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Why I Write In Third-Person, Past Tense

Choosing a POV for your WIP can be a decision made in a matter of moments, subconsciously in the instant our pen touches paper or our fingers tap the keyboard. The same can be said for tense.

It isn't always inherent, though. Some writers take several factors into account when determining which combination best suits their style and the needs of their work. They might look at trends within their genre or age category. The shape of their story, whether or not there are multiple protagonists or timelines, the "when" of the story in relation to its audience might also influence the final pairing.

And sometimes, it may just be a matter of taste.

I shared a series on the various POVs a good while back, and more recently did a series on tense. To conclude the latter, I wanted to go more in-depth about the combination I prefer for my own writing.

I've found that third-person past tense works best for my historical romances, and some of the reasons I gravitated towards it might be similar to the reasons other writers may be drawn to their tense and POV of choice.

And if you're still testing the waters, you may find that the inclusions on this list help determine which is right for you.

Both tense and POV are things in writing that have no correct choice to be made, though some pairings are more commonly seen than others. Overall, it comes down to what feels right for you.

With that said, here are some of the things about third-person past tense that make it work for my style of writing.

Historical Setting

Let's start with why I chose past tense specifically.

Since my stories take place two centuries ago in Regency Era England, it's always felt more fitting to tell my stories as an account of something that has already happened. Writing in a time come and gone and delving into the research behind the fiction has me looking back on it.

Similarly, my readers will also be distanced from the setting.

Though the Regency Era continues to captivate pop culture through a centuries-long appreciation of works by Jane Austen and others, decades of historical romances rooted in that period, and more recent renditions in a charge helmed by Bridgerton shows, it is not contemporary to modern audiences.

It's all in the past, making past tense feel like the best for my writing.

The Status Quo

It is certainly important to make sure that your book stands out from the crowd, but there are some times in which it's better to follow the trends.

Every genre has elements readers expect in those books. These genre conventions can be as simple as the Happily Ever After in a romance novel or more specific things like characters attending Prom and graduating in the final installment of a series set in a high school.

The POV or tense you write in are not genre conventions in the same sense, but some pairings are more common in certain genres than others.

There is no rule stating that historical romances must use past tense or third-person. However, a majority seem to favor this combo than first-person or present tense.

When I first began romance novels, it soon became apparent that most were written in third-person past tense in both historical and contemporary settings. I eventually gravitated towards using this style in my own stories.

The first-person or present tense can absolutely be used in a historical romance, and plenty of writers do, but just know it's not typical of the genre.

Narrative Consistency

My stories feature two protagonists, and the focus of the narration shifts between them from one chapter to the next.

I don't alternate in an A-B-A-B pattern. Instead, I might go A-B-A-A-B-A-B-B depending on what's going on and what feels necessary at that point in the plot.

I like having two protagonists sharing the spotlight in my stories for a number of reasons. Primarily, it allows readers to get a glimpse of how each love interest perceives the other, what pulls them to each other, and the moment they realize they might be falling in love. I also incorporate what I call the Life Outside Of Love rule, showing the protagonists outside of the romance. This includes who they are when their crush isn't around to see and what interests or conflicts they have going on apart from this new relationship—which can, and often do, impact it.

Utilizing third-person POV makes this more manageable because it establishes consistency in the story's voice.

In first-person, you're telling the story from the perspective of a character recounting their experiences to the reader, so the narration is going to be in their voice. In stories written in first-person with two or more protagonists stepping into the role of narrator, you're passing the talking stick or microphone between each of them and letting them have a go at storytelling.

Having these different voices can create more depth within a story because you're hearing multiple sides and interpretations of an event. When each character's voice is strong and well-written, it can also be entertaining to get everybody's take.

Plenty of stories use dual POVs in first-person narration and do it really well.

But if you're like me and are not as confident or comfortable writing in first-person, a story with multiple protagonists can pose a challenge. It can be difficult to smoothly transition from one POV to the other and back again. It can also be jolting for the reader because they have to step out of one character's shoes and put on the other's.

Third-person means you have one storyteller figure, and thus, only one voice to narrate in. While I might make minor changes to how that voice sounds depending on which character they are observing—e.g. more sarcastic or using softer adjectives to reflect that individual's personality—it's still the same narrator.

Intimate From A Distance

If there is one thing the romance genre is known for in particular, it's the intimacy between its love interests.

This ranges from sweet romances that only go as far as an occasional kiss, to the middle growing using closed doors and fading to black when things heat up, to those in which the steaminess plays out on the page; my stories are in this third group.

I don't shy away from writing about sex in fiction. It's a part of life and often part of love. That said, I do only take things to a certain extent.

There are references about actions and where a character's hands or other body parts might be, but most of the narration's focus is on sentiments, not sensations.

I am a proponent of understanding and respecting your comfort zones. Although pushing your own boundaries can be good in some situations, it's also important to recognize where you feel you've gone a step too far.

That's why even though I do include sex scenes in my romances, the emphasis is on emotions—and it's another reason I prefer writing in third-person and past tense.

I'm all about getting close to my characters, but there are plenty of instances where you don't want to be that up close and personal with them

This combination creates distance between myself and what my characters at their most intimate moments.

Third-person keeps me out of their heads and means I don't need to write those scenes through the eyes of those characters. I can keep the focus on other, smaller details that could be otherwise lost in the moment, creating a different kind of intimacy between the reader and the story.

Past tense also provides a level of separation. It's a recounting of something that has already happened, rather than watching it in the moment.

It's within my comfort zone both as a reader and as a writer. The present tense and first-person sex scenes I've read typically had me feeling a little uneasy.

There's nothing inherently wrong with them, but they just weren't for me.

By using a POV/Tense combination that offers a few degrees of separation, I'm able to set my own terms and limits when things get steamy, making those scenes more fun to not only read, but write.

There's a POV and tense pairing out there for every writer. While some work better for particular genres than others, that isn't the only thing to keep in mind. It can be up to the needs of the story itself or your personal taste as a storyteller.

Third-person and past tense both have attributes that have continued to work for my style even as it continues to evolve. The benefits of each allow me to shape the stories as I need to and explore the things I love most about them, in a way that works best for me.

When choosing your own POV and tense, consider what you love seeing in fiction, and also what would suit your style most.



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