There are three basic ways to tell a story, and none of them is really better than the others, so to speak. And this isn’t really supposed to tell you which one to choose, because I can’t decide for you, it’s strictly informative. :P

First Person

A story in the first person is told straight from a viewpoint character, as if the camera is sitting inside their brain and looking out their eye sockets. (Isn’t that a lovely thought?) First Person tends to be quite subjective; it’s a bit more objective if the viewpoint character is not the main character, such as in The Great Gatsby.

People speak in the first person when recounting what happened to them: “I bought a goldfish for my daughter the other day, but my cat is a little too enthralled with the thing.”

This is often seen as more immersing than a third person story, but this hangs heavily on the skill of the writer. First person tends to be spotted in young adult novels, so the reader can identify more with the viewpoint character, but this also depends on how skilled the writer is.

First person narrators by and large are a bit unreliable; events are skewed slightly depending on what the narrator did or did not see, and occasionally are tainted by the narrator’s opinions. Some are more reliable than others, however. Case in point: Ishmael of Moby Dick often tells things how they are, whereas Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird tells things how a young girl would see them. An honest character will be more reliable as a narrator than a character who bends the truth, omits some parts of the truth, or outright lies. A very young character such as Scout will probably miss some nuances in other people’s behavior, but an older character like Atticus would likely spot these and maybe internally make a comment about it. This can make for some interesting narrative.

Third Person Limited

This is when the “camera” is always hovering near the viewpoint character, and occasionally will enter his mind so we can read what he’s thinking. We don’t read the thoughts or emotions of the other characters unless the character happens to be psychic.

When you tell a story to your best friend or dog or something you’re referring to other people in it in the third person: “Mr. Van Damme bought a goldfish for his daughter the other day, but his cat is a little too enthralled with the thing.”

Third person limited, in the hands of a skillful writer, can be even more engaging than if the story were written in first person. In this editor’s humble opinion, Twilight should have been written in the third person, because Bella in the first person wins the award for Most Obnoxious Character In The Known Universe And Probably Many Bits Of The Universe We Haven’t Got Any Idea About. But I digress.

Third Person Omniscient

…is when the “camera” visits any of the characters at will. It freely pokes into their minds and draws back when it so desires, and can visit characters a million miles away from another character. It’s likely the most objective of the viewpoint types.

This would probably be how Zeus would tell his fellow gods a story: “Mr. Van Damme bought a goldfish for his daughter the other day, and she thinks it’s really cute but her dad is somewhat dreading what would happen to it if the cat got over its fear of water suddenly. His daughter isn’t too bothered though. Also the brother is secretly afraid of girls.” Zeus watches and laughs ‘cause he’s immortal.

But anyway, this one has been falling out of favor lately; you can see it more often in older works than nowadays. Supposedly it’s impersonal and whatnot. But it would make for a curious story if you combined first person and omniscience.

The moral of the story: use common sense.

Comment

  1. Jeni on 31 October 2008, 02:24 said:

    Interesting article, I especially liked the part about first person POV. I’ve never actually thought about the dangers of first person, in that it can be somewhat unreliable, especially if the author is determined to get his worldview across. (cough Eragon and religion cough).

    However, I think that first person POV can be a unique insight into the story and characters. For example, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time‘, the whole premise of the book is based upon looking at the world through the eyes of a child with Aspergers. This view exposes how ridiculous human behaviour and thought can be — something that would not ordinarily come from a “normal” adult POV.

    Even if the POV can “lie”, if accurately done, this can be communicated to the reader, and can create far more believable and well-rounded characters. The reader can identify faults within the character, thus making them more human.

  2. Carbon Copy on 31 October 2008, 06:32 said:

    First Person is particularly tricky, and it does offer up lots of potential problems. Lots of people think it is the easiest way to write, but it is probably the most difficult. It can be very difficult to get across certain ideas and plot developments when you can only experience those things through a single character. However, in some cases, FP is the only way to go. American Psycho is an excellent example of how to use FP perspective (not least because, at times, the story slips into Third Person, to emphasise the split in the character’s psyche).

    I know you were trying to be brief, but I do think this article misses out a few things. For example, you say there are three ways to tell a story, but you haven’t mentioned Second Person. SP is not used that often in fiction, but can be seen in those “choose your own adventure books” (e.g. You are in a large cave. A man at the back of the cave shouts at you.)

    Of course, within the specific voices, you also have a further choice to make regarding tense. Should you use past tense or present tense? Should you use the perfect form of that tense?

    And so it goes on.

    The main rule is to pick a voice and a tense, and then stick to it (unless changing it is being done purposefully as a literary metaphor, as is the case with American Psycho, but even then you should use such gimmicky techniques rarely).

  3. Kitty on 31 October 2008, 21:07 said:

    I was about to put in second person but it’s so scarcely used I decided not to bother.

    /cranky

  4. Artimaeus on 1 November 2008, 01:25 said:

    I don’t think one should always always stick with the same voice/person. It actually a fairly good way to get around the drawbacks of any particular person. The Bartimaeus Trilogy does exceptionally well, bouncing between first and third person with the different viewpoint characters. Whenever I write in first person, I almost inevitably find a way to break it, either by switching viewpoint characters or with sections of dialogue at the beginning of each chapter (a la Ender’s Game). It takes a little getting used to, but it’s possible to get the best of both worlds, so to speak, by being a little flexible with your point of view.

  5. Zahano on 12 November 2008, 01:30 said:

    Good job. Remove the “:P” at the beginning. It is unprofessional.

    Aside from that, it is okay. I would nag you about first person, but you people like to make these essays all informal and first person, so I will not. This does NOT, however, excuse the colon and P at the beginning.

  6. Kitty on 13 November 2008, 16:12 said:

    I don’t care Cranky.

  7. Zahano on 19 November 2008, 00:28 said:

    Why?

  8. Saibara on 18 January 2009, 01:08 said:

    What about Indirect Speech? And even Free Indirect Speech? D:

  9. Aldrea945 (aka Rachel) on 1 December 2009, 14:11 said:

    I keep this short and sweet (For once).

    I loved the article.

    There is one series that I know of that uses first and second person perspective. Animorphs, the series that hooked me on reading and changed my life for the better.

    First person is the only way I can think of K. A. Applegate writing Animorphs. Second person is used in Alternamorphs. I suggest you read it. I have nearly the whole series. SAVE ANIMORPHS! THE ANDALITE BANDITS SHALL SURVIVE!

    Thank you for listening to this.