What is first person writing in fiction? What’s third person narrative? What’s all this about limited vs omniscient…?
How you narrate a story – or what points of view you choose when writing fiction – can make all the difference to its appeal. What’s more, the choices you make now will affect every page (indeed, pretty much every sentence) of your novel.
So you’d better get things right, huh?
No worries. This post will tell you everything you need to know. We’ll start with some definitions and some examples, then assess the pros and cons of each possibility.
Oh, and buckle up. This stuff can sound quite technical and scary, but (a) it’s simpler than it sounds, and (b) the choice you want to make instinctively is probably the right one. It’s really possible to overthink these things!
First up: some definitions.
All You Need To Know About Points Of View
Point of view (POV) is the narrator’s position in relation to the story:
- First person – the narrator and protagonist are the same
- Second person point of view– very rare and hard to pull off
- Third person – an ‘off-page’ narrator relates a story about your characters
- Mixed – combines first-and third-person passages
Point Of View: Definitions
The Point of View (or “POV”) is the narrator’s position in relation to the story.
There are a few basic possibilities here, one of which is exceptionally rare. They are:
- First person narration
In this instance the narrator speaks in the first person, (“I did this, I said that, I thought the other.”) The narrator and the novel’s protagonist are essentially one and the same.
- Second person narration
Here the narrator speaks in the third person (“You did this”, and so on.) It’s exceptionally rare as a technique and is definitely not advisable for beginners.
- Third person narration
In this instance, the narrator speaks in the third person, (“She did this, he did that, they did the other.”) The narrator is basically an invisible storyteller, telling the reader what happens to the novel’s protagonists. Third person narration comes in two basic flavours: limited third person and the extremely grand-sounding omniscient third person. We’ll get more into the detail of those two in a moment, but the basic difference is that a limited 3rd person narrator stays very close to the character whose viewpoint is being used. An omniscient one is more inclined to wander free from the character and give a broader view of things. (Not sure you’ve got the distinction? No worries. We’ll get to more details in a moment.)
- Mixed narration
If a novel combines passages told from the first person point of view with passages told from the third person point of view, it has mixed narration – or mixed first and third person point of view, if you really want to spell it out.
Point Of View: Examples
Examples of first person narration are legion. For example:
- The Sherlock Holmes stories (narrated by Dr Watson, in the first person)
- Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories (narrated by Philip Marlowe, of course)
- Bridget Jones’s Diary, narrated by … well, you’ve already guessed, right?
- Moby Dick, narrated by … well, put it this way, the famous first line is “Call me Ishmael.”
- Hunger Games, narrated by Katniss Everdeen
- Twilight, narrated by Bella Swan
- The Kay Scarpetta novels of Patricia Cornwell
- Some of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books (but not all)
Here’s an example of first person point of view in practice:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.”
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Examples of second person perspective are extremely rare. Famous recent examples include:
- Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City opens with the line, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning” and then it continues from there, with the protagonist always described as “you”.
- Italo Calvino did much the same thing in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.
- There are a few other examples too, but you’ve got to be a really smart and skilled writer to do this. In short, for 99.99% of writers out there, just fuhgeddabahtit. This technique isn’t one for you.
Examples of third person narration are also commonplace. For example:
- Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which is about Lisbeth Salander, but not narrated by her
- The Da Vinci Code, about Robert Langton, but not narrated by him
- Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice
- John Grisham’s The Firm
- Stephen King’s Misery
- Some of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, but not all
And here’s an example of third person narration in practice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
—Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Got that? OK. We’ll skip on to the limited / omniscient distinction, then start figuring out how to apply point of view to your novel.
Third Person Pov: Limited Vs Omniscient
OK, the thing that probably most confuses newer writers is the distinction between third person limited and third person omniscient.
Quite honestly, though, this isn’t something to trouble with too much. If you want to write in third person, just do what’s right for your characters and your story, and you should do just fine.
If you want to know more, however, what you need to know is this:
Third Person Limited: Definition & Example
When you use a limited form of third person narration, you stay very close to your character. So the narrator isn’t telling the reader anything that the character in question wouldn’t themselves know / see / hear / sense. Here’s a beautiful example from Anne Tyler (in Breathing Lessons):
“They planned to wake up at seven, but Maggie [the point of view character in this passage] must have set the alarm wrong and so they overslept. They had to dress in a hurry and rush through breakfast, making do with faucet coffee and cold cereal. Then Ira headed off for the store on foot to leave a note for his customers, and Maggie walked to the body shop. She was wearing her best dress – blue-and-white sprigged with cape sleeves – and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled, but slowed her down some anyway.”
You’ll notice that nothing at all in that passage is something that Maggie doesn’t know about. So even when the passage talks about Ira heading off to the store, that’s done from Maggie’s perspective. We know that he goes and what his purpose is there, but we know nothing at all about his walk itself – whereas we know exactly what Maggie’s wearing, and why, and why her shoes slowed her down.
This is third person limited (because it’s so closely limited to Maggie’s perspective) and as you can see it delivers a kind of intimacy – even a homeliness.
Third Person Omniscient: Definition And Example
The omniscient version of third person is, as you’d expect, able to tell the reader things that aren’t directly knowable by any of the characters in the tale. The most famous example of this narrative voice in literature is surely this passage from Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair, …”
As you can see, this isn’t told from any character’s viewpoint. It’s almost as though a lordly, all-seeing Charles Dickens is hovering over London (or England? or the world?) and giving his kingly overview of the situation.
This type of writing has become rather less common in fiction, so you’ll tend to stick with broadly limited narration, interspersed (perhaps) by something a little more omniscient in flavour.
Point Of View: Which One Should You Write In?
First Person Point Of View
First-person narration shares action as seen through the eyes of your narrator. A narrator can therefore only narrate scenes in which he or she is present.
Coming-of-age novels – Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower – work exceptionally well in first-person narration. A lot of YA books are written in first person, because their intimate, emotional narration chimes with their teenaged readership.
Romances (with their emotional focus) are also often first person. So are ghost stories with a sense of claustrophobia like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
In particular, however, it’s worth thinking about Jonathan Franzen’s dictum that, “Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.”
In other words: (A) do you feel you have to write in that first person voice, and (B) does that first person voice really sound and feel distinctive, personal and indvidual. I’ve mostly written third person, but my recent detective novels are first person – essentially for the reasons Franzen hints at. Here’s an example from my book, The Deepest Grave. (I’ve made some short edits for length, but mostly this is as it appears in the finished book.)
The narrator is Fiona Griffiths, my detective protagonist.
I’m a little earlier than I said, but it’s not long before I hear the sound of approaching feet.
Katie appears. Sees me up here on my bank. I raise a hand and smile welcome.
Impressively torn black jeans. Black cowboy boots, well-used. Dark vest-top worn under an almost military kahki shirt. A chunky necklace. One of those broad-brimmed Aussie-style hats with a leather band. […]
The look has attitude and personality and toughness, without quite dipping into angry hippy counterculture.
Also: she walks with a ski-stick, a mobility aid not a fashion statement.
She comes up the bank towards me. Sits beside me.
I say, ‘You hurt your ankle?’
You’ll notice that it’s not just that the observations are made by Fiona. (eg: “not long before I hear the sound of approaching feet”). It’s also that the character of those observations is shaped 100% by Fiona herself. So yes, the list of clothes that Katie is wearing is a fairly neutral list (though the very short sentences and lack of any verbs – that’s all Fiona). But that summary comment about the overall effect (“the look has attitude . . .without quite dipping into angry hippy counterculture”) is what Fiona thinks about Katie’s look. I can’t comment myself, because this is Fiona’s narration. She’s in charge.
For the same reason, if there were, let’s say, a lion in the undergrowth about to spring out on Fiona, the book couldn’t say anything about the lion, until Fiona herself had seen / heard / smelled / witnessed it in some way.
Does that sound claustrophobic? Needlessly restrictive?
Well, maybe. But I’m now halfway into writing novel #7 in that series, and when that book’s complete I’ll be close to 1,000,000 words published in the series. And every single one of those words, without exception, comes from Fiona’s voice. There is no other perspective anywhere in the series.
In other words, the restriction of first person is real, but you can still write at length, and successfully in that style.
First Person Point Of View, Pros And Cons
This is quite easy, really! The pro is the opposite of the con and vice versa.
Pro: First person narration gives you intense, personal familiarity with the narrator. The reader can’t – short of putting the book down – separate from the narrator’s voice, their thoughts, their commentary, their feelings etc.
Con: You lose flexibility. If there’s a lion in the undergrowth, you can’t say so, until your narrator has seen the damn thing. If a key thing happens in your plot without your narrator in the room, then tough. He or she can only talk about it when they encounter the consequences down the road.
I’ve written books both ways. There’s no right or wrong here. I love both. One good tip is to use first person narration mostly when you have a distinctive narrator with a strong voice. Most thrillers are written third person (so they can flip between different points of view (eg: investigator / victim / perpetrator), but there’s no absolute rule. I write mine first person. Likewise, a lot of romance stories are written first person . . . but you can go either way there too.
Third Person Point Of View
Third person narration uses “he” or “she”, where a first person narrator would say, “I”.
Here’s an example taken from (and this is a blast from the past for me!) my first novel, The Money Makers:
They spoke of other things until it was late. They damped down the fire, cleared away the dishes, and walked upstairs. Fiona went right on into the one usable bedroom. Matthew stopped at the door, where his bag lay.
‘Fiona,’ he said. ‘You remember you said you would never ever lie for me again?’
‘Any chance of your lying for me right now?’ He looked at the inviting double bed, heaped high with clean linen and feather quilts.
She smiled. Once again, ambiguity flickered in frightened eyes, but her answer was clear. She walked right up to Matthew and stopped a few inches from him. Her long dark hair fell around her shoulders, and her face was only inches from his.
This scene (and the whole chapter) is written from Matthew’s perspective. So, yes, much of the factual data here (“they spoke of other things until it was late”) was available to both Fiona and Matthew in this scene.
At the same time, when they step up close and get intimate, it’s Matthew we’re with, not Fiona. (How do we know this? Because when we get to “ambiguity flickered in frightened eyes”, it’s Matthew that sees this, not Fiona. If that little bit had been written from Fiona’s perspective, it would have had to say, “she felt ambivalent and frightened”, or something like that.
Limited Vs Omniscient
My advice to newer writers is mostly to forget about this distinction. As a rule, you should stick close to your character – and that means adopting a generally limited point of view.
Well, quite simply, readers want to experience story through the eyes and ears of its characters, and that means time away from the limited perspective is time spent away from that precious character-experience.
That said, if now and again, you want to dive into something a little more godlike (or omniscient), you absolutely can. Just:
- Make sure that your godlike voice offers something grand, the way Charles Dickens’s does in Tale of Two Cities. (The opening passage of White Teeth by Zadie Smith offers a rather more contemporary example.)
- Use that omniscient voice only in small doses. You want to zoom, pretty damn fast, from the omniscient view to the up-close-and-personal one.
The golden rule to remember here is that readers want character – and they only get that experience from the limited perspective.
Third Person Point Of View: Pros And Cons
The main limitation we found with the first person narrative approach was its restrictiveness. My and my Fiona Griffiths books, with every one of those 1,000,000 words locked into one voice, one point of view.
So most writers adopting the third person approach will use multiple perspectives. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is one famous example. The same goes for much of nineteenth century fiction, especially of the more epic variety: Dickens, War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Henry James, you name it.
What you get from those many perspectives is the ability to see into many hearts, many minds, many souls. That multi-viewpoint narration gives your novel:
- Richness – all those multiple perspectives
- Flexibility – you can set your movie camera up wherever the action is happening. You avoid the restrictions of narrow first person narration.
- Potentially something epic in scale – because all those characters and voices lend a depth and scale to your story.
Also notice this:
There are types of suspense you just can’t deliver in a first person novel. So Hitchcock famously distinguished between surprise and suspense.
If two people are sitting in a cafe, when a bomb detonates – that’s a surprise.
But let’s restructure that same episode with multiple viewpoints, and you get something completely different. So we might see (Point of View #1) a terrorist planting a bomb in the cafe, then switch perspectives to (Point of View #2) the innocent couple drinking coffee right by the ticking bomb. In that case, the simple scene of two people drinking coffee becomes laden with suspense.
The reader knows the bomb is there. The couple don’t. What’s going to happen . . .?
That’s a type of suspense that we first-personeers (or single perspective third personeers) just can’t deliver.
Consequently, third person / multiple viewpoint novels are particularly common with:
- thrillers and suspense novels
- anything epic in scale. We’ve mentioned some nineteenth century fiction already, but George RR Martin and his Game of Thrones series is a perfect example of modern and big. Ditto any door-stopper by Tom Clancy.
Third Person Point Of View: Summary
Most third person novels are written with multiple perspectives, even if (as in Harry Potter) the point of view stays mostly with a single central character.
Advantages and disadvantages? Well, essentially you get the opposite of the first person pros and cons. So third person / multi-viewpoint narration:
- Is flexible. You can pop the camera anywhere you want. You can deliver suspense as well as surprise.
- Enlarges your book. It can move you from a narrow-focus/small book to a wide-focus/epic one.
- Loses intimacy. In particular, if your camera gets too promiscuous – if you just use too many viewpoints – you risk breaking the reader’s bond with your central character(s). If that happens, your book dies!
Third Person Narration: The Golden Rules
We said above that the main risk of multiple viewpoints is that you break the reader’s bond with your main character and as a result you end up losing the reader completely.
Bad outcome, right? A book killer.
Multiple Points Of View: Three Golden Rules
Fiction is about inner worlds and inner journeys, and you need to respect that. So here are the rules:
GOLDEN RULE #1
Limit your number of primary characters
I’d suggest that, for almost any new novelist, you should not go above three. My first book was a story about three sons, although the sister too had a significant secondary viewpoint. I’d say that count of three-and-a-half viewpoints represents the upper limit for any first novel by all but the most gifted novelists.
You can go higher than that. I think of books that run to dozens of viewpoints. But as a place to start?
Nope, that kind of thing is too dangerous for 99.9% of you. (And the 0.1% are talented enough, that I don’t really know why they’re reading this!)
Your next rule follows from the first:
GOLDEN RULE #2
Never go more than 3-4 pages before returning to your primary characters.
We’ve all watched movies where the leading couple is so incredibly strong that the movie starts to die as soon as one of them is off-screen. Or take that great first series of Homeland, where Carrie (Claire Danes) and Nicholas Brody (Damian Green) had a mesmeric quality together. You could have scenes with both of them in (great!). Or scenes with just one of them in (very good!). But scenes with neither? They flagged very quickly.
And sure: you need some filler scenes just to make sense of the story. But if you stay away from your main characters for too long, the book dies. And just because I said “3-4 pages” in the rule above doesn’t mean that you have that much space every time you take a break. You don’t. You need to keep those non-protagonist scenes as short and tight as possible. Three pages is better than four. Two pages is better than three.
And our next rule follows from the first two – and from absolutely everything we know about why stories work as they do.
GOLDEN RULE #3
Every main character (every protagonist) needs their own fully developed story arc.
If you use any Point of view repeatedly, the character needs a fully developed inner life, a fully developed arc, a full set of challenges, encounters and personal change – and relevance, too. Is this person relevant to your collective story material?
So take my first book, The Money Makers, with its three (and a bit) protagonists. Every single one of those three needed:
- A motivation
- A challenge
- A set of external obstacles (ie: things in the world)
- A set of internal obstacles (ie: things in their character that blocked them from accomplishing their goals)
- A crisis, linked to all the things in the list so far
- A resolution
In effect, to write a three-handed story, you have to write three stories, each perfectly structured in their own right.
That sounds like a scary undertaking, and yes, I guess it is. But because a book can be only so long, if you write from three points of view, each one of the stories you are telling can afford to be quite simple – the kind of thing that would seem a bit flat if told on its own. (If you’re a bit worried about fitting it all in then you’ll probably find this blog on chapter lengths and this one on wordcount really useful.)
As it happens, I love third person / multiple viewpoint narration almost as much as I love first person. There isn’t a right or a wrong in the choice; it’s only a question of how you want to write and how your story wants to be written.
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