sarcasm in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger tees up similar conversational intimacy with the reader.
  3. First-person narration involves subjectivity. Harper Lee’s use of first-person narration in To Kill A Mockingbird has a particularly interesting effect because the story’s narrator, Scout, is a child who tells a story largely involving adults. Scout also ages over the course of the story (she starts as a six-year-old and ends as an eight-year-old), and her growth is reflected in her point of view.
  4. A first-person storyteller can be an unreliable narrator. The character who is narrating a story doesn’t necessarily speak with dry objectivity; as a character in the story, they have their own personal stakes and emotional responses, and these inform their narrative voices. William Faulkner intentionally exploited this in As I Lay Dying. Rather than rely on a single character for first-person perspective, Faulkner crafts a story via multiple first-person narrators, none of whom saw events quite the same way. This “head-hopping” concept has been brought to cinema in films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
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What Is Third-Person Point of View?

In third-person point of view, the author is narrating a story about the characters, referring to them by name or using the third-person pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they.” Unlike a first-person narrator, a third-person narrator is not a character within the story they tell.

2 Types of Third-Person POV

Third-person narration is divided into two forms, omniscient and limited.

  1. Third-person omniscient: In this form of narration, the narrator is all-knowing. Characters’ inner monologues can be shared, as can information unknown to any characters in the story. Lots of bestsellers use an omniscient narrator, from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables to George Orwell’s 1984 to the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. The third-person omniscient point of view allows readers to glimpse into a character’s head, hear their inner thoughts, and understand the motivations of myriad different characters—in a way that would not be possible in strictly first-person narration.
  2. Third-person limited: In third-person limited narration, the narrator appears to understand certain characters’ inner lives better than that of others. Sometimes third-person limited point of view can track the thoughts of a protagonist but not of other characters. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole demonstrates this narrative technique. Ernest Hemingway is known for his use of a very direct style of third-person narration, which tends more toward the limited third-person perspective. The short story ”Hills Like White Elephants” is a good example of this third-person narrative with a limited point of view.

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5 Benefits of Using Third-Person POV

Stories told by a third-person narrator enjoy multiple advantages over other forms of narration. These include:

  1. Third-person POV can allow for omniscience. An omniscient point of view that can roll out information in creative ways.
  2. Third-person POV provides insight into multiple characters. The potential to mine any character’s thoughts and inner life.
  3. Third-person POV allows for objectivity. Projecting an objective point of view is particularly important in nonfiction and academic writing, but it can also be useful in storytelling.
  4. Third-person POV can more easily jump around in time. The ability to smoothly transition between past tense, present tense, and future tense is intrinsic in third-person writing.
  5. Third-person POV is compatible with first-person POV. Even if you’re writing from a third-person perspective, you can still inject the first-person narrative when a character is speaking (which may later be contradicted by a different character's perspective).

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