First Person Narrator or Third – Which Works Better?

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Sir Lance, who is the main character in my Children of the Knight series, wanted the entire story to be from his point of view. But was that possible? As the author telling his story, I had to make the best decision for my readers, and that’s always an interesting decision for writers to make –  which will work better, first person narrator or third? My answer to that is: depends on the story. For personal stories like romances or reflections back to childhood or struggles with a deeply emotional personal dilemma, I always prefer first person because of the intimacy factor. You, the reader, feel part of the person’s heart and soul and it’s easier for the writer to share the emotions the situation requires, especially feelings of love and longing or even wistfulness and nostalgia.

Having said that, I don’t like first person narration in horror, action, adventure, or even mystery books for this main reason: you. the reader, know right up front that no matter what danger may befall the main character, he or she won’t die. That eliminates such an important layer of suspense that it can practically derail what would normally be a good story.

Case in point: The Hunger Games Trilogy. Gee, Katniss is the narrator and it’s in the first person voice. You think maybe she might survive the games? I wonder . . . That choice by the author nearly ruined those books for me because the story was much bigger than Katniss alone and when we the readers only saw what she saw, that was limiting. The movie version was able to open up the entire world and let us see into areas – like how the games were run – that Katniss (and by extension us) never could see or experience. Plus, especially with the first book, there’s no suspense in the game because you know she can’t die. In my opinion as a reader, that was a poor choice by the author.

Children of the Knight is written in the third person because there are so many characters and locations that a single narrator could not have covered everything in any way that wouldn’t have seemed forced and idiotic. In addition, characters dying can be traumatic and very emotional for readers and I want that option in my books so readers can rightly fear for the life of a beloved main character. That, to me, is what makes a book great, when the author shocks the readers with something completely unexpected. Sure, it can happen in first person narrated stories, but never to the narrator, at least nothing shockingly fatal.

Another disadvantage to first person is that it’s hard to hide anything about your narrator from the reader since we’re constantly inside that person’s head. I find it intriguing to learn bits and pieces about characters as a story progresses, and that includes the main character. To service the story, you may not want the reader to know until a certain point that your main character loves someone else or is plotting something against someone, but if you’re inside the character’s mind the whole time it’s tough to hide anything like that from the reader.

Since I’m not likely to write a memoir or romance that’s simply a romance and not a story with a romantic element, I’m not likely to use first person narration in any projects I currently have lined up. That’s not to say I might not dip into it in the future, but it all depends on how best to serve the story and make it work for the reader.

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3 thoughts on “First Person Narrator or Third – Which Works Better?

  1. rachelloon says:

    It’s an interesting question. When I thought about it for a little while, I came to the conclusion that, for me, it depends on how the book first pops into my mind; whether it’s with a character–in which case I’m liable to opt for first person, or a premise–in which case I go for third. I honestly prefer writing in first person, but I agree, it does limit you somewhat in the story-telling department.

    • StuntShark says:

      Thanks for the comment. Again, each author has to choose the point of view based upon the story being told. And, as you pointed out, the main character. What kinds of stories do you tell in the first person voice, if you don’t mind my asking?

  2. rachelloon says:

    Lol, I thought about my answer to this for ages, and ended up writing an entire blog post about it here: http://racheliliffe.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/the-first-people-of-rachelloon/ complete with excerpts from the books in question.

    The short answer, however, is ‘Villains’. Villains, or other people you wouldn’t normally expect to hear a story from. Mostly villains though, Mwahahahahaha! I’ve got one assassin constantly being hunted by ‘the hero’ whose family he murdered, and one guy who sold all of Earth out to an alien empire.

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