If you ask me, first always beats third–unless you’re talking accident statistics or baseball. It seems that I should add POV to my exceptions list. Or not. Writers, especially fiction writers, will recognize the acronym ‘POV’ right away, because they have to deal with it before they write away. (Sorry, that pun was particularly wrong. 😉 ) For those of you who don’t lose sleep over ‘I’ versus ‘he’, POV stands for Point Of View.
If your stint in middle school came immediately after the Jurassic Period, here’s a brief round-up of POV and verb tenses:
Stories written in first person (past tense) have lines such as: “It was a dark and stormy night, and I forgot my umbrella.”
Stories written in third person would have the same line as: “It was a dark and stormy night, and he forgot his umbrella.”
Just for the sake of clarity, in second person it would be: “It was a dark and stormy night, and you forgot your umbrella.”
In general, readers don’t like to be told what they are doing. An author can control ‘I’ or even ‘he’, but not ‘you’:
“He ate the stale sandwich and then drop-kicked the garbage pail” becomes “You ate the stale sandwich and then you drop-kicked the garbage pail.” It kind of grates on one’s nerves, no? There aren’t many books written in second person.
Nathan Bransford has a post on POV at his blog. He comes to the conclusion (as do many others) that the choice depends on the author (what you write best) and the story (what works best for your characters and plot). He gives some great examples of when to choose one over the other. His conclusion: As long as you pick a good story and write it well, readers will like it.
I thought it would be interesting to take a (quick and unscientific) look at the top-selling kindle books at Amazon and see what POV the authors chose. (I ignored books that don’t have kindle additions, and I’d bet my Strunk & White that the authors who refuse to approve ebooks mostly write in 3rd person, past tense, but I could be wrong. Some books are just too new–and the publishers don’t put out the ebook version until later.)
I looked at the top 25 bestselling fiction novels and checked on their POV. Here’s what I found:
- Total books in sample: 25
- Total 1st Person POV books: 16 (64%)
- Total 2nd Person POV books: 1 (and it switches to 1st person) (4%)
- Total 3rd Person POV books: 8 (32%)
I also recorded the “tense” of the books: either past or present. It’s interesting to note that there is a correlation between POV and tense. That is, most 1st person POV books are in present tense, and most 3rd person books are in past tense. Of course, most present tense books switch into past tense occasionally (as well as future tense): “Last night, the downpour had soaked the moldy sneakers, but I could still see the blood stains. They would be there forever.” Most 3rd person books tend to stay in past tense (but there are exceptions): “The previous night, the downpour had soaked the moldy sneakers, but the blood stains were still visible. He knew they were permanent.”
Here are the numbers:
- Total past tense books: 15 (7 out of 8 3rd person POV books were ALSO in the past tense.)
- Total present tense books: 10 (Only 1 1st person POV book was written in past tense.)
I’ve included my data at the bottom of this post if you want to see the titles I used and the individual break-downs, but it would seem your best bet as an author (assuming all other factors are equal) is to go with 1st person POV in the present tense. Of course, you could also just look at the books YOU like best and see what turns up.
N.B. I had a literary agent say that she “doesn’t look at books written in first person.” I write books in first person and prefer to read books written in first person, so that agent is obviously NOT a good fit for me as a writer. (I haven’t heard any agents say they don’t look at books written in third person.) Your mileage may vary.