Episode 5: Choosing First or Third Person POV


FOLLOW ON APPLE PODCASTS . FOLLOW ON SPOTIFY . FOLLOW ON OVERCAST . FOLLOW ON PODCAST ADDICT


Season 3, Episode 5: Choosing First or Third Person POV

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 3, Episode 5: Should I Use First or Third Person POV?

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Amandine, and Kaishin, who both asked: How do I know whether I should use first or third person? How does the narration change with this choice, and how do I know which one is best for my story?

This is something I’ve been wrestling with myself, lately—I’ve been editing my 2023 book, The Isles of the Gods, and thinking a lot about whether it should be first or third person.

What’s the difference? At a basic level, first person means you’re in the character’s point of view. They say “I picked up the book, hefting it in my hand—his eyes widened, and he ducked just as I threw it at his head.”

Third person means you’re looking at them from the outside. So: “Selly picked up the book, hefting it to check its weight. She saw Leander realize what was coming just a moment before it happened, and he ducked as the novel sailed over his head.”

Essentially, you can think of first person as a diary entry, and third person as a newspaper report.

Now, it’s more complicated than that—we could be in close third person, for instance, which means we’d focus much more on Selly and her book, and less on what Leander was realizing, but we’ll get to those distinctions in a moment. I’ll also note that second person is an option, but it’s very rarely used. I won’t be talking about it here, but if you’d like to read a great example of second person perspective—that is, ‘you heft the book in your hand’—then I recommend the novel Ivory and Bone, by Julie Eshbaugh, who spells her surname Eshbaugh.

For now, first vs third. It’s an important decision to get right—I just spent several days transposing a few chapters of The Isles of the Gods from first person into third person, to see if it was better. As you’ll see, that involves a lot more than just changing the ‘I’ to ‘she’. In the end I decided it wasn’t, and then had to put them all back again, but if you’re listening to this in the future, perhaps I’ll have ended up in third after all!

Today, let’s talk about each of them in turn, and why we might decide to use first or third person.

So, first person. The narrator is using “I”, and they’re telling us what they’re seeing and experiencing, and how they feel about it. It’s an intimate point of view—we’re receiving this information in their words, with their vocab, their similes, their metaphors. The personal details in the narration tell us a lot about the person. If you want to know more about this, you can listen to episode 6 from season 2, which talks about crafting distinctive character voices.

In first person, we feel what’s happening, as it happens to our character—we’re right inside them, so when their gut twists, or their breathing is too shallow to get enough air, we know just what that’s like.

It’s also easier to make a first person narrator unreliable, especially if they believe what they’re telling us, and we don’t have any outside information to compare it to. You can hit season 2, episode 10 for more information on unreliable narrators.

What are the dangers or difficulties of first person narrative? There’s a danger you can spend too long with their thoughts, musing on what’s going on without seeing any external action—this is something I always watch for in my own writing. It can also be difficult to provide the reader with information, sometimes. The narrator only knows what they know, so while this can be handy for deliberately withholding information, it’s trickier when you actually want to share information, or perhaps cover some worldbuilding, but your character doesn’t notice it, or wouldn’t comment on it.

So, what’s the alternative? Third person. In third person we’re outside the characters, describing what they’re doing, and perhaps what they’re thinking.

When it comes to third, knowing your distance from the characters is important. Are you zoomed in on just one person, or are you covering multiple people? How much can you see inside their head, vs just describing their actions?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this—your choice will be determined by how much you want to reveal, how intimate you want the narration to be—but it’s key that you do know the answer, and that you keep it consistent. If you’re telling us a character’s secrets one moment, then giving us no hint as to what they’re thinking the next, readers become frustrated, and feel you’re cheating.

What’s third person useful for? It’s handy if you want to make observations about characters that they wouldn’t make about themselves—either outright telling us, or letting us see something that wouldn’t be reflected in their own point of view. Perhaps they don’t know they always trust the wrong people, or that they’re blunt to the point of offensiveness, but when we see them from the outside—rather than through their own eyes—we can tell this about them.

Third can also be useful for showing us information about the world that we might not otherwise have—you still want to be careful with info dumps, but it’s reasonable to share a fact or two that a character wouldn’t dwell on themselves—and it’s handy if you’d like to show us what’s going on with more than one character.

In my own work, I’ve used first person, third person and a combination of both—different options suit different books.

For example, in The Other Side of the Sky, North is a prince who falls from a high tech city in the sky to a world ruled by magic, and prophecy below. There he meets Nimh, a living goddess, and discovers he’s a part of one of her prophecies. North believes in science and Nimh believes in magic, so my co-author Meg Spooner and I used first person. We’re deep in their perspectives, and when we’re with them, we only know what they know—which in North’s case, isn’t much about magic—and we see what they believe. We wanted to write a book where the reader is never quite sure whether magic or science is the explanation for what they’re seeing, and that meant sharing the characters’ uncertainties, and making the reader piece together a conclusion from what the characters know. First person was the obvious choice.

In Illuminae, which I wrote with Jay Kristoff, I wrote the character of Kady. Often we’re in first person with Kady, as she fights for those she loves, and tries to solve the mystery of what’s going on aboard the fleet of spaceships they’re all aboard. First person allowed me to immerse the reader in Kady’s fears and experiences, and to withhold information by only showing us what she knows. Every so often, though, an external view of Kady is helpful—sometimes, this came from third person narratives provided by someone who was transcribing security footage of her. The first time I wrote one of those, I was able to offer an outsider’s perspective on Kady, showing her stubbornness, her determination, the risks she was taking—because in first person, she wouldn’t have described any of these to us. They just weren’t on her mind. Being able to switch was really useful.

In The World Between Blinks, which I wrote with Ryan Graudin, cousins Jake and Marisol are in third person. The two of them are on a literal journey through a world where all the lost things from our world go—people, places and things—but they’re also on a journey to understand their own loss, after their grandmother has died. Third person allowed Ryan and I to make observations about the cousins—albeit with a very light touch—that they wouldn’t have made about themselves.

So, there you have it—first person vs third person, the journal entry vs the newspaper article. Except, as we’ve just seen, there’s far more to it than that. There are plenty of factors to consider in making a choice, and there’s no wrong answer—only the right one for the story you want to tell.

Here’s an exercise: Find two books you’ve already read, one in first and one in third. Go through them, and note the different information you’re offered, whether it’s about character emotions, or world building.

That’s all for this week. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about how to go about building a character from scratch.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new listeners find the podcast, and I really appreciate it. I’ll also remind you to check out Pub Dates, where Kate and I will take you behind the scenes on the countdown to launching our next books.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on Instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on Twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, author of the upcoming novel Nightbirds. You can find her online at katejarmstrong.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


Have a Question?

You can submit your question using the form using the form on the main podcast page — if you’re stuck on one aspect of your work, or you’re wondering how your favourite author pulled something off, we’d love to hear from you!


Return to the main podcast page