First vs third – what perspective does the reader prefer?

Reading Time: 4 minutes
first vs third perspective

You have your story thought out, your main character developed, and you know what you want to do with your plot. But then you have to choose the point of view in which you want to write your story, and you wonder: what perspective does the reader prefer?

On average, readers have no preference for a first or third-person perspective, as long as it fits the story. Genre does play a role. Readers of fantasy and fanfiction prefer the third person, whereas detective and YA readers prefer the first person. Third-person limited is the most commonly used perspective in commercial fiction overall.

The expectation and preferences of your readers can play an important role in which perspective you choose. Which makes choosing the right one a little easier.

first or third

Readers preferences

As a writer, I sometimes like to analyze what readers would prefer and if I can give that to them. When you turn your writing into a profession, you kind of have to. I noticed that one of the most asked questions is that of perspective. Some authors swear the third person is the only way to go, while others praise the first. 

When I dove a little deeper into the subject matter, I quickly found there is hardly any data. But after browsing a lot of different websites, doing a lot of tallying, and reading on what the experts say, I came to a conclusion. Most readers do not care. As long as the story is well written. 

But then I discovered something more interesting. The results change if you go into different genres. On a forum for YA-novels, most readers preferred the first-person perspective. But on a website about fantasy stories, almost all of them went for the third person. Editor Jeni Chappelle confirms this in her blog on POV.

Almost all books used to be written in the third person, but the first person is getting more and more popular, especially in certain genres. For example, first-person is increasingly common in young adult and new adult novels. But a third person is the standard when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. Keep up with what’s trending in your genre.

Jeni Chappelle
first or third

But up until today, the third person is still the most popular POV when it comes to publishing. Third-person limited, or third-person close, remains the most published perspective in commercial fiction. This gives the writer a little more freedom in the narration, whereas the first person is more constricted. 

Perspective and your readers’ feelings

I prefer to switch. Sometimes the story must be written from a certain perspective. I wrote a story once about a killer that had a mental illness. Writing it from a close third-person perspective allowed me to mess with the readers’ minds. Being the unreliable narrator, putting scenes in the wrong order, and just giving a bit more or less information than the main character knew gave the story a whole different feeling of suspense.

For my upcoming novella, The Hunt, I chose first-person. That allowed me to stay close to my main character, let the reader discover things with her, and witness the story through her eyes. Being a part of it, not just a spectator. 

Both perspectives are conscious choices. I chose those because I wanted to make my reader feel a certain way. Perspective plays a big part in that.

A first-person perspective gives the reader an insight into the mind of the character. It feels extra close because you have access to their deepest thoughts. It is more intimate and personal. 

A third-person perspective allows the reader to see more from the fictional world than only the main character’s POV. And by using the third-person limited perspective, you can be almost as close to the main character’s skin as you are with a first-person perspective. It is a luxurious position for the writer because you can still delve into feelings and emotions and zoom out when you want to give your reader breathing space.

What the publisher prefers

While the majority of published commercial fiction has a third-person POV, publishers do not have a preference. It is a myth that they automatically decline first-person stories. There are more challenges, like keeping a tight perspective and ‘show not tell’, which results in more poorly written manuscripts. That is why more first-person stories are being rejected. 

There are some agents, on the other hand, that decline any manuscript written from a first-person perspective. Just as there are agents that refuse any work starting with a prologue. They get paid per accepted manuscript and only want to represent authors with a high chance of success. If you are an author who prefers first-person POV or prologues, these agencies obviously do not match up. But that does not mean that you do not stand a chance.

first or third

It does not matter which perspective you choose, as long as you can substantiate that choice. When you write your submission letter, make sure that you explain those reasons. Also, explore all your options. Check if your character is interesting enough to be followed around nonstop, if the plot can carry the singular POV, and if you do not insert things that your main character is unable to know. 

Your preference

When you are reading this, you are probably (hopefully) a writer yourself. Let me give you one last simple piece of advice if you are still doubting which POV to choose. Write in the perspective that feels natural to you. 

Stories come to us in a certain format. Learn to trust your inner narrator and follow your gut. You will see that all resistance falls away and that the writing flows more easily. 

You got this! 

I suddenly realized that I got this and I went to write my next masterpiece.

The reader then knew they got this too and went on to write their masterpiece as well!

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