First Person and Third Person Points of View

Using first person and third person points of view means writing from the ‘I’ or the ‘we’ perspective (first person), or from the ‘he’/‘she’/‘it’/‘they’ perspective (third person).

Our blog at the end of July delved into writing from second person point of view (see https://editors4you.com.au/writing-from-second-person-point-of-view/). This time, we focus on first person and third person points of view. We also break down the different types of first person and third person narratives.

Unlike the second person point of view, first and third person are the two most used perspectives. Each has its pros and cons. If you’ve ever sat down to write and been faced with the challenge of choosing which point of view to write from, we hope that this article will help you.

Let’s start by looking at first person point of view (POV).

First Person POV

young man writing in vintage clothes for blog First Person and Third Person Points of View
I am … First Person and Third Person Points of View (Photo by cottonbro from Pexels)

First person is narrated through the character/s and uses ‘I’ or ‘we’. It allows the reader to connect with the narrator more. There are two main types of first person POV – first person limited and first person omniscient.

First person limited POV

This is from the perspective of one character – usually ‘I’ – and is limited to their knowledge.

First person omniscient POV

Written from the perspective of a narrator who is also a character in the story, and who knows everything about the other characters, their thoughts, feelings, and so on. This is a relatively rare POV.

Within these two POVs, there usually exist three types of narrators:

  1. The unreliable narrator – as the name implies, the narrator isn’t reliable as they show the readers what’s happening through their eyes only, and often in a misconstrued way.
  2. The reliable narrator – when the narrator is telling the truth, or as close to it as possible. It is easier for readers to trust this narrator.
  3. The observer – usually written from the perspective of someone close to the main character, it is similar to omniscient third person. However, it is limited to what the observer knows and sees.

There are a few pros and cons to using first person.

The pros:

  • Allows readers to connect with the characters and narrator more as they get a direct insight into the narrator’s thoughts and feelings
  • The narrator may be unreliable, which allows for plot twists and keeps the reader interested.

The cons:

  • It’s limited, as readers can only experience the story through the narrator  
  • The narrator isn’t trustworthy
  • Can be biased.
When writing in first person, it’s important to remember to:
  • Not overuse pronouns, such as ‘I’ and ‘we’
  • Check that you’ve been consistent in tense usage
  • Be careful of too much introspection – a character’s inner monologue
  • Show, not tell
  • Avoid using tags such as ‘I thought’ after italicised thoughts
  • Make sure the voices reflect the characters’ differences when there is more than one narrator
  • If you’re writing in first person limited, be careful of writing about things your character wouldn’t know.
Well-known works that use first person POV include:
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, unreliable first person narration
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, first person limited
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, also written in first person limited
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, written in first person but from multiple points of view
  • The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe, unreliable first person narration
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, omniscient first person (the narrator is Death).

Third Person POV

photo of 4 people at sunset for blog First person and third person points of view
He, she and they … (Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels)

Third person narrative uses ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’ or ‘it’ (less commonly). Third person uses four kinds of POVs:

  1. Omniscient – this is when the narrator knows everything, as the use of the word ‘omniscient’ implies. The narrator knows everything about multiple characters, their feelings, the setting, and so on.
  2. Limited – as the name suggests, this limits the narrator to either one or two characters, and their experiences.
  3. Objective – this is when the narrator is more factual and unbiased.
  4. Subjective – this is when the narrator can relay the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Just like first person, using third person has its own pros and cons.

The pros:

  • Allows for easier use of multiple POVs
  • Reliable narration
  • If written in omniscient third person, the narrator knows everything and can shift around the story
  • What’s clear to the reader isn’t always obvious to the characters – so it allows readers to connect more to the characters and understand the reasoning behind their actions
  • Unbiased
  • Easier to introduce backstory.

The cons:

  • There can be a bit of disconnect between the characters and the readers
  • Harder to introduce flashbacks.

When writing in third person, it’s important to remember to:

  • Be careful of head-hopping; this is jumping from one character’s POV to another’s
  • Differentiate your characters – particularly when using more than one POV, you need to ensure that the voices are distinct and the characters’ characteristics and mannerisms aren’t identical.

Famous examples that use third person POV include:

  • 1984 by George Orwell, third person limited
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin , told through a multitude of POVs, and uses third person limited and omniscient
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, third person omniscient.

Exercise

Take a piece of your writing and change the POV. If your work is written in first person, change it to third person. If it’s in third person, change it to first person.

Here’s an example of mine from a previous uni assessment.

Example 1 – first person

They had said this was my punishment, but also my salvation.

After that, I was pushed and shoved until I was outside. I didn’t dare fight the man who threw me into the back of a car, blindfolding me without a word.

Example 2 – third person

They had said this was his punishment, but also his salvation.

After that, he was pushed and shoved until he was outside. He didn’t dare fight the man who threw him into the back of a car, blindfolding him without a word.

If you’re interested in seeing how the different POVs work and how they affect the story, check out the works of the authors given above. 

Acknowledgements for First Person and Third Person Points of View

Berve, C, 2018, 3 Types of First Person Narrators: Benefits and Pitfalls, viewed 18 August 2020, https://www.ignitedinkwriting.com/ignite-your-ink-blog-for-writers/types-of-first-person-narrators/2017#:~:text=If%20a%20writer%20chooses%20to,unreliable%20character%20telling%20the%20story.

Botha, M, 2015, The Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person, viewed 18 August, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/the-pros-and-cons-of-first-person-viewpoint/

Botha, M, 2015, The Pros And Cons Of Writing In Third Person, viewed 18 August 2020, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/the-pros-and-cons-of-writing-in-third-person/

Bradshaw, C, 2020, 7 Essential Guidelines for Writing in First Person, viewed 19 August 2020, https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/7-essential-guidelines-for-writing-in-first-person/

NY Book Editors, All About Point of View: Which One Should You Use?, viewed 18 August 2020, https://nybookeditors.com/2016/01/all-about-point-of-view-which-one-should-you-use/

Reedsy Blog 2019, First Person Point of View: A Writer’s Guide, viewed 18 August 2020, https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/point-of-view/first-person-pov/

Reedsy Blog 2019, Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Limited: The Essentials, viewed 18 August 2020, https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/point-of-view/third-person-limited-omniscient/  

Wikipedia 2020, Narration, viewed 18 August 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narration#Second-person 


Many thanks to my current intern, Hannah Daylight from the University of the Sunshine Coast School of Creative Industries, for writing this post First Person and Third Person Points of View.

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