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First person vs. Second person vs. Third person - Rebekah Bergman



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“I am an invisible man.”

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel.”

These three opening lines, from Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man,"

Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway,"

and Italo Calvino’s "If on a winter’s night a traveler,"

each establish a different point of view.

Who is telling a story, and from what perspective,

are some of the most important choices an author makes.

Told from a different point of view, a story can transform completely.

Take this fairytale:

"Rapunzel, Rapunzel," the Prince called, "let down your hair."

Rapunzel unbraided her hair and slung it out the window.

The prince climbed her tresses into the tower.

Rapunzel is typically told like this, with the narrator outside the story.

This point of view is called third person.

But Rapunzel can also be told by a character in the story—

a first person narrator.

The tail end of Rapunzel’s locks plopped down at my feet.

I grabbed on and began to climb… ugh!

I couldn’t untangle myself.

Strands came off all over me, sticking to my sweat.

In a first person narrative, the story can change dramatically

depending on which character is the narrator.

Say Rapunzel was narrating instead of the prince:

I hope he appreciates how long it takes to unbraid 25 feet of hair, I thought.

OUCH! I'll be honest; I thought my scalp would stretch off of my skull.

"Can you climb any faster?" I yelled.

In second person, the narrator addresses the story to the reader:

He calls your name. He wants you to let your hair down.

You just finished braiding it, but hey– you don't get a lot of visitors.

Third person, first person, and second person perspectives

each have unique possibilities and constraints.

So how do you choose a point of view for your story?

Constraints aren’t necessarily a bad thing—

they can help focus a story or highlight certain elements.

For example,

a third person narrator is necessarily a bit removed from the characters.

But that can be good for stories where a feeling of distance is important.

A third person narrator can be either limited,

meaning they stick close to one character’s thoughts and feelings,

or they can be omniscient, able to flit between characters’ minds

and give the reader more information.

A first person story creates closeness between the reader and the narrator.

It’s also restricted by the narrator’s knowledge.

This can create suspense

as the reader finds out information along with the character.

A first person narrator doesn’t necessarily

have to represent the character’s experience faithfully—

they can be delusional or dishonest.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel "The Remains of the Day,"

Stevens, an aging British butler in 1956, recounts his many years of service,

but fails to acknowledge the flaws of the man he serves.

The cracks in his narrative eventually draw the reader’s attention

to the under-acknowledged failings of the culture and class system

he inhabits.

Justin Torres’s novel, "We the Animals,"

begins with a plural first person narrator:

“We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet;

we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Partway through the story, the point of view shifts

to first person singular, from we to I, as the boys come of age

and one brother feels alienated from the others.

Second person is a less common choice.

It requires the writer to make the reader suspend disbelief to become another “you.”

Placing the reader in a character’s perspective

can build urgency and suspense.

Sometimes, though,

second person is intended to distance the narrator from their own story,

rather than bring the reader closer to the story.

In these cases,

second person narrators refer to themselves as “you” rather than “I.”

Writers are constantly experimenting with fresh variations on point of view.

New virtual and augmented reality technologies

may expand the possibilities for this experimentation.

By placing people at a particular vantage point in virtual space,

how might we change the way we tell and experience stories?