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Third person vs first person.

I started on my first book having problems with telling not showing and using words that make the experience impersonal. I'm thinking that a story told in third person is more difficult to make personal than a first person narrative. 

The story I'm working on follows the development of multiple characters, it would be too complicated for the reader to follow it in first person. 

My question for you is, should I start another story that works in first person to get practice writing or should I stick to my current project, hoping I gain the proper techniques?

  • I don't believe it's anything to do with whether first person or third person is easier to make feel more personal. You can be as close or as distant as you want in either. It's about having the crafting techniques to manipulate that distance. 

    Lynn mentioned psychic distance, which is the key, and here's a link to a blog by one of the Jericho tutors about it.


    I know when I was first trying to get to grips with voice and PD, I found writing flash fiction scenes from writing prompts a great way to explore this. The crazier the voice and situation, the better! 

    It's all about practice. 

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    • Is it your opinion that first person is harder? I need a lot of practice regardless of the POV. Trying to avoid filters and concentrate more on showing is taxing. 

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      • What? I thought you were angelic…

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        • Lol - time to get out my knives.

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          • I think that everyone is interesting enough that their personality could fit into a good story. 

            I'm not sure why it would be dangerous to write as yourself. Maybe if you are a tax collector that has a stamp collection and too many cats than you shouldn't base a character on yourself. 

            Okay writing this out made me think about it deeper. The character's strengths and weaknesses, their flawed world views are essential. Whether its action, thriller, romance or mystery, you are probably not the best character for the story. Since you can cast whoever you want, create the ideal character with all of the personality traits and habits to make the best story. 

            If your first person view turns into an autobiography, it is because you lack an imagination.     

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          • Hi Luke.

            My own feeling is that first person works really well if you have a plot that you can tell pretty much entirely through your viewpoint character's eyes. And it's hugely immediate by its very nature - 'you' (the viewpoint character) are telling the reader your story directly in 'your' own voice. But it is tricky in that you (the author) are constrained to ONLY what 'you' (the character) experiences or knows about, and you (the author) have to develop and strictly keep to a very particular tone of voice - that of your narrating viewpoint character.

            True, that's essentially the same for close (limited) third person narratives too, but with the latter you do have the latitude to 'pull back' to a more 'cinematic' third person viewpoint if you need to. That's an option that a first person viewpoint doesn't really allow.

            Arguably, the most flexible viewpoint is therefore a mix of 'cinematic' and 'limited' third person, where you can establish a scene in a 'long shot' and then 'zoom' closer and closer into the viewpoint character;s space and even into their head... which is where the 'filtering' needs to be dispensed with and the reader metaphorically inhabits the character as if they were living what the character experiences along with them, much as they do in first person.

            For myself, as a relatively inexperienced writer still, I find that obsessing about filtering while I'm writing a first draft tends to obstruct my story-telling a bit too much; I'm concentrating on a 'technical' aspect to the detriment of just getting on with writing the story. So I tend to write with it in the back of my mind but not second-guessing myself on every sentence or paragraph. I just try to tell my story. Then I rely on the occcasional expert eye of others (especially here) to point out the most egregious examples in excerpts posted for critique. But I also do a dedicated editing pass where I specifically look for filtering words like 'felt' or 'thought' or understood' as well as looking for other, less obvious, examples of 'distancing. Then I can rewrite as needed to close the psychic distance and make the characters' experiences more immediate and easily shared by the reader.

            Emma Darwin's blog, linked to by Kate above, is the best guide to this that I've found. It gets easier and more automatic the more you write (or so I'm told!). But, like music or painting or dance or acting... or anything else that's a mix of free-flowing imaginative creation and underlying technical skill and technique, the more you think about the technicalities of that creative activity the more you're likely to interupt and disrupt the pure process of creation.

            So my advice, for what it's worth, would be to simply tell your story in whatever way you feel most comfortable with, whichever way feels 'right'. Once the story is told, the real work begins, and that's the editing. That's when you can start to think properly about psychic distance and filtering and so on. That's when you refine the raw output into 'good writing'.

            Easier said than done, I know! But it's all practice. All of it. Why not use your first draft - and the ensuing edits - as that practice rather than starting another story as what sounds like just a 'technical exercise'. Good luck! 🙂 

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            • I am going to keep working on my first draft. When its done, I will go back through it, doing a search for weak words and filter words. I will focus on showing. I will make sure that the reader has the best vantage point to view the story from. Its important that I first just get the darn thing horribly written.

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            • Jon's advice is spot on, whichever point of view feels right to you is the point of view it should be in. But based on the fact that you have a good number of characters I'd be inclined to say that third person does sound the best option, though that's just personal preference as I'm not a fan of head jumping in first person.

              Best advice I can give really is to read books which are written in multiple point of views, amazing how reading can be a writers greatest aid! The below link may be useful as well:


              Though if you're looking to get more practice perhaps you could write some short stories, write one in third person and another in first person, see which one you like best! Always find short stories are a great way to practice technique!

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              • Hi,

                Maybe try both ways? See what works for you best... And exercise. I think Kate is right, you have to train your technique. And think of your reader. What way will be clearer and more enjoying for your reader?

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