Writing or reading, it doesn’t matter. When it comes to the primary POV (point of view), I prefer third person limited.
Actually, let’s take a step back. What are the different POVs? We have first, second, and third corresponding to the pronouns used: I, you, or he/she/they. Second is super rare (it’s kind of odd to address you as the protagonist), but if you want to read a book that does it well, try The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. After that, we have limited and omniscient viewpoints. Limited means you are stuck inside one character’s head per scene/chapter (unless you commit the mortal sin of head-hopping). Omniscient means the reader gets a God’s eye view into people’s thoughts. I’m sure there are other bizarre POVs, but these are the four primary options for writers:
- First person limited
- Second person limited
- Third person limited
- Third person omniscient
Notice there is no omniscient for first person or second person. This could be done I guess, but it defeats the purpose of POVs. It’s also pretty confusing. Writing “I ate candy” and “I drank soda” followed by “Tom wondered why his mom drilled him about brushing his teeth.” will result in some head scratching.
I don’t know Tom’s thoughts because I am me, not him. In this hypothetical first/second person omniscient writing style, the reader would rightfully assume the protagonist is telepathic. That said, I’m sure someone will figure out a clever way of handling this eventually and win a prize for it.
Third person omniscient is a bit old school. It’s more detached and harder to write with emotional weight. Thus, first person and third person limited are what you’ll see in most books today. They offer the potential for strong, unique voices that separate books from other forms of storytelling. Which one is better is entirely subjective and also dependent on the story the author wants to tell. For my money though, third person limited is where it’s at.
The key difference is in first person, you are in the character’s shoes. Everything is “I this” and “I that”. You experience the story as if you are that character. In third person, he/she/they rules the day. You may hear the character’s thoughts and intricately understand their motives, but you’re not in their shoes. You instead walk beside them, an imaginary friend of sorts. This distinction between the two inherently emphasizes storytelling aspects in a different manner.
First person limited is faster and easier to read. There’s no need to differentiate he/she/they from the protagonist because the protagonist is the only one using the pronoun ‘I’. The removal of some contextual requirements helps speed up the story, allowing for a more brisk pace. Where it falters is in characterization.
Rather than inserting ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes like in first person, third person gives us just the right amount of distance so we can better know the character. Like in real like, thinking about yourself (like in first person) includes a ton of biases that make an honest reflection difficult. Assessing an individual from nearby, with access to their inner dialogue, gives us a more accurate representation of that person. It gives us more to fall in love with, more to hate, and more of an emotional connection overall. Sure, we can love a character in first person too. Loving yourself is healthy after all, but loving myself the way I love some fictional characters feels downright narcissistic.
Forming bonds with characters is a big reason that I read. That bond doesn’t have to persist beyond finishing the book (it’s a feat few stories achieve), but I need a certain level of engagement to care about their story. Third person stands a better chance of providing that engagement due to the aforementioned reasons. First person characterizations are made more by their actions rather than inner dialogue. I can’t help but think of characters in this style as cause-and-effect events rather than people (or aliens or dogs or whatever).
There’s an additional element to third person that immerses me better in the story. I know I’m not the protagonist. I can’t shut that part off. When I read in first person limited, it reminds me that I’m reading a story. There’s a disassociation from the text, damaging my suspension of disbelief. Third person limited never asks me to pretend I’m the savior of the planet or under attack my spectral assailants. It’s clear that this is happening to another individual, and I’m simply along for the ride. That is something I can buy into.
That said, books geared towards young adults and younger are better suited for first person. I’d argue characters are less important in such novels. Coming-of-age stories offer guidance in key developmental times. Fiction that lets adolescents place themselves in a fantasy world is great for imagination. Readers being able to place themselves inside a story arc with similarities to their own life is great for building confidence. And as I said before, first person is great for pacing. Sometimes we all need a fast read.
Typically though, I want characters who are different than me. I want to either expand my worldview or force myself to think a little bit differently for a few hours. Third person is better equipped to showcase these contrasting personalities and worldviews. I love reading in this style, and I love writing in this style. Unless I get into penning young adult novels, I don’t expect to ever move from third person. Ironically, it’s more personal because it’s impersonal.
And that’s what I want my writing to reflect: a personal connection between the story and you, the reader.