Persons of Interest

In response to some perplexed readers of my previous post who wondered what “omniscient” and “limited third” are, here’s a guide for your delectation:

First Person:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

First person is from the point of view of one person, up close and personal. The implied conceit is that the narrator is also the author of the novel. It’s all “I”, “me”, “mine”, “my” and “myself”.

The vast majority of thinly disguised autobiographical novels set in coffee shops about aspiring novelists are in first person, making it the the pov par excellence for the self-obsessed.

Many beginning writers find it the easiest because you can just write a novel as if you were you, and as you are you, what could be easier? All my first attempts at novel writing were in first person.

Pros: The first person is very freeing. You can go off on tangents, share wild-and-woolly theories about life, the universe and everything. All that could possibly go on in your character’s brain is fair game.

Cons: With first person you are stuck in one person’s head for fifty thousand plus words, which if you are the writer can mean many, many years of enforced visiting with a person you may grow to hate. This is especially bad if your text’s “I” is a thinly disguised version of yourself. But it’s not only writers who can hate first person. I have heard several readers say that it is their most despised point of view and that they won’t read books in it.

Fashionability: Perennial. First person has been with us since novels were first writ and will never go away, but it’s like jeans they’re not exactly in fashion they’re just there.

Difficulty: Deceptively easy.

Second Person:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.

Second person is all “you” and “yours”. It’s the most maligned of the povs. And yet, when done well ’tis heavenly. Also very useful for delivering rules about writing. No wonder that it’s the first choice of advertisers and dictators.

Pros: it’s an amazing device for writing about love and obsession and psychosis and tourism.

Cons: It is like having to spend many hours in the room with a bossy, obsessive and possible pyscho telling you what you’ll think and what you’ll do. Bugger that! And when writing in second person there’s the worrying feeling that you’re starting to turn into a bossy obsessive psycho. Or possibly the voiceover of a tourism ad.

Fashionability: Never high. The least popular of all the povs. Though some argue that all epistolary novels are automatically second person.

Difficulty: Really High—bugger it up and you lose your readers instantly.

Third Person Limited:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

A telephone was ringing in the darkness—a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

Third person is all “she”, “he”, “her”, “his”, “they” and “their”. Third person is the default pov for stories about someone else. Making it limited means that it echoes first person, making you privy to that character’s thoughts. Sometimes it feels like pretty much every novel in the English-speaking world is in third-person limited. Especially the really popular ones.

Pros: It allows you to get into the head of a character without actually going all the way in. Although it echoes first a distance is maintained. Thus third person limited engenders a much less suffocating relationship with your characters.

Cons: You can’t get as close as you can with first person. It’s much harder to go off on entertaining digressions. Scott’s So Yesterday would be an entirely different book if it was in limited third.

Fashionability: The pov of choice of the twentieth century and shaping up to dominate the twenty-first as well.

Difficulty: High, but at least you’ll look like all the other novels.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

The point of view where the writer gets to be God. What is not to love?

Pros: The narrator can go wherever they want whenever they want. They can deliver digressions. Tell us what’s going to happen and then tease us by not going there immediately. The narrator know what everyone is thinking, even the lad who got tuppence for watching the horses in a few lines in chapter five, “Of Horses and Other Follies Wherein We Learn that Our Heroine is Not All that She Seems”.

Cons: When done poorly the reader has no idea whose head they’re in or why. Can sometimes read as cutesy or trying too hard to be like Jane Austen or Henry Fielding.

Fashionability: The pov of choice of most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Difficulty: Extremely High, unless you were born in the 1700s, or really are God.