Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

The Writer’s Dilemma: First- versus Third-Person POV

(Photo: Author Edith Wharton, 1915) This post is not just for writers, because the point of view (POV) from which a story is told has as much to do with preferences of readers as it does with what might come naturally to an author — and, ideally, even more to do with what a particular story suggests or demands. But many stories are quite adaptable to either general approach.

It seems that a great deal of the historical fiction that I like best is told from a first person POV or multiple first person POVs. Examples: Affinity, The Little Stranger, and others by Sarah Waters; many wonderful books by Megan Chance including The Spiritualist, The Inconvenient Wife, Susannah Morrow, and her latest, A Drop of Ink; Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain; and of course these are only a very few. It does seem easiest to find instances of first person POV in contemporary historical fiction. Interestingly, one of Sarah Waters’ most acclaimed books, The Paying Guest, is written in third person (no need here to go into the different types of third person POV); she obviously felt it was in the best interests of her story to take that approach, and I do think that perhaps it lends added suspense to the tale.

The Beauty Doctor, my historical novel, started out as a first-person-POV story. I originally thought that I wanted readers to feel that sense of intimacy with my protagonist, Abigail Platford; I also thought it would be more fun to write the book in first person and to “channel” my character. It was not until the book was almost ready for publication that I changed my mind and switched everything to a third-person-limited POV. Even now, I’m not entirely sure why I did this except that when I converted some of the chapters to third person and read them, the story seemed more “authentic.” I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings, writers and readers, about POV in historical fiction!

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Buy my historical mystery/suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor!


In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.

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