Writing a novel: First or third person?

PhD Dissertation

One of the key decisions you make when writing a novel is deciding what perspective, or point of view (POV) it should have. More simply, who do you want to use to tell the story? Who gets to hog the narrative, dominate the dialogue or inner thought and direct the plot?

Traditionally, the choice is between the first-person point of view and the third-person. Both are appealing and have their benefits. If you’re already lost about who or what that means, keep on reading. We’re here to help.

What’s the first-person POV?

The first-person narration is when one person tells the story, frequently using the pronoun I and explaining events from their perspective, e.g. I went to the shop, rather than He/she went to the shop. Usually, it means this character should be physically present in all scenes, but there are ways around this as well.

Famous stories that involve first-person narration include The Hunger Games, Sherlock Holmes, The Great Gatsby, Twilight, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye.

Benefits of using it

The first-person point of view provides an intimacy and immediacy between narrator and reader. The reader has access to this character constantly, along with their thoughts and actions. This often means the reader is more heavily invested emotionally in that character and when that character is in any danger or things aren’t going as well as they should, the reader will feel that tension more than if they appeared more distant such as through a third-person perspective.

First-person can also seem more conversational, as if the character is talking directly to the reader. It is also highly subjective. This can be beneficial, of course, but it often means it’s not wholly objective either. The character themselves has an agenda, desires, goals and emotions and these can inform the narrative.

When to use it

First-person narration is sometimes a default for writers, and quite an easy choice if the writer sees themselves as or in the main character. In the first-person POV, the author can inhabit the character, and perhaps even write about them more freely, but they also pass that onto the reader. The reader is able to walk in the first-person character’s shoes more so than in any other form of storytelling. They may and often develop an affinity with that character if the storytelling is effective.

However, some people feel the first-person POV is becoming overused and there are far too many Is and me-me-me in literature today. It is also used for characters that aren’t that special, or the author may unwittingly believe they are special simply because they’re telling the story. The first-person needs to be amazing, have extraordinary talents, be involved in exceptional circumstances and leap of the page. Language use in first-person can also become a series of Is and so it should be creative and considered in this choice of point of view.

It is also possible to craft multiple first-person narrators in a story, although this requires a bit more writing skill as “head hopping” can make the narrative seem disjointed and jar the readers’ connection with a character. Ernest Hemingway used this notion of head hopping to great effect in The Old Man and the Sea, but he really liked, and was good at, being different.


The famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby, is told from the writer Nick Carraway’s first-person point of view. Carraway gives excellent insights into the life of the enigmatic Gatsby when he moves in next to him. Here’s an excerpt from the poignant final paragraphs regarding the first person:

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.

For those more akin to popular culture and modern literature, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series tells all the stories from Bella Swan’s first-person perspective, from its opening words:

I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

What’s the third-person POV?

In the third-person point of view, the author narrates the story using pronouns like he, she, they and them to describe characters rather than I or me. In the third-person POV, the author is not just another character in the story but plays the role of an unnamed storyteller. If handled really well, you’re hardly aware of them.

Benefits of using it

Third-person narration offers the potential for objectivity, as the storytelling is not tied up in the thoughts, feelings or agenda of just one character. This is particularly important in nonfiction or academic writing. The other benefit of the third-person is the insight readers have into many character’s thoughts, not just one, so they get a more rounded perspective of what is going on. It can also allow for omniscience, meaning insights are provided that are normally only available in first-person. Third-person can also be very creative, using multiple tenses depending on what is going on.

You can read more about the benefits of writing in the third-person here.

When to use it

The two types of third-person narration are the omniscient and limited. Those words basically should give away what they mean.

In third-person omniscient, the narrator is the all-knowing God-like figure telling us what is going on. We have access to a lot, just like a supreme being—different characters’ thoughts, motivations and actions. And we often get information that other characters in the story don’t know either. This sort of storytelling is not possible in the first-person narration.

In third-person limited, we may still have a more distant storytelling style, but the narrator may provide access to some characters over others, particularly the protagonist(s). For example, perhaps the inner monologue of some characters are provided, and not that of others.


There are lots of fantastic examples of the third-person point of view. From classic literature, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice is a great example of the third-person omniscient, particularly the way Austen handles the description of the characters:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

J. K. Rowling also uses the third-person narration in the Harry Potter series.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

So which should you choose?

Aha, the final determining question that we will not answer for you. If you’ve got this far though, you’re on your way to understanding the options and perhaps making a more objective choice. Whatever you do, before you start a story by writing I, just take a moment more to work out if that’s the best storytelling choice for your genre. Good luck.

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