Amateur Hour

First vs. Third Person: How do you choose?

I am working on The Near Witch (which I gave an excerpt of) and I’m trying to decide which is best. I tend to go to third automatically, to get that fairy-tale voice, but this story is a YA with a little romance etc, not a MG, so I don’t know if it needs to be in first to get the connection as strong as possible.

I have two word docs open right now, and am essentially writing the book both ways. I am undecided. I am terrible at these decisions! I have enough trouble trying to decided how close the POV needs to be, if I need to stick beside a character when I’m in third person, etc. Ugh.

How do you choose? Do you always know when you start writing? Are there any determining factors?

(I’m also working on the pitch. I am SO bad at summing things up. But that’s for another post).

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18 thoughts on “Amateur Hour

  1. megancrewe says:

    This probably won’t be very helpful, because it sounds like you’re trying to go by this already–but so far I’ve just decided based on what feels “right” for the story. And so far I’ve had a pretty good sense of which is right. Not sure what to do if both feel equally right!
    Some factors I have noticed seem to come into play in terms of “right”-ness:
    -I tend to write modern-day narrators in first person and otherworld/historical narrators in third person (though not always); I think because it’s much easier for me to write a modern voice, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to pull off an otherworldly/historical voice and/or the more noticeable voice will interfere with the telling of the story.
    -I also find it easier to do world-building (which is more necessary in otherworld/historical settings) in third person, probably because of the increased distance.
    -I tend to use first person when my narrator is introspective and needs to do a fair amount of thinking and contemplation during the story (because I find it hard to write a lot of thinking in third person, and it feels more natural in a first person narrative); I tend to use third person when my narrator is more outwardly/action-oriented.
    -I tend to use first person when I want the reader to be mostly focused on that one character’s growth and viewpoint; I tend to use third person when I want the reader to pay a fair amount of attention to the secondary characters as well, and to consider what their viewpoints might be.
    (Note that even when I write in third person, I do a very close third person POV for one character. I have never attempted looser third person/omniscent type narration.)

  2. kaerfel says:

    Great set of guidelines!
    I used to write only in third, convinced I couldn’t pull off first, but it turns out it’s the opposite. My voice is so much stronger in first than in third, and I love focusing on only one POV. There’s still the occasional story idea I feel needs to be in third, though, and then I tend to avoid writing it…

  3. veschwab says:

    Wow, thank you so, so much for this insight! It’s incredibly helpful.
    One reason I’m struggling is because the characters in the story *tell* stories to each other, that’s one of the main ways things come together, so I didn’t know if the umbrella narration should be the MC’s voice, or a close third.
    Thank you again, these are some great things to keep in mind.

  4. dina_james says:

    This is easy for me because I never have to choose. Why?
    I hate first person narrative.
    It makes me feel like I’m reading someone’s journal, and there’s only been one series of books written in first person that I actually enjoyed/didn’t notice the first person – Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel Legacy.
    I’ve done a few “unofficial” first person things – sometimes a character just has something they want to say, but that’s why they have journals (or in the case of a couple, Twitter accounts). They can talk all they want there and not bother me with their narrative. *I* am writing the story, not them, thank you! When I want their POV, I’ll ask for it.

  5. veschwab says:

    See, this is how I tend to feel! I’m the narrator! I get to choose when and who I let speak, which parts of the story I want to be told. I just don’t like the confinement of first person historically.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.
    I actually tend to enjoy writing first person, for short projects and I like my narrative non-fic voice, but I just can’t seem to enjoy it in fiction.

  6. Anonymous says:

    First person all the way
    I wrote my first novel in third person, which I think helped me maintain the necessary distance I needed as a first time author from it. But once it was finished I revised to first persona and it was much better. I haven’t looked back since! All four of my novels are first person, the last three also being first person present tense. I love the immediacy and connectedness with the characters especially the main character. I also prefer reading books written in first person, for that same reason.
    Daisy Whitney
    http://www.daisywhitney.com

  7. Try one or two chapters both ways and see which voice works best for you and this WIP?

  8. veschwab says:

    Yeah, that’s what I’m doing right now.

  9. veschwab says:

    Re: First person all the way
    A very good point. This might be one of those situations where I end up revising it to first person later, if I can’t get comfortable writing the first draft that way.

  10. patesden says:

    pm (UTC)
    What’s worked for me is to use third person single pov and reserve my fairy tale voice for when a character is telling a story. Actually, I think of it as switching writing styles as much as changing voice.
    I have a harder time writing modern-voice in third when I use multiple pov, but I think that is a matter of practice.
    I totally agree with Megan Crewe’s suggestions as far as when to use first or third.
    Also Jay Lake had a good blog about a week ago on style vs voice. I’d post a link, except I’m feeling too lazy to go back and try and find it–but if you have the time it was interesting and it might help you.

  11. patesden says:

    Now that I think about it, I wrote a short story like this where the frame was in first person and the tale was in third–just to give you something else to try.

  12. 1st person: more introspective
    3rd: more action-oriented
    Try a few scenes and see what feels right. Good luck!

  13. marylovesya says:

    I’m actually converting my WIP from first to third right now, because it’s the right decision. That’s a pain in the ass. Better to decide now than to have to tweak it later.
    After a while, something just feels better to me. Sorry that’s not more specific, haha.

  14. veschwab says:

    Thanks! I definitely think I might have to try this multiple ways for a little. It’s complicated by the fact that it’s about tell stories, so each character already has a voice, which makes me inclined to have a third person close POV as the background.

  15. veschwab says:

    Thanks! Yeah I know the general rules. Definitely going to have to try a few scenes both ways.

  16. veschwab says:

    I’m afraid of this happening to me! Urgh if only it would present itself to me in the appropriate fashion.

  17. marylovesya says:

    Well, I was on like my second major revision when I got bored with the first person. As the story goes on, there’s a lot more adventure, so it was very limiting to put it in first. I’m writing middle grade right now, too, and was just talking about this to a writer friend of mine who’s also a bookseller (hence, she’s read a lot more than I have!). She completely seconded the sneaky feeling I was having that most MG in the style I’m writing are indeed third. So, I’ve been going through it with the ol’ red pen. Why reinvent the wheel in terms of POV? It already feels a lot better in third.
    I know your frustration. It did take, oh, the full MS and two revisions for me to stumble upon this brilliant idea. =)
    How are submissions going this time around? Should I even ask?

  18. veschwab says:

    They’re okay. My dream editor is working up some revision notes (I was devastated at first). My other dream editor is supposed to get in touch this week. Third editor we haven’t heard from yet. It’s sloooow.
    Yeah, this one is YA, as opposed to TSM, which is MG, and I think it’s going to be first person, because there isn’t that much I need to tell, outside of my MC. No things I’m like “well how on earth am I going to get this across when I’m stuck here?” I’ll have to see, but leaning there now. I really need to work on connecting with the MC anyway.

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