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The Case Against First Person
Hans Ness, Mar 15, 2024
I’m not a fan of First Person POV. I know it’s very popular, so I guess that makes me a rebel, a contrarian, an argumentative lit-hole. But let me make my case.

Intimate? — The conventional wisdom is that First Person is more intimate, where readers feel a stronger connection to the character telling their own story. Intuitively, it makes sense that Third Person is just an extra voice that gets between the reader and the character. Or does it? A 2016 study shows that readers feel just as much empathy for the character regardless if the POV is First or Third Person. (They wrote a short story in two versions, 1P and 3P, then surveyed readers.) Apparently, a Third Person voice inside a character’s head is just as intimate as the character speaking in their own voice. I’m not sure how many other empirical studies have been done, but even if you’re skeptical, it’s fair to say that First Person is not always more intimate than Third Person.

Now here are my gripes about First Person:

Contrived — To narrate events about other characters or places, the author must invent a reason why someone else tells the protagonist secondhand, or make the protagonist eavesdrop or imagine these events. This may feel contrived.

LanguageFirst Person must sound like how the character would talk or write. If it’s too casual, descriptions would be thin. If it’s too literary, it wouldn’t sound like the character’s authentic voice. So the whole story must be somewhere in the middle. With Third Person, you can have more variety of style with casual dialog and heightened narration.

Unrealistic — It is unrealistic that a real person would recall events in such prolific detail, describing facial features and eye colors and all the scents wafting from a bakery, and verbatim conversations with line-by-line reactions. A Third Person narrator is also unrealistic, but since they are a magical sprite, I do not expect realism from them.

MovementFirst Person is stuck with that one character (or sometimes switching each chapter). If the Third Person is omniscient or loosely limited, there is more freedom to describe concurrent events and histories, giving a greater feeling of movement.

But I don’t hate First Person. I just prefer to write and read in Third Person.