Should You Use First Or Third Person Perspective Narration In Your Story?

If you’re about to start writing a story, then working out which perspective to use can be a bit of a challenge. Although you’ll either develop a preference over time or an instinct for which one works best with a particular story, this is something which can be a bit confusing if you’re new to writing.

So, I thought that I’d list some of the pros and cons of first-person and third-person narration.

First-person narration: First-person narration is easier to write for a number of reasons. Since your story is narrated from the perspective of one character, you only really have to worry about the things that this character sees, does or hears about. This also immerses the reader in the story a lot more easily, since they are quite literally placed inside the mind of the main character.

First-person narration is also great for shorter stories. After all, if your main character is the narrator, then you can focus more on what is happening to them or what they see than on describing them.

Likewise, it is easier to use a distinctive narrative voice, to show your main character’s thoughts, to make your story “flow” better and to give your main character lots of characterisation if you’re writing from a first-person perspective.

On the downside, you can’t really show what other characters are thinking since your story is told from the perspective of just one character. Yes, this can be used to add mystery to other characters (the famous example being Sherlock Holmes. Most of the original stories are narrated by Holmes’ colleague Watson). But, if you want to give lots of characters lots of characterisation, then this is more difficult from a first-person perspective.

In addition to this, since you’re only showing things from one character’s perspective, first-person narration feels a bit more subjective and unreliable. Whilst this can be useful in some types stories, it doesn’t always fit in with literally every type of story out there.

Likewise, if you’re telling a large-scale story or even just a story that involves several plot threads, then this is a lot more difficult in first-person perspective. Yes, there are ways to do it (eg: dialogue, documents or even using more than one first-person narrator), but these are often a bit awkward to read unless handled really well. So, it only really works for stories with one main plot thread.

Third-person narration: Third-person narration gives you a lot more control over what you can show the reader. If you want to focus on one character, to focus on several characters or to describe something that the characters don’t see, then this is easy to do in third-person. It is a more “cinematic” form of narration that gives you more choice.

Likewise, third-person narration means that it is easy to have multiple plot threads – which are essential in longer stories, or stories that have a much grander scale to them. For example, an epic sci-fi, thriller or fantasy story will probably involve multiple characters in multiple locations. This is much easier and more intuitive to do with third-person narration.

Third-person narration also sounds a lot more “objective” and “authoritative”. Since the narrator is looking at the events of the story from a distance, this means that the reader is too. So, a story will feel a lot more weighty and dramatic if you use third-person narration.

On the downside, third-person narration is more difficult to write. After all, since the narrator is separate from the characters, you have to make a lot more creative decisions about what you describe, the pacing of your story, how you handle dialogue, what style of narration you use etc.. Likewise, handling multiple plot threads means that you have to plan and think about how they interact with each other too.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Better Alternatives To Rotating First-Person Narration

Well, I thought that I’d talk about rotating first-person narrators today – since, to my dismay, the book I’m reading at the moment uses (a thankfully rather mild) version of this modern narrative technique.

If you’ve never heard of this narrative technique before, it’s a style of first-person narration where there are several narrators and the story switches between them every chapter or two.

Yes, it’s a style that supposedly allows writers to use both the omniscient perspective of third-person narration and the intense immersive immediacy of first-person narration. However, rather than being the best of both worlds, it is the worst of both worlds.

This is mostly because it tends to ruin the immersive nature of the first-person narration due to jarring changes between narrators, and because it still limits what you can and can’t show (when compared to third-person narration).

So, here are some better alternatives to rotating first-person narration. Yes, most of these still involve multiple first-person narrators, but they’re more intuitive to read than standard modern “rotating narrator” narration is.

1) Letters, Journals etc..: One way to introduce other narrators without breaking the immersion and narrative flow that comes from using just one narrator is to include the other narrated segments as letters, journal entries etc… This way, they’re something that the main character could still theoretically see or read, but they don’t involve any jarring jumps between perspective characters. After all, when you’re reading a letter, you’re still you. And the same is true for your narrator too.

The only thing that I would say about using this style of multiple narration is to make sure that you clearly signpost when your story’s letters, journal entries etc… begin. Ideally, you should differentiate them from the main story through the use of italic text, or a different font or something like that too.

And, yes, this is a very old narrative technique. If you don’t believe me, then read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – this novel mostly consists of letters, journals etc… by different characters, and the multiple narrators work really well because you get the sense of reading a collection of documents, rather than eerily jumping between different people’s consciousnesses.

2) In-depth third-person narration: If you want to show lots of things happening in different places in an in-depth way, then using third-person narration that focuses heavily on what a particular character is thinking or feeling is a much more “ergonomic” way of doing this. This also has the bonus of allowing you to use a single, consistent narrative voice- which means that it is easier for the reader to follow the story.

If you want a good example of this, then read G.R.R Martin’s “A Song Of Ice And Fire” novels. Each chapter usually focuses on a particular character but, because Martin uses third-person narration instead of first-person narration, the jumps between characters and locations feel a lot more natural and organic than they would do if he’d used first-person narrators instead.

3) Don’t repeat your narrators: If you absolutely must use multiple first-person narrators, then use the format to full advantage!

In other words, don’t repeat your narrators. This might sound like it would make the inherent problems with rotating narrators even worse, but – surprisingly – it doesn’t. This is mostly because using a totally new narrator for each chapter or segment of the story means that your novel reads a lot more like a short story collection, rather than 2-3 novellas that have been awkwardly grafted together.

A great example of this narrative style is Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it, but it’s a novel that follows a UN official in the future who interviews the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Because there’s a new narrator for each chapter/interview, the novel feels like a really cool short story collection. Seriously, if you want to know how to use multiple first-person narrators in a good way, then read this book!

4) Framing story: One way to avoid breaking immersion whilst including multiple narrators is simply to include an old-fashioned framing story. In other words, your narrator listens to another character narrate the main story. This way, you get all of the benefits of multiple narrators, whilst also having a single consistent “main” narrator too.

This technique also feels more “natural” than modern-style rotating narrators because it mirrors the traditional experience of sitting down and listening to someone tell a story.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (9th December 2017)

Well, I was still in the mood for painting from life when I made this digitally-edited painting. Originally, it was just going to be a still life of an adorable little tortoise figurine I’d found gathering dust on one of the shelves of my computer desk a few days ago. But, whilst examining it and sketching it, I thought that I’d try to draw my hand as well and, before I knew it, I’d sketched out a much more detailed first-person perspective painting. Although I used a bit of artistic licence with some parts of the background, I really like how it turned out 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Drawing A Tortoise Still Life" By C. A. Brown

“Drawing A Tortoise Still Life” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (8th April 2014)

Wow! I’m extremely proud of both of today’s watercolour pencil paintings 🙂 I also experimented with painting from a first-person perspective too.

As usual, these two paintings are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Strange Kingdom" By C. A. Brown

“Strange Kingdom” By C. A. Brown

Originally “Strange Kingdom” was going to be a much gloomier and slightly more gothic painting, but it ended up going in a slightly brighter and more surreal direction fairly quickly.

"First Person Experiment" By C. A. Brown

“First Person Experiment” By C. A. Brown

As the title suggests “First Person Experiment” was an experment with drawing/painting from a first person perspective. Interestingly, this scanned version looks a lot better than the original because I cropped the picture much more than I normally do (since the original had a slightly more “zoomed out” perspective, which made it look more surreal than realistic).