As a writer, something I’ve always put a lot of thought into, and struggled with, to be honest, the use of 3rd-person narrative versus 1st-person narrative. I really feel that both are incredibly valid ways to tell a story, and each comes with its own pros and cons. As a reader, I enjoy both for different reasons as well and often get in moods where only one type of storytelling and narrative will satisfy me. I don’t seem to be the only one who feels this way, either.

In preparation for this article I decided to go out and get an objective look at the subject, so I looked towards two of my favourite forums (Westeros and the Official Terry Brooks Forum) for some opinions. The subject prompted a lot of good, intelligent debate on the forums and I was pleasently surprised by what I found.

Despite gravitating towards writing with a 1st-person narrative in many of the stories (both long and short-fiction) that I write, I didn’t immediately click with the style. In fact, for many years I couldn’t stand it; some of the members on the Westeros forums had/have a similar reticence.

I used to have an extreme dislike for 1st person. I’ve refused to buy many books because of it. I’ve Thrown out a few that I bought without realizing they were 1st person. There wasn’t any reason for it though. I hadn’t even read any books using it.

Recently, I sucked it up and read some of the Dresden Files books and The Name of the Wind. It turns out that 1st person doesn’t bother me so much as I thought. | Muttering Bill

Similar to Muttering Bill I had a watershed moment with 1st-person narrative a few years ago when I read a particular novel: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. I’m not sure what initially prompted me to pick up Hobb’s novel, all of my past reading experiences told me I wouldn’t like it. But I did pick it up and I fell in love.

I’m a huge fan of first person myself, probably because my first fantasy novels, Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, were written in first person. I like being inside the mind of the protagonist and perceiving things only if and when he does.

I think it’s a more difficult writing form, because the author can’t just rely on the omniscient viewpoint when he needs it. | Roland of Gilead

I think the major thing is that first person will always give you a limited viewpoint, and is an easy portal into the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings, and will often make for a more humorous book, or a book that gives more insight into the character.

The book that comes to mind is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which would have been unpublishable in a third person perspective, purely because of all of the depth within Holden Caulfield that would be lost, ruining the story. | ardrhys11892

Both Roland of Gilead and ardrhys11892 touch on the aspect of 1st-person narrative that I feel is so effective, mainly the ability it gives the author to really get into the head and heart of the narrator. 1st-person narrative really allows a reader to connect to a single character in the novel in a way that is generally limited when using 3rd-person narrative.

Another powerful aspect of 1st-person narrative is the ‘unreliable narrator’. Essentially, this allows the author to convey the world and the plot of the novel only as the narrator sees it.

In literature and film, an unreliable narrator (a term coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction[1]) is a literary device in which the credibility of the narrator is seriously compromised. This unreliability can be due to psychological instability, a powerful bias, a lack of knowledge, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable. | Wikipedia

1st-person is hard to do well. It opens up far more opportunities for effects like an unreliable narrator, but this is counter-balanced by the problem of more limited scope, and by the fact that if the reader gets turned off by the narrating character, it’s all over. | Roose Bolton

An unreliable narrator is a hugely effective tool if used correctly and writing from a 1st-person narrative is a big step towards this. But, Roose Bolton is right about the fact that a 1st-person narrative hinges on the ability of the reader to become attached to the narrator. If the narrator is boring/bland/unlikeable/etc… then a reader is much less likely to give them (or the novel) the time of day. An unreliable narrator may be, well, unreliable but he or she still needs to be believable and trustworthy if the reader is to buy into the story being laid out by the author.

Contrary to what Roose Bolton said about the difficulty of effectively writing 1st-person narrative, not everyone who responded had a positive respect for the style.

I was taught that first person writing is lazy and subpar. | thebadlady

Unfortunately this wasn’t expanded upon, but thebadlady wasn’t the only one who was averse to 1st-person narrative. In fact, many people seem to prefer 3rd-person narrative. The general opinion seemed to be that 3rd-person narrative lent itself to world building and stories of larger scope. So, it’s hardly surprising the fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy (genre’s that make their name on vast, epic stories) should gravitate towards 3rd-person narrative.

I think first person helps for pyschological [sic] exploration. A lot of, for instance, Lovecraft’s stories were in 1st person and stronger for it. The trade-off is that you lose out on the general perspective. An other way that has fallen out of fashion that seeks to achieve this limited, more psychlogical [sic] perspective are epistolary novels (Dracula, Dangerous Liasons). There are good fantasy books written in 1st person, like the Vlad Taltos series.

As others said, 3rd person is better for grand sweeping events, for intricate plots, and for developing more than a handful of characters.

It’s a rough comparison, but I think 1st person in general is better for characterization, 3rd person is better for plot. | Lothor Apple Eater

Can anyone imagine George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire if it were written in through the eyes of a single character? It just wouldn’t work. How about The Lord of the Rings through just Frodo’s eyes? Not quite.

3rd-person narrative gives the author a much broader canvas on which to tell a story. One member on the Official Terry Brooks Forum argues that 1st-person is an effective way to get into the head of a main character, but worries that it limits the ability to get close to other secondary characters. This is something that is easily solved by using a 3rd-person perspective, which allows an author to have multiple point-of-view (POV) characters experiencing different events in the storyline and, perhaps even more effectively, multiple characters experiencing the same events but reacting to and interpreting it differently.

Sandhya doesn’t agree, however.

I don’t think that is necessarily true when handled properly, or at least when reactions are within the observable scope of the POV character. If even slight reactions seen by the narrator of the story are noticed by the reader then they can convey quite a bit of information about the other characters around him/her. The information doesn’t always have to be understood by the POV character either, just observered [sic] and recorded in their memory for the benefit of the audience. Although, I think it is a tightrope routine.

Essentially, conveying information about other characters is through the use of non-verbal communication: gestures, what the other chacters [sic] aren’t saying or doing. Any note of voncal [sic] infection is also a way to convey this information. If the narration has these things then there is plenty to convey, think about and theorize in the story, and the writer is doing his/her job. If they aren’t there then the writing is bad regardless of the perpective [sic] and view of the narration. I believe such things should be in all narrative styles in some way, shape or form. | Sandhya

Brandon Sanderson, author of the acclaimed Elantris, even chimed in on the conversation. His novels are written in third person and he does an excellent job of breaking down just exactly why it works for him.

I believe that 3rd can do BETTER for getting me close to a character in many cases.

1) It usually feels more ‘present’ to me. Even when it’s in the third past, which it should be, I feel like I’m in the character’s head as events happen, rather than sitting and listening to them as they talk about the events years after the fact.

2) First person often has an inherent, and untrustworthy, side to the narrative. Since the narrator is telling you what he/she WANTS you to hear, then you always have to wonder what they’re leaving out or changing. This is part of the first person experience which I enjoy. However, in some ways, third person is more trustworthy. An excellent third person writer, like Martin, can make you understand a character simply by the way their eyes interpret the world.

3) Third works better for me for getting to know multiple characters in a single volume.

Now, that isn’t to say that first person can’t do an excellent job of bringing you very close to a character. Rothfuss does a fantastic job of it, and I think that book is partially made by how the narrative works. Robin Hobb also does a very good job of it. I simply want to argue the point that third person doesn’t have to mean story over character. | Brandon Sanderson

One argument that I found curious and, after a bit of consideration, actually quite valid is something Temujin had to say:

However, a lot of third person narrators feel the same, like it’s some old stuffy english guy telling the story. I often feel like third person stories don’t consider the value of the narrator’s voice. On the other hand, 1st person stories get a lot of work done on voice alone. | Temujin

I feel that this is one place where 3rd-person is weaker than 1st-person and it’s something that comes up in regards to my own writing. I find, and have been told, that my voice and my originality come through much more prominently when I write using a 1st-person narrative. In fact, in a lot of ways, writing in 1st-person just feels more natural.

One of the major reasons I posed this question on the forums, besides wanting to write this article, is because I’m about to begin work on a story that’s been rolling in my head for a long time and I’ve been struggling about what form of narrative approach I should take in telling the story. It’s an Contemporary Faerie Tale with a strong, female protagonist who just happens to be the only POV character in the story. At first I just presumed the story would be told in 3rd-person. But as I worked on it more and more, and had several people suggest that a 1st-person narrative might fit the story and the characters better, I really started to ponder a switch in the narrative style. Fortunately making the change right now would not take too much extra work.

I was worried, however, that 1st-person would be a hard sell. I always assumed that most people would be less interested in a novel if it was written in the 1st-person, just as I used to be before I gave the style a chance. So it was interesting to find out that I was wrong, and that the majority of people are more concerned with what really matters: a good story.

I’ve read terrific 1st-person stories and terrible 1st-person stories, just as I’ve read terrific 3rd-person stories and terrible 3rd-person stories. In the end I believe it comes down to the story that needs to be told: The Name of the Wind would have been a weaker novel if written in 3rd-person; The Lord of the Rings, and all of its history and poetry, would not have benefited from being told in 1st-person through Frodo’s eyes.

Both styles of narrative have their advantages and disadvantages. Some stories call for the close, personal feel of 1st-person while others need the sweeping, descriptive style of 3rd-person and as long as the author knows which style of narrative better suits there story then all should be well. Neither style is better than the other, simply they are better suited to different tasks and different stories.

  • SMD October 28, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    I once hated 1st person too. I don’t know when I changed. I think it was Old Man’s War by John Scalzi that did it. I used to avoid 1st person like the plague, but now I actually find it to be enjoyable, especially when writing it.

  • Jebus October 28, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Try reading Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment” and “The Cure” about a guy trying to survive in the criminal ward of a mental institution. After reading these novels in the first person they seriously messed with the way I though for a good few weeks afterwards. I think that is one of the main powers of first person – if done well, you can actually feel like you are inhabiting the skin of the character, whereas third person can at times seem rather stand offish.

    But yeah, it totally depends on the story, and to a greater extent, the skill of the author. Robin Hobb seems to be able to do both wonderfully.

  • Ben October 28, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    I disagree a 1st-person LOTR would be through the eyes of Frodo only. It’s possible to have as many 1st-person narrators as the author wants. Think of a multi-POV book like ASOIAF and write each chapter 1st-person instead of 3r-person. It doesn’t happen very often, but it could.

  • J.G.Thomas October 29, 2007 at 10:59 am

    For some reason I used to have an aversion to books written in the 1st person. Still do to some degree.

    I think both perspectives are equally valid, and both have advantages and disadvantages.

    I’ve had stories published both in 1st person and 3rd person and feel comfortable writing in each. Ultimately it comes down to the style of work that is being written, and the perspective the author feels most comfortable working with.

    For your own work, Aidan, just from the few details you have given I think it would work better in 1st person.

  • JDavidBodzin October 30, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    I appreciate the debate, however this is almost like arguing which is better a screw driver or a hammer. They both have their uses and while one may fit one scenario better than the other, no one can say that one is best.

    The tool box contains many tools and I plan on using them all.

    BTW, I love Terry Brooks and am on the forum as well. (Panik)

    Now if you excuse me I have a screw I need to go hammer.



  • Stender January 16, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Really, I think that a 3rd person omniscient narrator can portray what characters are thinking or feeling at any moment almost as effectively as a first person narrator can, with the added bonus of being able to do this for ANY character at ANY time. The idea that a 3rd person narration somehow ‘hamstrings’ the ability of an author to bring out the inner workings of a character are (pardon me while I don my monocle and affect a flustered British accent) hogwash, or balderdash! I’m not saying that a 1st person narrative is inferior to a 3rd person, 1st person allows for more suspense or for the plot to be driven much more by a single character for example. I am simply refuting the what many have cited as weaknesses in the 3rd person perspective (assuming omniscience).