The advantages and disadvantages of first-person point of view


Girl_With_Magnifying_GlassOne of the first technical decisions you have to make when you sit down to begin a drafting story is what point of view, or perspective, you will use. First-person perspective is more common in young adult than in other age brackets of fiction, although that’s not a hard and fast rule. (Harry Potter was written in the third person, for example.) Still, first person is what we’ll talk about today.

The Basics…

If you’re not sure what I’m rabbiting on about, first person is where the story is narrated directly to the reader by the protagonist, the same way any of us might tell a friend about something. “My heart leapt into my throat as I slammed on the brakes.”

Third person is where the story is told indirectly, by some presumably omnipresent being, or maybe a ghost with peeping tom issues. “Her hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel as she pumped the brakes. They weren’t working!”

(Second person is the unpopular kid who rarely gets picked to have a go at sports: the protagonist is the reader. “Your seatbelt cut into your shoulder as the car came to a crunching halt.”)

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Advantages of First-Person perspective

One. It allows the reader to get right inside the story and the protagonist’s head — to know what drives them. The reader can experience every surge of adrenaline; every flutter of the heart and ache of despair.

Two. First-person point of view usually makes for a faster-paced story. If you are writing an action-packed tale of adventure or one where the character is scrambling to stay on top of things as their life spirals out of control, first person is great. (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an excellent example of this.)

Three. Because the protagonist is telling the story, it’s filtered by their perspectives, allowing for use of an unreliable narrator. It also gives the reader a greater sense of empathy for the protagonist, as they are right there with them. So if your character is trying to justify some questionable decisions, for example, first person is great. (A classic example, although not YA, would be the Dexter books by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter is a serial killer, but it’s hard not to cheer him on!)

Disadvantages of First-Person Perspective

One. It narrows the experiences to those of the protagonist — the reader can’t know about what the character doesn’t. Some writers get around this by writing in the first person but with chapters from different characters’ perspectives, so that’s always a possibility if you’re concerned about that.

Two. As a writer, you need to be careful to maintain the character’s voice throughout, not just in dialogue. If done well, this is an advantage (YA urban fantasy Half-Blood by Jennifer L. Armentrout is a good example of a voice done well, as is NA contemporary Last Will and Testament by Dahlia Adler). But it does take more work, and if you’re alternating viewpoints you need to be even more careful.

Three. Describing the protagonist to the reader is a challenge. A character regarding herself in the mirror and categorising the pros and cons of her appearance is artificial, and is a cliche even if done well.

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So there you have it. Despite the challenges, I still love first-person perspective. I’m drafting my first third-person novel at the moment and, although I’m over halfway through, there are still days when it feels like an odd fit.

What is your favourite perspective to read and write?

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer who likes coffee and hot chocolate, but never mixed together. That’s just wrong.

Cassandra Page

4 Comments

  1. Great post! all of my novels thus far have been first person, except for my current one. I love reading and writing first person because I can get right into the character’s heads!

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    Reply

      1. Thanks for the reply!

        For me, writing is a very organic process. The way a story comes to me is the way I put it down. It probably sounds silly! I had an editor tell me once that one of my “first person” manuscripts would read better in third person, so I tried really hard to change it. It felt so wrong! I ended up realizing that the problem was not that it was in first person. It was a problem with the writing itself. I worked that out. My current manuscript came to me in third person, so that’s what it is. I don’t think this particular story could ever be in first person! Again, it might sound silly, but it would feel like I wasn’t being true to the narrator of the story 🙂

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