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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Best POV ~ First Person or Third?

There's an ongoing debate over using first or third person when writing a novel. I started out writing in third person. When I had trouble starting a new project, I switched to first person and the story took off.

That's when I realized POV isn't a matter of style or voice. The story dictates how it wants to be told.

I love how the "rules" on first/third person are changing. I've seen novels with the protagonist in first person and the other POV characters in third person. What truly matters is a well-written story that's mesmerizing.

The best story is intimate

Deep POV can be as nearly intimate as first person. That's because deep POV means more than simply showing the scene from that character's perspective. It means staying completely true to his/her view of everything. You can't slip and tell something the character can't possibly know.

Nor can you write a scene in a manner untrue to the POV character's personality or backstory.

What does that mean? It means not showing other characters as they truly are, but only as the POV character thinks they are. If your protagonist, we'll call her Nancy, had a run-in with a bully in the 1st grade, and this bully was a brown-eyed blonde named Julie, then Nancy is going to have a natural aversion to any brown-eyed blonde named Julie. Instant conflict, especially if your character Julie is a sweet woman who only wants to be friends.

It also means staying true to only what the POV character's knowledge. Whether you're writing historical or contemporary, resist imparting any information the character wouldn't or couldn't possibly know. In historical writing, that would also mean the words they used.

One of my critique partners used a word I thought was too modern for her character. I looked it up in the etymology dictionary and discovered the word had its origin about 10 years prior to the story. BUT ... did that mean the character would know it? This was 1838. No Internet or Google. However, the character's father was an educator, so I realized she could very well have known the word. I didn't suggest a change.
One of the best books I've ever read for staying true to the character's knowledge is Jessica Dotta's Born of Persuasion.  Written in first person, Dotta stays true to her protagonist's worldview. She never tells the reader anything the protagonist doesn't know, so through much of the novel, the reader isn't always sure who some of the characters really are.

There's mystery attached, simply by resisting the urge to let the reader know what's really happening. It brings your reader totally inside the POV character's head, allowing the reader to experience the novel, not merely read it.

And isn't that the goal? Hey, nobody ever said writing a novel is easy. Being an author ain't for wimps.


  1. Being the bona fide rebel of the group, I totally agree with the story must tell itself and to its own self be true. Dictating how a story must be told, what types of words (adverbs! passive verbs!) must not be used, etcetera, are what can make literature formulaic and/or boring. Lacking authenticity in historicals is a pet peeve of true history buffs from the correct language/words of the day to the types of structures so those features must prove accurate. POV is just another one of those items which brings a story to life in different forms. Good post, Ane.

  2. Thanks, Nicole. When I was a new writer, I adhered to all those "rules" until I learned the basics of good writing. Then I threw the rulebook out. LOL But I continue to learn new things all the time. Those little nuances that make the work more intimate, the characters more real, and the setting come alive. It's an ongoing journey, that's for sure! :)

  3. My current WIP is in first person. It's a challenge but I'm enjoying it. Just sent the first three chapters off to an agent. Here's hoping. :)

    1. Marcia, I've got my fingers, toes, and eyes crossed for you. ;o)

  4. I'm writing 3rd person for my current WIP. My dilemna is knowing which characters get a POV. In a romance, of course, both hero and heroine do. But in other genres, it's not so easy. I suppose that instinct comes with experience, which also helps in creating distinct voices for each character. No small task, especially when writing in 3rd person.

    1. Ron, in other genres, the antagonist could have one, but really it's the characters with the most to lose get one. I'd stick to no more than 3 though. Too many gets difficult to keep their voices different enough, although some people can do it. :) Francine Rivers had 7 or 8 in one of her books.

  5. I so totally agree that the story should dictate whether it is told in first or third person. Sometimes we get so hung up on style constraints or issues, we forget that it all starts with story. I've enjoyed some recent books that have the protagonist portrayed in first person and the rest of the cast in third, but I don't think I would like to see that in all the books I read. Again, it depends on the story.


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