1st person to 3rd person: points of view in writing
By BBC Maestro
You’ve got a brilliant story idea. Now you need to decide which perspective you’re going to tell the story from - will it be a first, second or third-person point of view?
Choosing the right narrative point of view for your tale, can truly make the difference between a good story, and a brilliant story. But how can you make your first person prose shine? What actually is the second person perspective? And in what cases should you use third person narration? Read on to find out.
What is a narrative point of view?
Narrative point of view is essentially the perspective from which you tell the story.
You can identify what narrative point of view a story is written in by looking at the pronouns used. For example:
● First person uses ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ - e.g. “I walked the dog”
● Second person uses ‘you’ - e.g. “You walked the dog”
● Third person uses ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’ - e.g. “She walked the dog”
So which character or characters are going to tell your story? Try writing from a few different perspectives, until you find one that feels right.
Writing in first person
Many novels and works of fiction use a first person perspective, since this offers the reader intimate access to the narrator’s inner thoughts and feelings.
“The first person is very immediate and very powerful, it puts you right inside the character,” says writer, Alan Moore. “And while it is perhaps more difficult, it does allow for some really nice literary tricks, it allows for the possibility of an unreliable narrator.”
The reader is experiencing the story unfolding as if they were inside the head of the protagonist, witnessing everything in the same way the main character does.
“Viewpoint makes a difference,” says novelist, Malorie Blackman. “Whether it’s first person, third person or an omniscient narrator. It can be argued that a first-person perspective brings you closer to the character’s thoughts and feelings but of course this entirely depends on how the story is written.”
You can also use the first person perspective to tell the story from multiple different characters’ points of view. For example, you could have two or more characters and switch between them telling the story in alternate chapters. But do bear in mind, this approach can become overwhelming and confusing if you have too many character voices.
“Four characters in first person is the most I would do in any one section of a story – otherwise there’s too much jumping about,” says Malorie Blackman in her BBC Maestro writing course.
Famous books written from the first person perspective include The Martian by Andy Weir, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Writing in second person
It’s unusual to find a work of fiction written in the second person, but they do exist.
In this approach, you are addressing the reader as ‘you’. Essentially you are guiding them through the world of the story and explaining what happens to them and how they feel about it.
While this narrative perspective is less commonly used, it’s a great technique to try out as a writing exercise to flex your creativity.
Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus features several chapters written in the second person, and Iain Banks’ novel Complicity is another prime example of the second person point of view in action. Malorie Blackman cites Lucy Christopher’s book Stolen as an excellent example of a story written in the second person.
Writing in third person
When writing from the third person point of view your narrator is omniscient - meaning they can be everywhere all at once. The third person perspective allows you as the writer to follow an ensemble of characters and have knowledge of everything that’s going on in the story.
Alternatively you can write in close third person, or third person limited, where your narrator will stick more closely to one character and have a limited view of the thoughts, feelings and events unfolding around other characters in the story.
“Now a lot of writers will probably go for the third person, that's very useful, that is probably the most broadly useful person to write in because the third person is omniscient,” says Alan Moore in his BBC Maestro storytelling course. “The third person is an author's voice that already knows everything about the story. So the third person narrator can suddenly switch to something that's happening a hundred miles away without the character's knowledge.”
Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice is the perfect example of an omniscient third person narrator, moving seamlessly from the plight of one character to another. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a good example of third person narration.
Should I use first, second or third person in my writing?
Often you will have an instinct when you sit down to write about how you want to tell the story.
A good way to decide is to ask yourself - is my story predominantly character-driven or plot-driven? Generally-speaking, character-driven stories are written in the first person, and plot-driven stories are told in the third person voice.
Remember, you can try out different perspectives and see what works. Plus it’s never too late to start writing your story again from a different point of view.
“You might not get it right initially,” says Malorie Blackman. “Sometimes I’ve written half a story from a particular viewpoint and then I think ‘this isn’t working’. Don’t feel like because you’ve started down one track you have to stick to that - you can change it.”
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