A few years ago, I was well into a WIP when I began wondering if my narration should be in first person instead of third person. A few fellow writers in a critique group had suggested I change it from third person to first.
I was torn.
It would take hours to go through and fix all those pronouns and verb tenses. And for what gain?
Did it really matter if my story was in first person or third? Would readers get a different or better experience if I made the switch?
In the end, I did go through and change everything from third person to first. It took time, but I believe it was what my novel needed. I think it created a better experience for the reader. There is a difference between first and third person, as all writer’s know, and it’s important to pick the right one.
Since it was time-consuming to go through my WIP and change pages and pages of pronouns and verbs, I hope what I share today will save you some time. And, of course, improve your writing!
How to Choose Between First and Third Person Narration
First and Third Person Defined
Many of you already know the difference, so I’ll be brief. First person is the use of pronouns like I, me, or my. Third person is the use of pronouns like he, him, his, and she, her, hers.
Second person, while we’re on the topic, is the use of pronouns such as you, your, and yours.
Told you I’d be quick. Now, why does it matter?
Why Choosing Between First and Third Person Matters
Choosing between first and third person matters, because it does make a difference. The fact that my critique group was aware of what tense I was writing in and suggested I change it proves that it is something readers are aware of. If nobody noticed the difference between first and third person, I wouldn’t have bothered to change it. Think of the last book you read. You may or may not be able to remember if it was first person or third, but once the book has been read it doesn’t matter as much. However, next time you sit down and read, you’ll be aware of first person or third. It’s noticeable while reading the book. And that’s enough to make it matter.
Essentially the difference between first and third person provides a different experience for the reader. And you want that experience to be the right one.
Now that we’ve discussed why it matters, let’s take a closer look at the different feel each one conveys.
Feeling Conveyed with First and Third Person Narration
First person is much more intimate. Even though the main character will have a different name and a different life, every time a reader reads I, me, or my they will be reading the same words they use to talk about themselves. That’s not going to happen in third person. With first person, it is a lot easier to cast yourself as the main character. It can be a much more personal experience for the reader.
Third person puts a bit more distance between the reader and the story. The reader won’t be as likely to feel as if they are the main character. The reader will still be able to relate to the experiences, but it won’t be as intimate or personal. Third person is more like the reader seeing the story unfold as if being granted a look into the lives of the story’s characters. Like they are watching a movie or looking through a window.
How to Choose Between First and Third Person Narration
So, how do you decide which narration is right for you? It all boils down to whether or not you want your reader to feel like they could be the main character in the story.
Could the story happen to anyone? Do you want the reader to be able to cast themselves as the main character? Do you want the reader’s reading experience to be intimate and personal? If you answered yes to any of these questions, first person narration is probably your best bet.
In my WIP where I switched from third to first person, the main issue my main character faces is dealing with her family moving. It’s hard to move from what is familiar and comfortable to what is unknown. Moving is an experience that millions of people have experienced. Sure, there are people who live and die without moving or even traveling. But that is increasingly becoming a drastic minority. Whether moving around as a child, or to go off to college, moving is an extremely common and relatable experience. Which is why 1st person made perfect sense and worked really well once I made the switch.
If you answered no to the questions above, consider third person narration. Third person is probably best if you do not think the events of your story could happen to your readers, . If you don’t want your readers to view themselves as the main character, narrate in third person.
In my current WIP, my main character goes looking for her birth parents. This is not an experience that can happen to anyone. Which is why I chose to narrate my current WIP in third person.
Another example is Harry Potter (written in third person). As much as we all want to be witches and wizards (I waited for my letter when I turned 11), it’s not an experience we can actually live. Reading the Harry Potter series, I never imagined myself as any of the characters. Rather, I was a fellow witch alongside them. I could still be part of the story, just not as involved as if it were written in first person. And that works for a story that involves events your reader isn’t likely to ever experience.
Has this information been helpful? Do you have a better idea of how to narrate your story?
Is your WIP in first person or third? What makes that right, or will you be changing it?