When you first sit down to start writing, do you ever pause and wonder, do I want to write in first person, or third? Past tense or present? One POV or multiple? To me, it’s a big commitment for whatever you start off with, because then you have to commit to it for the entire novel. (You can always go back and change it, but let’s face it, that’s a pain in the butt.)
Most of the time, my gut instinct is good. I just sit down and start writing the story in mind and it comes out as a certain tense and POV. And it’s not always the same. I have some manuscripts in third person past tense, some in first person present, some in first past, some in third present. I don’t know why, but some stories just demand certain accommodations right off the bat. Sometimes, however, my initial choice doesn’t work well and I have to rewrite the entire manuscript *sigh*.
But if that’s not working, and it just isn’t coming to you, let’s explore the different benefits of each, and when you should choose them.
First, identify your genre. Are you writing contemporary? Fantasy? Sci-Fi? Urban Fantasy? Western? Romance? Whatever it may be is fine, just make sure you’re clear on what it is—that’ll be important not only to pinpoint the best POV and tense, but to also to keep your novel focused as you write.
Generally, if you’re writing a character driven story—like contemporary or romance—your best bet will be first person. Your novel thrives on your character’s relationships and emotions, and your reader will feel closer to your character, feel more empathetic toward them, and give the story more emotional impact.
However, when done right, first person can be a great tool for action-packed stories so your readers are right along with your characters as they fight for their lives. Just keep in mind, first person is limiting. And when writing big battles or dramatic scenes, you’ll have to stay focused on the character’s immediate surroundings and their thoughts and feelings, because you’re in their head. This makes it difficult to write about the rest of the battle and characters.
Third person can be used for any genre. Things to keep in mind are that third person will give the reader more distance from your character. Unlike first person, the reader isn’t automatically in their head, picturing themselves as the main character. This can be a positive and negative element—as you give yourself a broader audience since some guys don’t like picturing themselves as a female protagonist and vice-versa. But you also make it more difficult for some readers to connect with your character.
Third person is also easier if you plan to have more than one POV. It’s easier for the reader to keep straight whose perspective they’re reading from since they’re seeing the character’s name instead of “I”.
Past or Present Tense
Tense is a little less tricky. This one’s all about preference. Do you want your novel to be happening in the moment, and make it feel immediate to the reader? (generally good for action-packed, edge of your seat stories). Then your best bet is present tense.
If not, past is commonly used, and a good companion to third person writing.
You can always write a few pages both ways, compare, and decide which you prefer.
Deciding between first and third person is a personal preference. Which do you think will best fit your story? How close do you want your reader to your main character? And if you can’t decide, write the first two pages both ways, and compare. See which one you like better. Look at your favorite novels. Are they in first, third, present, or past? Is there a theme? Do you generally enjoy third person novels more or first person?
In Part 2 we’ll explore POV—how to decide which character’s perspective to write from, how many POVs you need, and how it relates to the tense you chose and your story.
What do you think about POV and tense? Do you prefer writing in third person or first? Do you prefer reading in third person or first?
Share your thoughts!