Should I Use First or Third Person? How About Second Person? And What Does “Omniscient” Mean, Anyway?

There are two standard narrator points of view: first person and third person. But these aren’t the only choices you have to make when thinking about point of view.

 

With first person perspective, the narrator is part of the story and thus uses the pronouns I, we, us, etc.

What you gain by using first person narration

Immediacy: since the narrator was right there, it’s clear whose experience is filtering the events for the reader. It’s worth noting here that only first person testimony is acceptable in court.

Personality: First person narrators tend to show personality and make it easier to form a bond with the reader.

Access: You can share all the inner thoughts and memories of the narrator, who is often also the main character.

What you lose by using first person narration

Reliability: because readers knows the narrator has his or her own take on events, they will judge the reliability of the narrator before they believe his or her account of the story.

Access: A first person narrator does not know the inner thoughts and memories of any of the other characters.

 

With third person perspective, the narrator is not part of the story and sticks to pronouns like he, she, they, etc.
What you gain by using third person perspective

Objectivity: Third person narrators seem more reliable and less susceptible to human error. Think about the voice in the background of a documentary. It tends not to have a strong personality of its own, and thus sounds very official.

The ability to move the camera: A narrator who describes the perspective of more than one character is known as an omniscient narrator. This allows you to show readers what’s going on when your main character is in the other room, or show the inner thoughts and memories of more than one character. A narrator that is not omniscient is known as a limited narrator. This means the narrator mostly describes the thoughts and feelings of one main character.

What you lose by using third person perspective

All the advantages described above for first person: Immediacy, personality, and access.

 

A note about omniscient vs. limited narrators

People often have a hard time giving a good definition of omniscient. That’s because really, it’s helpful to think of this as a spectrum rather than two separate categories separated by a thick dividing line. On one end are books that truly follow only one character the whole time. In the middle are books that follow a few characters, or stick with the limited perspective of one character per chapter, such as The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas. On the most omniscient end of the spectrum are books that switch between many different characters and switch often, such as On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, where the perspective can switch between two different people within one phone conversation. As a writer, the most important thing is to be conscious of how omniscient your narrator is so you don’t confuse the reader. Always ask yourself how much the narrator knows that the main character does not know. Then, keep this consistent throughout the story. If you do shift perspective, make it extremely clear when the perspective is shifting. Some authors do this by alternating different perspectives in different chapters and even naming the chapters after the person who they follow. But as Zadie Smith proves in her work, there are also other ways to show that the camera has moved.

Breaking the “Rules” of Narrator Point of View:

Using second person: Narrator talks directly to the reader and or directly addresses a character offstage using the pronoun you.
Examples: Used successfully by Junot Diaz in certain chapters of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where the main character is talking to his ex-girlfriend as he tells her story. You’ll also find it in Choose Your Own Adventure books, where the narrator speaks directly to the reader.

Using an unreliable first-person narrator: The author purposely makes the narrator crazy, or a liar, or some other type of person who we don’t completely believe when they tell us a story. Reader then have to piece together what they think the story is after accounting for the narrator’s perspective.

Getting around the traditional rules of narration by having a narrator who can read minds, or who listens through a door or reads someone’s diary, etc.
Examples: Harry Potter

Having a narrator who is technically a first-person narrator but mainly watches someone else. These characters may use first person pronouns, such as I and me, but they are mostly telling the third-person story of the character they are observing, who is usually the more interesting character.
Examples: Watson from the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, or Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, in Shawshank Redemption.

Switching between first person narrators. This gives you kind of a first-person omniscient narrator.
Examples: The Dirty Girl’s Social Club, by Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez

A Writing Assignment to Practice Narrator Point of View: 

Pick one of the narration styles above and use it to tell a story from the following prompt.

Two people sit down at a table. One of them doesn’t want to be there. You decide everything else

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