Chip MacGregor

February 26, 2013

Should I use first-person or third-person in my novel?


Someone asked, “In your opinion, is it better to see first-person or third-person POV novels for a first-time novelist?”

I’m not one who gets too worked up about first-or-third POV as the “answer” to great fiction. A good novelist can use either one. However, I can tell you from experience that many first-person novels from beginning writers suffer from an overuse of the “I-verb” syndrome. (“I started… I walked… I ate… I moved… I handed… I answered…”) That endless parade of I-verbs creates a really dull novel. First-person fiction can be great, and it’s certainly become much more common in recent years, but in my view it’s harder to master than third person. 

On a related note, someone asked, “Is it true most publishers don’t want first-person novels?”

No, I don’t think that’s true at all. Again, writing an excellent first-person novel is simply harder to do well, so publishers probably have set the bar a bit higher. But some of the best fiction on the market is done in first person, and publishers still buy first-person novels. (Two favorite authors of mine, Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald, wrote nearly everything from the first-person point of view. Bridget Jones Diary was a wildly successful first-person novel. I could give a bunch of other examples.)

One author sent in this: “How many POV’s should a new novelist have in women’s contemporary fiction? I’ve heard we should use two for romance and one or two for general fiction. (I’m asking because my work in progress has one main character, but three other storylines that each require chapters from their POV. I’m wondering if that will make my novel harder to sell.)”

Interesting question, since it seems to suggest there are hard and fast rules to be followed in contemporary fiction. While there are certainly rules to follow in genre literature (for example, if you’re writing contemporary romance, you’ve got to have your heroine meet her hero early; if you’re writing a cozy mystery, the crime needs to take place early in the novel; etc.), in general fiction you don’t have all those same strictures. I’ve read contemporary fiction that had several POV’s working. However, let’s get real: The more POV’s in the novel, the harder it is to make it work. In my view, it will take an experienced hand to craft a great novel with multiple points of view. Having four POV’s in one novel might be a lot to ask a new novelist to do. So, yeah, in the big picture, that might make your novel harder to sell. That doesn’t mean I think you should give up on the idea (I haven’t seen your work, so I have no idea how well you handle it), it just means you should be aware that you’ve given yourself a tough task.

Another wrote to ask, “At the beginning of many novels, I see the author often state ‘this is a work of fiction, and any similarities to real events is coincidental.’ Since writers don’t live in a vacuum, and often write about what they know, how important is this disclaimer? If I write about the donut shop in my hometown, am I in danger of being sued?”

You ever watch “Law and Order” on TV? At the beginning of every episode, they offer a warning that the story you’re about to see is a work of fiction, and any similarities to persons or events in the real world is strictly coincidental. The writers are clearly inspired by what they see in the newspaper headlines, but they take some basic plot ideas and weave a completely fictional story around them. If they simply stole someone else’s ideas, they would be violating the individual’s right to privacy, as well as possibly infringing on another’s copyright. Your novel has the same limitations. We’ve all written stories with people or places or events that had some connection to our past, and you’re free to include places and events that are genuine and bring a dose of reality to your book. But if you were to interview your friend, steal her story, and create a novelized account of her life, you would be in violation of the law. You need her expressed permission to tell her personal story. Instead you take that character and you reshape it a bit. You make sure not to slander anyone, or make a real person look bad. You change the details so that nobody could explore your story and know immediately who you were talking about. (I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving legal advice here, but I’ve had more than one lawyer explain the argument of reasonability in novels — i.e., If a reasonable person were to read the story, would they know who you were talking about? And would they assume you were trying to assassinate that individual’s character?) I doubt the donut shop is going to sue you, since you’re free to include such details in your novel. But I’d stay away from using the real names of the owners, and having them poison customers with cyanide-laced donuts. I’ve heard that’s the sort of thing donut-shop owners frown upon.

One author noted, “I just read a nonfiction book that would make a fantastic novel. Must I contact the author to tell him I intend to dramatize the story? Or because it is a national story and a true event, do I not need to contact anyone? Can I simply consider the work reference material?”

You’re on dangerous ground here, so again let me begin by saying I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not giving legal advice. If you need legal help, by all means consult an attorney. I asked a lawyer informally about this question, and he said a writer should be aware of the source of his or her information. If the nonfiction book is basically your complete source for the novel you’re planning, then yes, you are legally obligated to talk with the author about your novel idea. But if this is, as you say, a national story that everyone knows about, you might have several sources that you rely on to create a story. The example he gave me: there have been a couple nonfiction books out on the Bernie Madoff scandal. If you base your novel on one of those books, so that it is the basis of the bulk of your research, then you could be sued for copyright infringement. But there have been thousands of stories written on the Madoff case, and there are hundreds of people who could be interviewed. If you spent time reading those, talked with people involved, and created a fictionalized account of a guy who created a Ponzi scheme and ripped off millions of dollars, you would not be violating that nonfiction author’s rights. Does that make sense?

 Again, I’m trying to catch up with the hundreds of questions people have sent it, so I’m doing quickie answers to several questions this week. Would love to know what questions YOU have…


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  • Saritha Das says:

    Wow! Thanks a lot, I am working on my very first work of fiction and was in a huge dilemma if my portrayal is decent enough. This post really helps!

  • Gary says:

    If you want to use a celebrities name or a band name as part of a conversation between two characters (not actually putting them in your novel), where are you in the eyes of the law- is that allowed or can they sue you?

  • Sam says:

    I’m currently writing a novel that has many POVs and a few main characters, I’m also writing it in first person. Having just read some previous questions you answered, I’m starting to doubt my work, I know it won’t be perfect on my first draft, but I have used the word ‘I’ quite a bit. Is it almost pointless continuing with this novel as it would have very low chances of doing well? Also, what would you say are upper limits to how many characters you should introduce and POVs you should write in?

  • :Donna Marie says:

    One thing I can add here is that it seems to be “common knowledge” amongst editors and agents I’ve met or heard speak: young adult fiction = first person. Of course, it’s not like ALL YA fiction has to be, but…

  • My response to the person who wants to create a novel from a non-fiction book is an old saying: “To borrow from one source is plagiarism, to borrow from many is research.” Of course, I’m not a lawyer either so don’t come after me if you’re sued!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      However, I think suing Dennis is a MUCH better idea than suing me. #sueDennisBrooksToday

  • Very interesting, Chip. I have one. I’m working on my first novel. It’s a supernatural romance, I would say…and you may have covered this the other day…but how many words should it be and how many words should I set for a daily goal?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A supernatural romance is probably going to run in the 85k to 95k range, Steve. As for a daily writing goal, a lot of part-time writers continue to strive for 1000 salable words per day. You can go up or down from there, but that’s a nice baseline.

  • rachel says:

    It could just be me; but I find that a third person narrative written really badly is—well, bad, but forgiveable if i like the plot or the characters; whereas a first person narrative written badly is completely intolerable. a first person narrative done badly in the present tense? — my least favourite thing of all time. I think this largely has to do with the strength of character voice as April mentions. Because the character is there to guide you and you are not given the omniscient support of an authorial voice, rather the musings of a character you are learning about, it is a bit of a double whammy if the character voice is weak. Not only are you striking out on the character voice front, then, but also on the narrative front as a whole. It’s harder, I feel, for a reader to forgive.

  • April Henry says:

    In books for teens, first person is very common, to help the reader feel like he or she IS the main character. I once had an editor ask me to rewrite an entire novel from third to first. That being said, I think almost all of my recent teen novels are in third, to allow me to show more than one POV, and to heighten suspense by cutting back and forth.

    i think the strongest argument for first person is if that character has a really strong voice.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, April. Appreciate your comment. (For those not in the know, April Henry is a bestselling novelist, with much good advice to share.)

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    The POV comments and responses to fiction built on the real thing are enlightening – and inspiring of creativity. Thank you.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Some publishers might not care for first-person POV, but I’ll add another success story to your examples. Suzanne Collin wrote The Hunger Games in first-person and present tense, which jarred me in Chapter 1. But she makes it work.

    Of course, the cinema version dramatizes the story in third person POV. I don’t think I’m ready to sit through a whole movie where the camera is the protagonist’s eyes and we “hear” her thinking. (Interesting idea, though.)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Rick. I’ve had some people write to simply ask if I’d list some good first-person writers. Appreciate your note.

  • Janet McLaughlin says:

    Thanks again, Chip, for your great advice. A thought on POV. My first attempt at novel writing was a MG that had four POVs. I soon learned, thanks to my critique group and info gleaned from SCBWI conferences, that kids like/need a singular POV. Although I started writing in third person, I found first person so much easier for staying in my protagonist’s head. I now write in first person present for my ‘Tween novels and love the immediacy of it. Best advice I can give to novelists who write for kids–join the Society for Chidren’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s the best move I ever made as a writer. And join a critique group. The interaction with other writers is as valuable as their feedback.

  • Iola Goulton says:

    One more thought, on the “any similarities to real events is coincidental” or similar disclaimer. I recently saw this on a historical novel that was (partially) based on real historical events. In these cases, the disclaimer needs to be edited to allow for historical fact.
    On the other hand, the novel in question had a range of factual errors, so maybe the disclaimer was accurate (if unintentionally so).

  • Iola Goulton says:

    “That endless parade of I-verbs creates a really dull novel”

    Love the phrase! But you’re an agent. You must have read plenty of third-person novels with an endless parade of sentences beginning with ‘he’ or ‘she’. That’s just as bad.

    And your comment on the number of POV characters is timely. As a reference, George RR Martin has nine POV characters in the first Game of Thrones book – but it’s almost 1000 pages long, and is the start of a seven-book series. That sheer scale gives him space to create characters that can’t be addressed in the 300 pages of the average novel.

  • Les Edgerton says:

    Good article, Chip. One misconception some writers have is that if they use a real character in a novel, that person can only sue if he or she is portrayed in a negative or defamatory light. Not so. There was a rather famous case a few decades ago where an author met a foreign dignitary at a Washington function and liked his name so much she used it in her novel and in a purely positive light. In fact, he was only in one small paragraph and the persona was completely positive. It was a scene where the protagonist was meeting and greeting dignitaries at a Washington function and that was the extent of the character’s role. He was introduced and moved on and disappeared from the story. The person sued and won–it didn’t matter if he was shown positively or negatively in the law’s eyes. He just plain didn’t want to be in her novel and the court agreed and he won substantial punitive damages. It’s a common misconception that the character be demeaned or portrayed negatively. Not the standard at all.

  • Lee Thompson says:

    Good stuff, Chip!

  • Jennifer M Zeiger says:

    Thanks for addressing these questions. I’ve experimented with first and third person POV before but never noticed the I-verb issue. Thank you. It’s something I’ll keep my eyes on to avoid.

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