Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Should a Writer Use First Person or Third Person?

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

I get asked this question all the time. Which is better, first or third person? Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. They both work, exactly as they’re meant to, but it depends on the situation. The problem is that, all too often, a writer doesn’t really understand what each one entails and, if a mistake is made, it can ruin the whole book. So, before we can answer the question, let’s define them.

First person is where the protagonist in a scene, chapter, or entire book is speaking as they think. Using terms such as “I”, “me”, “us”, “we”, etc., and the story is told ONLY from through that person’s eyes and thoughts and experiences. Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games (the book, NOT the movie), is in first person and we know everything that she wants to tell us, from her memories of her father’s death to how she feels about Gale (although much of that is in her actions, not her thoughts), and how she feels about Peeta. Keep in mind that, when the movie was filmed, the production company was forced to give a point of view to other characters to help everything make sense.

Until the last twenty years or so, first person was not widely used in commercial fiction but lately it’s become much more popular. It does have its limits, though, and needs to play within the “rules” of first person.
  • The reader will know everything the protagonist knows (or, as I said, willing to share).
  • The reader will ONLY know what the protagonist knows or shares.
  • The protagonist can only know what is told to him or her. 
  • The POV character can be more readily understood by the reader.
  • First person viewpoint usually—and most effectively—is used throughout the story. Some folks bounce between first and third but it can easily confuse the reader, probably the worst thing to do.
  • Some readers are adverse to first person and won’t read it no matter how good the story is.

Third person, on the other hand, allows a lot more leeway for the writer to introduce information. The pronouns used are “he/she”, “him/her”, “them/they” and the story can be told by many characters. Think Lord of the Rings. Again, books, not movies. We are distanced from the characters to some point. Also:
  • The reader can learn things from different characters.
  • Point of view can more easily be switched between multiple characters. 

Think of it this way:

Your character is standing on an empty stage with no lights except a single spotlight pointed at her (we’ll call her Laurel). Laurel isn’t able to see anything around her—front, side, or back—unless someone or something is included in that spotlight. She’s holding a mirror in her hands. So, the play starts. The audience can easily see her because she’s in the spot and all we get is what she says, does, or thinks. Another character, Simon, walks up to her and Laurel tilts the mirror so part of the spot shines on him. Now, Laurel can see him and talk to him—which the audience can see and hear—but we can’t know what he thinks because he isn’t holding the mirror. Everything he “is” can only be interpreted through Laurel. 

As long as she holds the mirror, she is the protagonist, whether first or third person. But for third person, the spot can be expanded and Simon can also be the protagonist if Laurel gives him the mirror. 

The point of this is really very simple. The story (at least in this scene) is being told by the person holding the mirror. If the mirror changes hands, whoever holds it becomes the point of view character. 

When we’re writing in first person, we have to remember that we can’t hand the mirror to someone else without a big change in scene or chapter. 

The main limitations of first-person characterization is that the focus on the main character can be hard to maintain throughout a novel-length book. This character can only get information—and therefore, give it to the reader—through one point of view. Third person point of view can be used very effectively to give a more rounded version.

That being said, some of my favorite books are written by masterful authors in first person. I become so engrossed in a single character and how he or she feels, that I often pay no attention to whether it’s first or third person. Which is hard for me because I’m an editor and read a lot of stories every year. I don’t lose myself in a book very often.

So, my suggestion is, if you want to try a first person story, do so! If you find it doesn’t work for you, changing it from first to third takes a little bit of finagling but it can be done effectively.

Do you like first person point of view? Why or why not?

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories and has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at HAMERSE@BELLSOUTH.NET or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM


  1. I was happily writing along in third person, when I started a new story and BAM! It came out in first person. Not only was it first person, it was present tense! But it was how that story wanted to be told. I never subconsciously thought about how I would write it. It just happened. SO I have several books in third person and several in first. What's fun about first is hiding some things from the reader. My favorite critique to get from my CPs is, "Well, I didn't see that coming!"

    1. Good for you! We do deal in both in our heads, so it's not surprising that you slip into one or the other. That's what the editing process is for -- to create continuity. Fun!

  2. I prefer 1st person, unless it's a thriller or epic in which the story is so big that it needs multiple POV. I like first person because it gives you an intimacy that 3rd person can't. 3rd person is more similar to how movies and shows are shot, and I like that 1st person is almost unique to books. It's something visual arts have an extremely difficult time pulling off.

    1. Absolutely! In fact, I think the only way a movie has done it is to put one character behind the camera, so to speak. I'm thinking Cloverfield and the Blair Witch Project. I've never watched BWP but really like Cloverfield and have seen it multiple times. It takes getting used to!
      As I said, 1st person is a great tool -- like a saw -- once you figure out how to keep all your fingers. :)

  3. Great article, Sarah. The explanation of both first and third person was helpful. Some stories need to be in third person to get more detail. Some stories are better in first person for emotional intimacy. I like your idea, "write what works for you."

    1. It's such a wonderful thing that we can create what we want. It may not be a commercial success, but writing from our heart, no matter in what tense or POV, is an amazing and create way to express ourselves.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. I love this subject. My latest novel was written in first person (which I currently prefer). However, i included two flashback scenes that were in third person from POVs other than the narrator. So many wonderful ways to write a story.

  5. Absolutely, Kay! It's just like anything else -- once you know the "rules", you can break them. It's just a matter of learning the ropes first. Good!