Pub Rants

POV—Which Is Best?

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STATUS: I had a terrific day but can’t blog about why quite yet. So just know I’m in a great mood.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BROKEN HEARTED HOOVER FIXER SUCKER GUY by Glen Hansard

Life would be good if people would quit asking me impossible questions. *grin*

And yes, I’ve taken the admonishment to do my emoticons correctly.

So this is the situation. Last week we asked for a full manuscript from a partial we had read. The writer emailed to say he was contemplating a big revision shifting POV.

Did I think first person or third person would work best for the story?

My answer? Not the faintest idea.

For some genres, like romance, a first person POV is always a tough sell so in that case, I’d probably recommend third. But for this instant, the manuscript was young adult.

There have certainly been bestsellers in this genre in the first person POV and bestsellers in the third person POV. The real answer is what POV best fits the story and best illustrates the main characters.

If we need to be inside the main character’s head, then first person POV. If the story would benefit from being able to head hop (as you can do in third person), well, then there you have it. But honestly, I can’t read the first 30 pages of a submission and tell you which I think would work better. Perhaps if I saw both submission side-by-side I could make a judgment but it’s very unlikely I would go to that trouble (unless we were talking about a current client).

I heard, and I have no idea if it’s true or not, that Suzanne Collins did the HUNGER GAMES first 50 to 100 pages both ways before choosing the final direction. Makes sense that a writer would need to explore both before making a final decision but ultimately, it’s the writer who will know best what feels right for the story.

At least that’s how I see it.

45 Responses

  1. Kelly Freestone said:

    Thanks so much for this.
    I’ve been struggling and struggling with my POV.
    I’ve heard it said so many times that the third person POV is best for romance…but it just sounded so…blahhh…
    I coulnd’t stand to write like that anymore with this character.
    It felt too ‘he said, she said, they did that’ to me. I wanted to really pin down the camera.
    Maybe in a nother one. I feel released from the stress of ‘which way is best here?!’ kind of thing.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. Smaranda said:

    I think first person makes for an easier write, personally. Especially since the narrative part of the story can have a lot of flavor too, which isn’t as normal in third person.

    I also like using the “not there” first person – i.e. someone is clearly telling the story, but they’re not actually part of the story, so it’s in third person. (Is there any actual word for that, like first person omniscient or something? I’m sure there must be…)

  3. Mochi said:

    Personally, I write whichever works best for the plot. If I change POVs often, I use third person. If I plan on using a plot that has a constant MC, I use first person. Really, it’s all a matter of which works best.

  4. Kerry said:

    I’m a writing professor and just finished a three-year long evaluation of 200+ randomly chosen YA books. The goal was to determine the extent to which external marketing drives sales and, in cases where sales exceeded or did not meet sales expectations, what caused the difference.

    In YA, writing in first person was a huge advantage.

    I didn’t study adult books, so I can’t tell you there. But in YA I would almost always always go with first person.

    (my guess is that due to the developmental stages typical to adolescence, identity formation is a key motivation for reading and/or intellectual investigation. First person allows the reader to more fully immerse themselves into the protagonist–as if the story was happening to *them.*)

  5. Livia said:

    From 3rd person to first person, present tense (which Hunger Games is in) is a huuuge difference. I wonder if she did first person past tense as well.

  6. Livia said:

    Regarding headhopping — Stephanie Meyer did some first person head hopping in Breaking Dawn. It worked well, I thought, although I think it would only work in long stretches. Chapter by chapter headhopping in 1st person would get a little tiring.

  7. Dawn said:

    I think first person is much more difficult to write, especially with some genres, like thriller. Some writers – like Steve Martini – do it exceptionally well, but when its done poorly, it shows.

  8. Lydia Sharp said:

    Funny you posted this when you did. I pulled out an ms today that I hadn’t touched in about a month or so. After writing about 50 pages–and every page a strugge–I set it aside in favor of more productive projects. Just this afternoon, I looked at it again, and thought maybe I should try it from a different angle (first person instead of third), and wow, what a difference. I have a new motivation to work on it again… unfortunately, I have other another project that is too far along now to stop the momentum (and ironically, it hadn’t even been started when I’d set this other one aside). Such is how it goes. *sigh* I know I’ll get back to it eventually, probably even by late summer, but it’s hard to let that spark extinguish once it’s been reignited.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve made a POV switch mid-draft, but I’ve never done it after *completing* a first draft. Usually, it happens within the first 50 pages, because by that point, I have a pretty good idea of whether something is working well or not.

  9. Kerry said:

    Thanks, Lehcarjt.

    We’re working on the write-ups now, but we’re looking to publish in some academic journals when we finish polishing the conclusions and such.

    I’ve got a chapter coming out in a Palgrave-Macmillan textbook on creative writing and some of it will be there, though textbooks can be pricey and I think this one doesn’t come out till next year.

    I have a research-results summary I’d be happy to send you if you’d like. Just email me: [kerryspencer at byu dot edu.]

  10. Kerry said:

    And on the jumping between character heads thing…

    I think it’s supposed to be sort of gauche in adult lit, but in YA lit, we found that it increased resonance levels in readers. not sure why, but go ahead and do it if it works. It might even help your sales.

  11. Lydia Sharp said:

    *chiming in about YA in first person*

    I’ve found that first person works well in YA (both as a reader and a writer), for all the reasons stated above. Nice to see that thinking backed up by clinical results. 🙂

  12. Kristi Helvig said:

    I agree that it depends on the story. My completed YA is in 3rd person, but the YA I’ve just started is in 1st person. It wasn’t intentional – it’s just how the story came out.

  13. Alan said:

    When I read Hunger Games, I got the distinct impression in many scenes that it was crying out to be written in past tense instead of present. Honestly, I think it would have been better that way. It would be interesting to see some of those third person pages of hers if she did make a switch.

    I wrote my book in third because I switch POV several times depending on where the “action” is at that point. The young readers who’ve read it so far have really liked the movement.

  14. Liesl said:

    Mary Kole was just talking about this on her blog ( It’s one of those things (one of thousands) that no one can tell you which way is best.

    I wrote my WIP in first and third for about 75 pages. Both had their pros and cons, but finally I decided to go with third and I’m happy with it.

    At some point you’ve just got to make decisions and commit to them. You can second guess yourself until the end of time.

  15. against head hopping said:

    Ugh. Head hopping is rarely a good idea. Even in third person.

    However, close-third allows the reader to get into the character’s head, with only one POV character.

    Personally, I prefer first person for YA, and close-third for MG.

  16. Marie Lu said:

    Fascinating research, Kerry!

    I’ve never been able to write well in third-person POV…my characters always come out flat and 1D, with little life and spark.

    Something I’ve noticed in YA (and maybe this is just me, I don’t know) is that head-hopping first-person POVs are not uncommon (i.e. Rules of Attraction, Shiver), and that even when third-person POV is used, it tends not to head-hop but stays very closely with one character (i.e. Harry Potter, Fire, The Giver, etc).

    I also thought it was interesting that romance prefers third-person POV. I’ve always wondered why I didn’t read more romances with first-person POVs since heavy emotions are involved (and since men don’t really read romances I would think there’s less need to head-hop into the male lead’s head)….but I guess the genre must have its reasons that I’m too naive to see!

  17. Tricia J. O'Brien said:

    I have to chime in against head-hopping. I have been taken out of story so many times when an author bounces from one character’s thoughts to another mid-scene. It makes me have to figure out who’s thinking or why we aren’t with the main character. Unless a writer is really skilled and can do it seamlessly (there are those authors), I think it has potential for losing the reader. I don’t mind if it’s done at scene breaks with set-up line that lets you know which character you’re with.
    Whether choosing the POV to use or deciding whether to alternate POV, I think the author should have solid reasons for being in a particular viewpoint.
    And you can also add mystery by not having too many viewpoints. It bugs me to have a mystery or secret revealed at the end that a veiwpoint character would have known but never thought about during the course of the story. I feel manipulated by that scenario.
    That’s my two cents, which I toss around freely on this subject, realizing that other people may disagree.

  18. mi said:

    how interesting about hunger games.
    i haven’t read it, but i did the same thing with my current work in progress. i was already over 50 pages in when i realized it just wasn’t working as well as i thought it should.
    so i decided to rewrite in first person and compare which was better. i even gave both versions to a couple beta readers who both agreed with me: first person pov was better for this novel.

    kristen is absolutely right when she says you have to choose the one that is a better fit and best illustrates the main characters.

  19. Sleek said:

    True, comes down to the story..though it does get disturbing when one’s writing in first POV and you know the person and they are going on and on about some really weird stuff..really disturbing

  20. Natasha Fondren said:

    It’s not head-hopping; it’s toggling narrative distance, LOL.

    I’ve learned a lot by re-writing something in third that I’ve written in first. In fact, I’ve even gone so far as to write something in first, re-write in third, and then re-write in first. A lot of good things come of that exercise. If one has the time, lol.

  21. Vicki said:

    How convenient! I was just discussing my own issues with this problem today! Of course, I wasn’t thinking in terms of ‘which sells better?’, but in terms of ‘which can I support more?’

    I’d say 99% of my writing has been in 3rd person. I’ve used it consistently for upwards of 5 years now, and I’m comfortable with it. Then, out of the blue, my character decides SHE wants to tell her story, so step aside. What’s more, she decided this at 4am and dragged me out of bed to start it. Not very nice at all.

    Now I’m left with the decision of whether I want to continue letting her take the reigns – if she’ll actually be able to control herself for the whole story – or if I want to fall back into my comfort zone. And what if I make the wrong choice and end up 50 or 100 pages in with no place to go? Ugh.

  22. Dan said:

    First person POV is great if you want to suffuse a whole story in a single character’s voice. It helps to encourage the reader to identify with the character and it keeps the author grounded in that character’s sensibility. And there’s a smoothness and efficiency to aligning the reader with the same character in every single scene.

    This is especially effective in mystery or suspense type novels where the reader and the character are both kind of confused, and trying to figure out what’s going on. It also works very well in YA or chick lit stories where the reader and protagonist are trying together to decode social cues and figure out the motives of the other characters. If you hate first-person, though, a close limited third person narration can be just as effective.

    Head jumping and perspective shifts become impossible in first person, eliminating any tricky choices about how and when to do these things. Authorial decisions about what to describe and how to describe things can be simplified by filtering those decisions through the character.

    However, when significant plot events take place outside that character’s presence, it is often more elegant to jump to a different perspective character, rather than relating these events to the first-person narrator (and the reader) as expository dialog. This is especially true in some complicated thrillers or fantasy/sci-fi epics, where plot events are happening simultaneously to different characters in different places.

    If you want the reader to know something the protagonist does not, or to focus on some detail that the protagonist ignores, it is very difficult to achieve that in first person. Similarly, if the protagonist knows some big twist or secret that the reader does not, the reveal will feel like a cheat in the intimate confines of first person. And sometimes, you may want to keep some distance between the protagonist and the reader, so the reader can doubt the character’s motives.

    If you really love first-person, it is possible to solve these problem by shifting among multiple first person narrators, but it is very difficult to manage multiple distinct narrative voices in a single story.

  23. Dawn Embers said:

    Good answer.

    The main sub-genre that I feel isn’t a good match for first person is Epic Fantasy. Doesn’t sound like a good plan to me.

    My first YA novel, that I’m still working on, is one where I wrote the first draft in first person. It’s now in third person. I had to get through it all and really see where things were going before figuring out that it won’t work in that point of view. Things like that happen.

    And the truth is that you’re right. It’s whatever fits best with that story. That, and maybe what the author prefers to write in. If a writer dislikes first person, or third person, then that may hinder their writing if they try to force it on themselves.

  24. Mesmerix said:

    I’ve been a subscriber to this blog for only a short time thus far, but I have to say, I think Kristin is inside my head. It seems like her blog posts perfectly correspond to whatever writer dilemna is currently plaguing me.

    While writing my current manuscript, I ran into problems deciding on a PoV. I caught myself hopping from my MC’s 1st to side scenes where I would use 3rd as my MC wasn’t present, giving the reader a “sneak peek.” I honestly don’t know if it will end up working, but I’ve decided to go with it and see where it will take me. I can always cut/change it in the end, as good writing is mostly in the revision.

    I also read a great article online about it: I’m not affiliated with that website in any way, but I found it helpful.

  25. Elizabeth Poole said:

    This is a great question, and one that hardly gets any air time. Kudos to you Kristin! I love your blog and this is why.

    I too have experienced the epiphany that my book would work better in first person than third. This was an apocalyptic book, and I just wasn’t feeling the events the way I wanted to. So I changed the POV from third to first.

    I discovered something. It’s possible to write something almost as intimate as first person in third person limited. There is a slight difference, but I think the largest different exists in our minds. We think “oh, this is third person, it’s not as intimate as first” so we just write from the distance we’re used to. I had a lot of fun writing another book in third person limited and trying to keep it as intimate as first person. You guys should try it sometime. Write a passage in first, especially if the protagonist is opinionated, and then switch it to third. Start by just changing pronouns, and the character name to “I”.

    There is a difference, of course, but it doesn’t have to be as big as you think.

    Personally, I think first person gets overused. I love first person, but I have read many a novel where I think it should have been written in third. The character didn’t have a really strong, unique voice, and so things were sort of hum-hum. It wouldn’t have been as bad in third person. I think if you’re going the first person route, you need to make sure your character has a unique, distinct voice to tell your story. Otherwise it’s a hindrance.

  26. Dara said:

    I actually have a difficult time writing in first person. Third has alwasy been easiest for me to write, but I know I ought to learn how to write first person better in order to become a well rounded writer.

    Anyway my current book is third. My only issue is trying to figure out if I should add another perspective or not. I’ve added a few scenes with my other character but it’s seems stilted, probably because I don’t “know” him well enough yet. Guess I just have to keep writing!

  27. Judy said:

    A great topic to think about. I’m not sure what I feel about third person vs first person. When I wrote the first pages of my project and sent it out to my critique group, they all agreed that first person would be difficult to pull off and that third person would sound more “professional”. I think perhaps it’s because I’m writing in the fantasy genre, and they also said there are an abundance of terrible novels in first person. But I love first person, I think there’s something interesting about seeing things from such a narrow perspective.

  28. LynML said:

    Both my published novels were entirely rewritten from a different POV. I started my adult novel in first person, but received a critique that the narrator lacked the life experience and insight to carry the story. I switched to third person, which also allowed me to get into the heads of the two other principal characters, one who in the course of the revision clearly became the protagonist. In the process of revising, more than half of the scenes were new, to accommodate the other two characters’ perspectives.

    In the case of the YA, I originally wrote it in third person, but the editor felt she couldn’t connect with the story. At that time I was young and maybe didn’t have the skill yet to switch into a first person teenage male voice. (For some reason, switching the POV didn’t occur to any of us.) I gained that skill when I wrote the adult novel from the first person POV of a woman hardly out of her teens, so the false start wasn’t a total waste. I gutted the YA, leaving only the first chapter (in third person for reasons that become evident later on in the story) and rewriting the rest–all new scenes, too–from alternating first person POV. And while the story is mainly told from the POV of the male protagonist, his girlfriend narrates about 60 pages in the middle because she sneaks off and finds out/experiences things that he can’t know–in this way heightening the urgency and dramatic irony.

  29. Mystery Robin said:

    Just wanted to comment that I recently finished All Roads Lead Me Back to You by Kennedy Foster (one of Janet Reid’s books) and she headhops within scenes and does it brilliantly. I’d been anti-headhopping till I read her book. I really can’t imagine the story being told another way.

    I wrote my last YA in 1st person. This time I’m using third. I know 1st person is really popular in YA. I just can’t bring myself to do it this time. I mostly stay in one character’s head, but occasionally need to show something else. It’s a tough, tough call. Especially when 1st person feels like an easier write.

  30. C. Michael Fontes said:

    I am personally not a fan of head-hopping EVER. I’ve read tons of other agents are very anti-head-hopping as well. On the flip side, I don’t consider switching to another characters POV at a chapter break head-hopping, nor do I consider it head-hopping when you switch at a scene break.

    I don’t mind switching character POV’s during a chapter change, but I dislike it during a scene change. Furthermore, I am much more comfortable with switching “heads” in third person than in first.

    Lastly, I think third person should ALWAYS be third person limited (or close third, or whatever). Unless you are writing third person omniscient, and are CLEARLY not in any one persons head, it is rough on the reader to jump back and forth, and they will lose that all-important connection to the main character.


  31. jessjordan said:

    I’m not a huge fan of reading third person (it takes longer for me to get into the story), and when I try to write in 3P, it always falls flat.

    I do read third person sometimes, if I love the concept enough, but the whole omniscient (I think that’s the right word … my brain is friend), head-hopping thing isn’t for me. I need the writer to focus on one character per chapter, or at least per section. Otherwise, it starts to feel like talking heads, and I can’t get grounded in the story.

  32. Kelly said:

    “Last week we asked for a full manuscript from a partial we had read. The writer emailed to say he was contemplating a big revision shifting POV.”

    I’m absolutely astounded that an aspiring writer would have the nerve to do that. My God, if the agent liked the partial’s POV, just send the full out. Don’t start overhauling the whole manuscript now and wasting the agent’s time!

  33. Marsupialus said:

    Kristin wrote: If we need to be inside the main character’s head, then first person POV. If the story would benefit from being able to head hop (as you can do in third person), well, then there you have it.

    A little POV 101.

    In first person, we’re “inside” the main character’s head only as they report to us. They may or may not be telling us the truth — the unreliable narrator — depending upon why is they are telling this story [that is, what triggered the story or what is their purpose in telling the story]; who is their contextualized audience [you would tell the same story differently to a police officer then you would your best friend in a locker room]; and, what is the narrative distance in time [that interval between where the narrator is now in their life and the moment of when the events recounted occurred]. Third person doesn’t have those issues of reliability. Moreover, if you write in third person using free indirect discourse, the narrative is right inside the mind of a focalizing character (a “focalizer”), unmediated, as the narrator and focalizer “share” a consciousness. So it’s not accurate to say you get in the mind of a character in first person and you don’t in third.

    Second, it’s true that, in third person, depending upon how the narrative distance in space is manipulated (the distance between the narrator and the focalizer), depending on the level of omniscience, you can move more or less freely among focalizers. This allows a different kind of freedom than first person but one that many writers use simply to give us information for the sake of plot. Because you can change focalizers doesn’t mean you should. But, let us not forget that many writers, among them, Barry Hannah and Philip Roth, have used first person omniscience to great effect. The same “head hopping” (I don’t like that term I’m afraid), Kristin refers to. We can naturalize these by believing that the narrator, as a reporter might do, learned what happened from other characters and then presents the novel as if they were there as the events unfolded.

    Many (new) writers assume that writing in first person is easier to write because of their strong personal identification with the “I” of the story. But they don’t realize that the “I” is a construct, just another character.

    Perhaps the reason that some of the commenters here have a problem writing in third person is because they don’t quite get how to manipulate that narrative distance in space. If there is distance, if there is narratorial mediation (and by that I mean the narrator is constantly telling us what a focalizer is seeing or thinking or feeling rather than just give us what is seen or thought or felt), if there is a disconnect between the diction and imagery and word choice, the language used, in the story and the worldview of a focalizer, this will cause the problems described in the comments.

  34. passinglovenotes said:

    I teach English for YA’s and I recently had a conversation w/ one of my students on this very topic. She started to read a novel and gave up. When I asked her why, she said, “I hate when they talk in first person.”

    Funny thing… A couple of weeks before I had checked out the same book out our library, read a couple of chapters, and then put it down for EXACTLY the same reason.

    So I think first person is trendy in YA right now, but I don’t think it’s a MUST DO, if you get my drift.

  35. Anonymous said:

    I don’t think first person is going to work well in YA with a grand theme, eg, Pullman or Rowling for example — there’s too much that can’t be conveyed. Small ideas like Twilight. . .obviously yes, and perhaps middle grade as well.

    Third close/limited is much more flexible and useful.

  36. Cole Kleinschmit said:

    I’ve tried omniscient third. It just doesn’t work for me. I can’t manage head-hopping properly and end up falling back on one person’s POV by the end of the scene. I tend to play it in limited third from the start, now, and then head-hop around via subsections within the chapter, but each section is a single person’s POV.

    I’m a bit of an orator, so first person humor comes very naturally to me. Third person narrative humor is a lot harder to pin down, but it’s almost more rewarding for it. I have a satire in the works that pretty much begs to be written in first person, though. Who am I to argue?

  37. Annie said:

    Thanks – this is one of those things that goes around – no one want this, editors will shoot you down if you do that, when the reality is you should write the book the BEST was possible.You can’t remind writers of that enough.

  38. Mary McDonald said:

    Maybe your prospective client can do like Jodi Thomas, whose “Twisted Creek” has both first person and third person pov?

    Ordinarily, I wouldn’t suggest it, but it worked out really well in Twisted Creek. The protaganist was in first person, but when the pov switched to the male mc, it was third person.

    I love reading third person, myself, but her character had such a voice, that I was totally caught up in the first person chapters, then when it switched to third, I was equally happy, because that’s what I love.

    Anyway, just a thought. 🙂

  39. Isabella_CY said:

    I prefer to write in third person as it allows me to get into the mind of the main characters.

    To me, writing in first person seems forced. It’s like the protagonist made himself/herself sound perfect.

  40. Martha Ramirez said:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I had written my YA first in first person POV and a cp suggested to rewrite it in third, which I did.

    But lately I was thinking after all the revisions (a year later) maybe I should go to first if it would help get me in.

    It will be a tough rewrite but I am willing to do it.

  41. Desiree said:

    a heavy load of writers block just lifted itself and went on about its business, now that i’ve read this blog.

    thank God, think i’ll go try some different POV’s now.