Finding Perspective: First person vs. third person

Stories have been told since the dawn of human civilization and the impact of those stories have often hinged on the perspective used to tell those stories.  By perspective, I mean what form of point-of-view (PoV) is taken in the piece.  Each PoV brings its own unique advantages and disadvantages.  As I often say, I don’t put myself forth as an expert but I still think sharing my views on some of the common PoVs from which we write might be helpful to others and, at the least, perhaps engender a discussion of their use.  The three PoVs I’ve personally used the most are the first person, the third person limited, and the third person omniscient, and each are very distinct, even the two third person variants.

First up, the first person (clever, I know)!  This is certainly the most intimate of storytelling styles because it is told from the viewpoint of the narrator.  It allows the reader to truly get inside of the head of the PoV character, to gain deep insights into their actions, motivations, and perceptions.  This can be great for getting your readers to strongly identify with the main character of your story and the world they live in, as well as retain a sense of mystery in a new situation.  The information is filtered to the reader as it comes to the narrator, allowing a mystery to be preserved for longer.

The problems with the first person PoV mainly center around authorial mistakes.  It is easy to run into a repetitious writing style in the first person, especially sentences in the form of ‘I <verb> …’.  Tense mistakes can be common, especially if the writer attempts a first person present piece.  Let’s not even talk about the potential continuity errors that can be rife in a present tense piece.  Because we are trapped behind one character’s eyes at a time, other issues can crop up.  As with the ‘I <verb’ problem, it’s easy to run into excessive ‘telling’ as every character’s thought can become potential story fodder.  Finally, the tightened perspective can make world building harder, as major events could occur outside of the character’s perspective.

The third person PoVs, limited and omniscient, share a common base.  They are told from a perspective outside the narrator.  This can allow for a greater ease in telling a tale and setting a scene, as the writer isn’t limited to the perceptions of one singular character.  He can describe the entire scene, expand upon foreshadowing, cut away to sideline scenes more easily, and so on.  Of course, at the same time, we are deprived of the intense intimacy the first person PoV can give us.  The author is forced to work harder to make us like and identify with the characters as we are not directly in their head.  Past these commonalities, the two flavors of third person vary considerably.

The third person limited form is told in the third person, but there are limitations placed on the reader’s insights, most often in limiting the insights on character thought and motivation.  Most often, the writer handles this by establishing (and often shifting through a piece) a viewpoint character.  Though this character is handled in the third person, the writer chronicles much of their thoughts, feelings, and internal conflicts as if it were a first person piece.  This allows the writer to take back some of the advantages of the first person format (easier characterization, some limits on information flow to preserve mystery and surprises) while retaining the third person format’s strengths in description and flexibility.

The primary flaw of this is the obvious jack-of-all-trades style of it.  It gives up part of the immense flexibility of omniscient pieces but doesn’t gain the full intimacy of the first person form.  Also, if the author’s work has many PoV characters to switch between, it is of vital importance that he keeps a close watch on continuity to prevent lapses when bouncing from viewpoint to viewpoint.  Despite these problems, third person limited is one of the most commonly used viewpoints I have seen, mainly because of it’s ease of use and overall strength in storytelling.

Our final topic for today is the third person omniscient PoV.  It works just like it says on the box, combining the third person storytelling style with a narrator of infinite knowledge.  At any point, the author can speak of the thoughts and perceptions of any character without shifting point of view or worrying about continuity errors.  At it’s simplest, many old style fairy tales and children’s stories work from this perspective, as well as many myths.  Historical works and stories on a grand scale can also benefit from this technique.  All of these kinds of works often work in an epic scale or tackle immense subjects where there is a need to be able to recount events in large brushstrokes, yet still able to focus on personal subjects when needed.

The problem with taking this omniscient style is simple.  The risk of reader detachment is far greater.  Much like some people find reading a history book boring, you can have that same issue with this writing style.  The lack of a PoV character can lessen reader investment and, if the plot is also complicated, make the story harder for them to navigate.  You never want your reader so lacking in emotional investment that he doesn’t care if he reads on or not.

There are undoubtedly other writing PoVs to work with.  Do you use one of these, or something different?  I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.  If you’re just a reader, what kind of PoVs do you see in the books you read?  Which do you like and why?  Discuss in the comments!

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3 comments

  1. Yours are good explanations to learn from.

    I think that 3P limited, past tense, is the strongest choice. If written with sufficient care for up to 3 PoV characters, it need not sacrifice intimacy. 1P is deceptively “simple,” and many inexperienced writers who choose it, end up fudging it, with wandering PoV. 3P Unlimited presents the temptation to do unlimited head-hopping, which dilutes PoV impact and confuses readers. I’ve been an actress, and Present tense reads too much like a script that’s sandwiched between too much stage direction.

    1. Thanks for the insights! Personally, I tend towards 3P limited, but I do have one series that is 1st person, but both are past tense.

      Present tense is just clunky, I agree. Good point about comparing it to a script … I hadn’t thought of that before!

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