First Person vs Second Person vs Third Person PoV

Last week I did a post about narrative modes, which can be viewed here.  I said I would do a Sunday Vs. topic on it, but not this weekend.  I lied, I’m sorry!  This is a triple vs. though, so hopefully that will make up for it.

There are a lot of great posts about writing from different points of view.  Tamara Rokicki was inspired to post a great writing exercise on her blog, Narration Mode Writing Exercise.  And just yesterday Peter Burton posted this article on his blog: Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?  Any general search on the topic will also come up with great posts. [EDIT: As soon as I published this, I found another great article over on The Writer’s Advice called What’s Your Point of View? ]

But I want to get a little more specific and talk about the intimacy with the reader that each narrative style creates.

First Person PoV

Last week many people commented on how personal and powerful first person narration can be, and I completely agree.  As a reader it places you within the scene, and lets you view events through the eyes of one of the characters.  There’s a certain sense of reality this narrative mode brings to the reader.

A great example would be The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  The main characters are pitted in a reality type show of a fight to the death.  First person perspective brings immediacy and realism to the story that really draws the focus into the games.  If it had been written in third person, using perspectives or information outside of the games, that sense of urgency would have been diminished.  Putting the reader inside the reality games, instead of outside as one of the worldly spectators, was a great a choice of storytelling by Collins.

Another example is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  This is an interesting one because the story is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, however he is not necessarily the focus of the story. (Let the great debate about who the main character in The Great Gatsby is begin!)  Because we read the story through the eyes of Nick, who is connected to Gatsby, we also gain a greater connection to Gatsby.  Perhaps, allowing us to be more sympathetic to his lesser traits.  We experience Gatsby’s struggles and turmoil as it happens, as he’s expressing it to Nick, and there’s that realism, that connection that we establish.  Had the story been written in third person, it might have lost readers by failing to establish that emotional link to the, sometimes abominable, characters.

Second Person PoV

Second person narration is usually overlooked, however in my opinion it is the most personal and intimate form of writing.  It’s difficult to write, or find, a novel in second person, and it’s probably most commonly found in poetry, or songs, as Tamara Rokicki pointed out to me.

I’m going to be honest and say that I don’t really have examples that I’ve thoroughly read/examined for second person narration.  However, there is a book that I’ve thought about buying, and I’d like to share a quote to establish what well written second person PoV can be like.

“You are amongst them, of course.  Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do.  You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.

The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred.  The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind.  The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock.

The circus looks abandoned and empty.  But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves.  A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.” – pg. 4, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

If that doesn’t transport you into the story, then I don’t know what will.  When I read that, I feel the cold air on my face, and I smell the caramel in the air.  I am told I am curious about this circus, and you know what?  I am.  But that very same trait that captures the reader, is usually the downfall of second person narration.  If reader cannot connect, and cannot put themselves in the shoes of the character, then the story falls apart.  This is why it’s so difficult, yet so rewarding when done well.  Readers say they love to be transported into the story, to feel as the characters feel, and you would be hard pressed to find a more intimate way to do that than the second person point of view.

Third Person PoV

As far as connecting with the characters, third person is perhaps the least intimate of the three, however that doesn’t mean it disconnects the reader from the story at all.  Instead, it gives the reader a broader view of the events happening.  Now, as established, third person has several “sub-modes” of narration.  I’m going to go ahead and group the limited/subjective/omniscient narratives as one, then address objective third person on its own.

The narrative modes where you can see into the characters or the narrator is a character with outside knowledge of the story, still allow a certain amount of connection between the reader and the characters.  Limited third person is especially like first person, where you’re focusing on a single character.  However, when you start to deal with more characters, the intimacy link for the reader starts to stretch and thin the more characters you add.  At this point, it becomes less a topic of intimacy with the characters, and more about connecting with the story and events.  A good example would be Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, which is written in an omniscient third person narration. It is also a fantastic sci-fi novel, by the way.

Which leads me to the objective third person narrative mode. It is the most distant from the characters out of all of the PoVs.  It is strictly a “fly on the wall” approach to writing a story.  The aim of this style is to be completely neutral in the telling of the story.  In this way, even the narrator is less of a character, because there should be no reaction or outside noise coming from the narration.  In my opinion this is probably the hardest way to write, it’s like writing a newspaper article.  But I think it’s also a great way to put more focus on the events of the story.  The focus isn’t on who is running around, it’s on what is happening to them, which can engage readers in entirely different ways than character-driven stories can.

To Sum Up

This has been a very long post, so I hope you guys are still with me!  Because this has been more informative than opinionated like previous Sunday Vs. Topics, I’m not going to end with a bombardment of questions.  Your opinions and thoughts on this topic are, as always, welcome.

I’d like to end this post by agreeing with and paraphrasing what Peter Burton told me on his blog.  Even though narrative modes are important, as long as we’re writing compelling stories and great characters, our stories will draw readers in no matter what the narration mode is.

Have a great Sunday everyone, and happy writing!

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About Aly Hughes
Unprofessional, unedited, unpublished. Aly is out to make a name for herself by blogging, twittering, facebooking, and general internet-ing. Be warned: She may not know what she's talking about.

23 Responses to First Person vs Second Person vs Third Person PoV

  1. Angelo says:

    Second person POV *is* very powerful.

  2. Another (perhaps outdated) use of second person POV is in the old childrens series, “Choose Your Own Adventure” and the “Which Way” books. I think this POV empowered the children reading them. I think your examples were beautiful, I may have to pick that book up.

    Kate

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I think good examples are never outdated. 🙂 The “pick your own path” type books are always interesting to go through. I think especially for the audience it can be very refreshing letting them guide themselves through the books.

      Thank you for the comment!

  3. st00ge says:

    Wasteland by Francesca Lia Block incorporates 2nd person very well. Don’t read the Amazon reviews, they spoil the whole story!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll have to look into it. I would very much like to expand my 2nd person PoV reading list!

      I definitely made the mistake of reading reviews before reading a novel before, and let’s just say, I learned my lesson! I never read reviews online, although sometimes I’ll ask friends if they’d recommend a book, it’s much safer. 🙂

  4. This where I am quite dumb about the actual art of writing because I just tend to write, there is no real thought about what angle I want to approach the story, for me i write in a way that feels natural for the story.
    Your description of Objective third person has given me a bit of a wake up call on a big project that I cant get a feel for. I think that i may need to look at a different approach for that one. Good podt 🙂

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I think most of the time what comes naturally is usually the best form to tell the story in, but of course, sometimes our writing just kind of takes off on its own. Then we have no control over how we write it, and are forced to change some things. Generally I don’t think about these things until I realize something isn’t working, then I’m forced to step back and blog about it to get opinions, haha! So far this system seems to be doing okay. 🙂

  5. Great post. I think POV makes a big difference in the feel of a story. I agree about first person really pulling you into the action of the story, but there are definitely benefits to all three. Happy writing! 🙂

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Thank you. It can indeed make a big difference in how a reader, in a way, interacts with the story. I agree that there are pros and cons to each, but when any of them are written well the reader should barely be paying attention to or questioning the narrative mode! Thanks again! 🙂

  6. Stephanie says:

    I can’t decide which I like more: first-person or third-person. Lots of advantages to both, as you’ve shown.

  7. rtd14 says:

    Excellent post! Not too long at all, especially for those truly nerd writers among us, all of whom like to examine everything about writing. I’m glad you went over second person. It is not looked at too often. Writing Popular Fiction author Rona Randall looks at second person as somewhat outdated and related to the time of Jane Austen. That said, the book’s title is Writing Popular Fiction. Many great books came out of the Austen period.
    I finished reading the novella, Chronicle of Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez. It is written in first person, but the reader never knows the narrator’s name. You know more about his family than him. He investigates a murder, but the power of it is in the fact it feels more like the entire town tells their version of the story.
    Great post!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I think people feel that second person is a very foreign way to approach a story. Even in other languages it’s more prominent than in English. I also feel like it’s mainly grouped under first person narration. Like when the narrator tells the story in first person, but can sometimes go beyond that and address the reader as “you”. I know We by Yevegeny Zamyatin is written like that. Here’s a short quote from the book:

      “It is is so funny, and so unbelievable, and yet I’m nervous of what I’ve just written: perhaps, you, unknown reader, think I’m a malicious joker? Suddenly you’re thinking that I simply want to make fun of you and in mock seriousness I am telling you the most absolute junk.”

      When written like that it definitely becomes hard to distinguish the first person from second person narration, but it’s generally defined by the overall storytelling of the novel. In this case, it’s first person narration. So, it’s easy to see traces of second person, but as a complete narrative mode it’s difficult to find.

      I’ve read a short story by Márquez, but I haven’t read Chronicle of Death Foretold. It’s interesting that, although written in first person, you learn more about others than you do about the narrator. Although I do find that first person narratives add a great amount of intrigue to mysteries. Perhaps that’s because even the narrator is unsure of what happened, as opposed to third person where the narrator very well could have known all of what was going on.

  8. Great post. I have to say, I feel like first person is too easy. I often want to write in first person, but I prefer the end result of a third person limited narration. I would have been interested to see the sequels of the Hunger Games switch up the narration to widen the scope of the books. I got tired of Katniss’s POV after a while!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Thank you for the comment!

      I agree, I feel like first person can be used as an easy way out in some cases. I used to think it was a lazy and poor way to write books, however then I realized that my two all time favorite novels are written in first person(We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott FItzgerald). Go figure! I finally realized that when done well, it can be very powerful.

      I just got plain tired of Katniss! I disliked the first person narration because I didn’t like her as a character. But, I respect the choice of first person and I think it was the best way to tell the story. Talk about a love/hate relationship with those books! It does make me excited for the movies, though, because then it won’t be from her PoV. 🙂

  9. Pingback: The Most Important Choice You’ll Make Before Writing | L.B. Gale

  10. I’m not sure second person would work in a longer fomat, but of course I’ve never seen it tried.

    The main thing about third person is that it allows much more scope. My second novel, U-town, covers a lot of different characters and it couldn’t have been told except in omniscient third person. It is, fudamentally, the story of a particular place at a particular time, not of an individul person.

    The Hobbit could possibly have been in first person, but not Lord of the Rings.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I agree, I think either short stories or, again, poetry is best for second person. It’s just a shame that people hardly cover it at all, not even highlighting what it can and can’t do.

      You’re right, third person definitely broadens the readers view of the story. And it honestly is my preferred form of narration, because I do love that sort of, outsiders view of the story. I like what you said about your story being “of a particular time, not of an individual person.” That definitely changes the way a story is told.

  11. Anthony Casson says:

    Thanks for putting in time to write the information. It’s helpful for someone beginning to play with fiction.

    Your second person POV selection was great. I felt like you did, but I was waiting for the author to make a mistake. Obviously when it’s used with a watchful eye, second person is intimate; but it seems so easy to bump a reader with details that are too many, too few, or too radical.

    For objective third person, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo might be my favorite example. At least I think it’s OTP…

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I’m glad you’ve found this helpful! Yes, second person is very difficult to read and write in, perhaps that’s why you usually don’t see it in novel form. I think short stories might be better vehicles for that PoV, but it’s still a shame that it gets overlooked all the time!

      Thanks for the suggestion! You know, I haven’t read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo yet, but I would really like to. I have seen the original Swedish movie though, and I did enjoy the story. Have you read the whole trilogy?

      • Anthony Casson says:

        I’m reading the third book. Also, I realized that the book is third person limited. Larsson jumps from character to character (and he has a lot of them). His choice of PoV with his ridiculous-amazing plotting makes the books difficult to put down.

      • I’ll just jump in here and say that I think Dragon Tattoo is worth reading, since there’s a lot to learn from it, both good and bad. I’ve written about the book quite a bit on my blog (http://u-town.com/collins/?tag=millennium-trilogy), because the book was such a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.

        There’s a reason the books are so successful, and there’s a reason a friend of mine — a professional writer for decades — tossed it after he’d read the first hundred pages.

        BTW, I’ve read the first book and seen all three of the original movies — I have not seen the Hollywood remake. The movie is better than the book in some ways and worse in others, as I talked about in one of the posts I linked to.

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